Most residents in Orange Mound are snug in their beds on a pre-dawn Thursday, when officers from the Memphis Police Tactical Unit, resembling SWAT team members in their black fatigues and protective gear, bang on the door at 3663 Sharpe Avenue.
"Police! Search warrant!" they shout.
When the door slowly opens, police push their way inside and arrest Ernest Scruggs on charges of drug possession with intent to sell. Police tell the man's two teenage sons in the house to have their mother pick them up. After a thorough search, police uncover a stash of marijuana, illegal prescription pills — Xanax, OxyContin, Lortab — and a piece of crack the size of a jumbo cotton ball.
"That is a crackhead's dream come true right there," says one officer, gazing at the jagged, yellow rock stashed inside a pill bottle.
Scruggs was one of more than 40 people arrested in the Memphis Police Department's March raid of drug houses across the city, the result of several months of undercover investigation.
"We go in and try to befriend these people and buy dope three to five times," says Paul Sherman, the coordinator of the MPD's undercover program. "That shows that they're really a drug dealer and not somebody who sold a rock one time. We try to prove that these people are drug dealers on a daily basis."
In Scruggs' case, the undercover officers made the drug buys from him at 1170 Grand Street, several miles away. During the raid, officers first stopped at the Grand Street address, but they were directed to the man's home on Sharpe.
The Grand Street address, one side of a duplex, is one of six houses and two apartments on District Attorney General Bill Gibbons' most recent list of public nuisances. In a court date on April 3rd, in which the Grand Street homeowner failed to appear, the home was deemed a public nuisance.
Those not arrested at the Grand Street duplex have been evicted, and a crew of MPD officers began nailing boards over the windows and doors three days after the hearing.
The Grand Street duplex is one of 160 homes throughout the city that MPD officers have sealed since the Blue Crush crime-fighting initiative began in late 2005. The majority of those houses, with the cooperation of homeowners, have been rehabilitated and rented to law-abiding citizens. Others in especially bad shape have been demolished by the city. But more than 50 homes still sit vacant with blue spray paint reading "Property of Memphis Police Organized Crime Unit" stenciled on boards covering doors and windows.
"We try to get these houses renovated and reopened, but sometimes that doesn't work out," Gibbons said at a press conference on April 6th. "Some of these houses remain boarded for a while, but it's better to have a boarded-up house than a drug house."
Some of the sealed homes, mostly in lower-income neighborhoods, date back to the 1920s and 1930s. The Flyer took a look at the past, present, and future of a few of the city's former crack houses to see how the public-nuisance closure program is working.
3277 & 3278 Given avenue
- Larry Godwin
After school lets out on a warm spring afternoon, a few teens are walking along a quiet strip of Given Avenue near Holmes Street in Binghamton, while a couple of elderly residents sit on their porches. At the corner, four homes bear "Property of Memphis Police Organized Crime Unit" spray-painted boards covering windows and doors.
Those four homes, as well as a convenience store and three houses (which have since been demolished), served as Crime Central in the summer of 2006, until all the structures were sealed as nuisances later that year.
"We got information that there was one house on Given causing a problem, and we sent undercover officers into the area. Through their investigation, it was clear that the whole corner near Holmes and Given was out of control," says Paul Hagerman, a prosecutor in the district attorney's office who oversees the public-nuisance closure program.
Gangster Disciples had turned the corner into a one-stop shop for crack cocaine and prostitution, using both occupied and abandoned homes to peddle drugs and women. The Lucky 7 convenience store facing Holmes was a meeting point, where dealers would flag down drivers and tell them where to purchase their chosen vice. A couple of houses were used as smoke houses, where people could smoke their newly purchased crack.
"I remember going out there. It was so crazy," Hagerman says. "Gangster Disciples would sit on the porches and yell at the police. But after we made the arrests, the neighborhood association came out and thanked us."
