OPINION: A huge heroin bust, but don’t call their Bluff a drug den

Toju Oris stands outside the store he has owned for 11 years in the English Avenue neighborhood. "Change here is inevitable," he said. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

It was a hot summer day in 2005 and Atlanta police and the feds were making yet another statement in the long, futile War on Drugs.

A police mini-precinct just west of downtown had been firebombed years earlier and drug sales remained as brisk as ever, with cars rolling in from Cobb, Gwinnett and other northern sphere counties to stop and cop some smack.

On that day 15 years ago, police announced the arrest of 15 heroin dealers to send a message they were no longer fooling around. It was part of an effort called Project Safe Neighborhoods.

After the press conference, I drove the streets of the English Avenue neighborhood — aka “the Bluff” — and within minutes was interviewing a 53-year-old addict who had waved me down. It was that easy to find drugs. The dealers were that bold. (Actually, the guy was polite, and pathetic.)

A year later, police smashed in the door of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston and shot her to death in her living room, looking for drugs that didn’t exist. The search had become that desperate.

John Gordon, left, and the Rev. Anthony Motley admire a Janssen Robinson mural of Kathryn Johnston painted on plywood over her boarded up home in the English Avenue community in 2008. CURTIS COMPTON / ccompton@ajc.com

The English Avenue neighborhood has been notorious as an open-market drug bazaar since at least the 1980s, the heroin capital of the South. There have been countless efforts to change that narrative, but the broken and impoverished neighborhood northwest of downtown just can’t shake it.

There have been some green shoots of hope in recent years. Houses have been remodeled, new homes have been built, and the city has tried to create an aura of restoration on the English Avenue and the Vine City neighborhoods out of a sense of guilt for knocking down two historic churches to build the new Falcons stadium.

So last week, my ears perked up when I heard the feds say they recently made the largest heroin bust in Georgia history, 374 pounds, and that they figured it was headed to “the Bluff.”

This supposition was not at all surprising. Drug dealers and their clientele are creatures of habit.

But the fact that authorities had busted a haul of heroin weighing more than an NFL left tackle got me wondering about all the progress that had been touted.

Rev. Anthony Motley, pastor of Lindsay Street Baptist Church in English Avenue, told me his ministry sees fewer families and children, and more often attends to the homeless. “Those children, man, they are gone now,” he said.

A needle exchange in the Bluff aimed at trying to keep heroin addicts healthy. (AJC 2014 file photo)

Credit: Bo Emerson

Credit: Bo Emerson

The drugs may not be gone, he said. “But people aren’t talking about it. That’s activity that you don’t see.”

I called John Gordon, a Buckhead businessman who helped found the Friends of English Avenue with Rev. Motley after Kathryn Johnston was killed. The project helps build green spaces in the neighborhood, as well as community programs there.

“I was shocked when I first went down there, seeing there was such desperation and poverty in the shadow of downtown,” said Gordon, who has attended the funerals of two young people who were friends of his kids. “They made their first purchases in the English Avenue area.”

He has noticed a change. “I have not seen (drug dealing) like you used to see it — a guy at the corner waving at you, trying to get you to stop.”

Blighted properties in the English Avenue neighborhood being torn down in 2015 by the Georgia National Guard Counterdrug Task Force as part of their Counterdrug Initiative. (Brant Sanderlin / AJC 2015 file photo)

Assistant U.S. Attorney Laurel Boatright is a coordinator of Project Safe Neighborhoods (yes, a distant cousin of the 2005 effort) and was shocked when she rode in an Atlanta police van in 2015 and watched two drug deals go down right in front of them.

The feds renewed efforts with Atlanta police to bust street dealers and try to build relationships with residents. “We kept up the drumbeat of low-level offenders for as long as we could,” she said. “The message got out. They got out of the street and into houses. We were trying to stop the in-your-face” activity.

(Atlanta cops no longer work on task forces with the feds, as the feds will not allow the teams to wear body cameras.)

But Boatright’s contention that the flagrant street sale of drugs has been stopped indeed seems to be the case. I drove around the Bluff for four hours the other afternoon and evening and couldn’t find a single drug dealer to interview. No one even tried to wave me over.

Five years ago, I spoke with Howard Joiner, a retired bus driver who sat on his porch with his mother on James P. Brawley Drive. I was writing about abandoned homes. He lived next to one. “It’s depressing to live here, to watch these young people destroying themselves,” he told me then, as people continually walked by. “Drugs, no school, they don’t work, don’t try to learn anything.”

On Monday, he was still on the porch with his mother, still living next to an abandoned home. But this time he was a bit more positive. “It’s in transition and it’s better, as drug sales and loitering in the street go,” he said. “A lot of people in The Game are either in jail or in the grave.”

That’s a stark explanation for improvement — incarceration or expiration. Perhaps there isn’t a new generation of street drug slingers to replace them. Or at least they’re not plying their craft in the Bluff.

Gentrification is what people in the Bluff are talking about these days, not drugs and street crime. The Beltline is coming nearby soon and investors are snapping up houses. That doesn’t mean that people are necessarily living in them, just like the house next to Joiner’s.

A few blocks from Joiner’s home is the Patience Supermarket, although one might think its name is “No Loitering,” based on the warnings scrawled outside the corner shop. Toju Oris has been the proprietor for more than a decade, eking out a living selling sodas, chips, Swisher Sweets and other necessities.

“It’s changing dramatically,” he says in an African lilt. “When I came it was pretty rough. No, really, really, really rough. They used to dump bodies right there (he pointed outside near the entrance) and say, ‘Call the police.’”

Oris was talking about people who had OD’d, not who had been shot. But I’m not sure. Oris remained busy during my visit. At least eight or nine customers came in and out while I was there, and he remained in a prolonged debate with a young man hanging around about whether the fellow had paid for his lottery tickets.

“During my 11 years here, things have been worse, worse, worse,” he said, lowering his hand with each “worse” to demonstrate the decline. “Then bad, bad, bad. Then OK.”

His hand finally rose. A bit.

“I’m thinking 10 years until it’s good,” Oris said.

Hope does spring eternal. It’s the only way to survive in the Bluff.

In Other News