Undercover police were able to make at least eight buys from dealers on the street, and 50 suspected gang members were arrested. Gibbons and Memphis police director Larry Godwin explained Blue Crush's largest bust to date in a press conference outside one of the homes on a sweltering August afternoon. Godwin praised the department's "new method of policing," which focuses on crime hotspots rather than random neighborhoods.
Three years later, residents of the now-quiet street seem pleased with the operation.
"Everybody was smoking crack down there back then. There was shooting," says James Bell, an elderly man sitting on his screened front porch. "Ever since they boarded it up, we haven't had many problems. I'd like someone to move in down there though."
Another elderly woman, who asked that her name not be used, said she'd also like to see somebody move into the vacant properties. Though the store and a few houses have been demolished, the future of other boarded properties is in limbo.
"Most of the time, these are houses owned by people who have in turn rented the house and don't realize there's a problem," Hagerman says. "In order to get these places back open after they're shut down, we have to get the owner to cooperate with us."
In the case of Given Avenue, Hagerman says several homeowners have come forward, but most can't rehab and rerent the properties. Some properties have serious code violations that require costly construction before they are habitable.
A vacant brick house at 3278 Given has a tattered roof, and someone has spray-painted the word "Seriously" over the MPD stencil, perhaps as a way to remind vagrants to stay out.
According to Shelby County assessor records, the home belongs to Donald Aldridge, but the Flyer was unable to locate him. The home was built in 1932, and city records show that it was first occupied by a tinsmith named George Tate. A mechanic named Orville Simpson lived there throughout the 1950s.
Across the street at 3277 Given, a bungalow with gray vinyl siding also sits boarded. Built in 1923, it appears to be in better condition. The Flyer was unable to locate its owner, Charles Alexander, but city records show that the home's first owner, R.F. James, worked for the Bluff City Casket Company.
Now both homes are shells of what they once were, but neighbors are still pleased with how police actions have quieted their neighborhood.
"I was surprised at first that people would rather have a boarded-up house than what it was," Hagerman says. "But the shootings, the violence, the traffic you got with these houses was a nightmare."
2266 Hunter Avenue
Lula Jordan lives next to a former crack house at 2266 Hunter Avenue in North Memphis. The elderly woman says she's happy the problem house has been sealed.
"It really helped the neighborhood when they boarded that house up, because it was a drug house. It's quiet now," says Jordan from the porch of her tiny shotgun home.
Built in 1925, the crack house, also a shotgun, shows its age. A broken metal strip hangs from the porch ceiling and whips in the wind. City records show its first inhabitant, Clemmie L. Crook, lived there in 1932. Crook is listed as a laborer, meaning he was likely an unskilled construction worker. He moved out a year later, and the house was occupied by different residents (most listed as laborers) almost every year.
The home's humble beginnings ended with a bang, when Memphis police arrested Gangster Disciples for selling crack from the house in March 2006.
"This was a difficult house to close," Hagerman says. "[The drug dealers] would only deal with people they knew, so we weren't able to introduce an undercover officer at that house. We had to use videotaped surveillance instead."
With hidden cameras, police filmed activity outside of the house. Tapes revealed that 10 to 15 people would enter the house and often stay less than a minute. Once police had enough evidence, the dealers were arrested and the house was boarded up.
"The day we closed it down, there were a lot of people outside, and they had mixed reactions," Hagerman says. "Some were really mad about the police presence in their neighborhood, but others thanked us."
Three years later, Jordan says she'd like to see the house repaired and reinhabited, but according to Hagerman, that isn't likely anytime soon.
"The owners of 2266 Hunter never came forward to contact us. We always try to contact the owner as we serve notice on the house, to let them know we'll be boarding the place up," Hagerman says. "Sometimes finding owners is really hard, but we do the best we can. So many people have just walked away from their homes."
County assessor records list Betty and Robert Young of Cordova as owners, but the Flyer was unable to locate the couple.
765 Bingham Street
Old tires litter the drive at 765 Bingham Street, a former crack house on a shady Binghamton street. Plywood boards and a broken chainlink fence don't do much to guard the shabby brick and vinyl home from vagrants, according to a middle-aged man working in a yard across the street.
"The dope boys still hang out in the boarded-up houses. It won't do any good until the place is knocked down," says the man, who wished to remain anonymous.
Undercover coordinator Sherman says the police force does its best to patrol the properties.
"We do have vagrants who come by and pull off some boards, especially in the wintertime," Sherman says. "But we try to check those houses and reboard them if necessary once every two weeks."
The Bingham house, located less than a mile from Springdale Elementary, was one of 24 homes shut down in an August 2007 operation targeting drug houses operating near schools. The house at 766 Bingham was also boarded up, but it already has been demolished by the city.
Before the house at 765 Bingham was closed, the county attempted to sell it in an April 2007 tax sale after its owners failed to pay delinquent property taxes. The property is now in possession of the Shelby County Land Bank.
"That Bingham address is only worth $3,000, and it's on our list to be demolished in the next 60 days," says Tom Moss, the administrator of the land bank.
Built in 1923, the house at 765 Bingham belonged to Joseph Breckle, who worked for a flooring company. The house sat vacant for many of its early years, as it does today. Neighbors likely won't miss it when it comes down in a few months.
2387 Park Avenue
Most nuisance-house closures occur in residential neighborhoods, but a February raid included an 84-year-old shotgun shack located in a commercial strip of Park Avenue. Situated next door to the Orange Mound Redevelopment Corporation, the house was a problem for the organization before it was boarded up.
"It was a rental property from October until it was abandoned over the holidays," says Michael Saine, executive director of the redevelopment corporation. "The people who lived there were selling drugs, and people would park on our lot and block cars in, day and night."
Hagerman says the house continued to be a problem after the renters moved out. Dealers would sneak in at night to sell drugs, despite the lack of electricity.
"The home's owners, who own [Wilson Tire] across the street, tried to board it up. They knew it was a problem, but, nevertheless, people were using that house," Hagerman says.
Though a cook at the former Veterans Hospital on Getwell occupied the home in the 1930s, its condition has declined over the years. Today, paint is chipping from the crooked white boards on the outside of the house, and the inside appears uninhabitable.
"We'd like to buy the house and tear it down," Saine says. "We'd be happier with some green space there or some kind of commercial development. We tried to acquire the property before the drug dealers moved in, but the owners weren't interested in selling."
The Flyer's multiple attempts to contact owner Johnny Wilson at his Park Avenue tire shop were fruitless. Unless Wilson agrees to sell, the house will likely remain boarded indefinitely.
"That house is not one that we could agree to open tomorrow, because it's in such bad shape," Hagerman says. "They'd have to fix it up."
Though the houses described in this story still are sealed, the district attorney's office has plenty of rehabilitation success stories. One side of a duplex on Kearney Street near the University of Memphis was closed in February 2007, after the man living there was caught selling drugs and housing stolen property, but it was quickly sold and now has new residents.
"Two brothers had inherited it from their father, and one of them, who was living there, had a drug problem," Hagerman says. "Not only did we close it down, we worked with the other brother to sell the house to somebody else."
Some critics of nuisance closures argue that kicking dealers out of a house simply displaces the problem. On Given, a young man who calls himself M.O.A. applauds the closures in his neighborhood but says it doesn't stop the city's crack problem.
"The crackheads just have to go somewhere else to smoke their crack," M.O.A. says. "Until there's something to really stop the flow of crack, nothing will change."
Sherman doesn't disagree with the man's point, but he does believe the program has made a difference.
"Can I say that somebody won't go around the block and sell crack cocaine at another house? No, I can't," Sherman says. "But as long as we're out there locking them up, we won't have to worry as much.
"Crime today is down 10 to 11 percent from what it was at this time two years ago," he continues. "We've come a long way from where we used to be."