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18 years in Central City: An education in violence, drugs, isolation and hope

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18 years in Central City: An education in violence, drugs, isolation and hope

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This article was produced as a project for the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.


Troy Lee, 39, pictured shortly after he was shot five times on the night of Feb. 10. (Photo by David Grunfeld, | The Ti
Troy Lee, 39, pictured shortly after he was shot five times on the night of Feb. 10. (Photo by David Grunfeld, | The Times-Picayune) (David Grunfeld)
The Times-Picayune
Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Candince McMillian sat in the living room of the one-story house at the corner of Fourth and Dryades with one of her friends, celebrating the start of her new life. Just days earlier, the 22-year-old had purchased her New Orleans starter home, a three-bedroom, two-bathroom shotgun, for $80,000.

She admits she knew little about Central City at the time, having bought the property without so much as driving around the neighborhood to see whether it was safe. Then two bullets ripped through her front door.

"I was like, 'Oh Lord, I got to get the hell from around here,'" McMillian said. "I was in total shock."

This world of gun, violence, and drugs was not one she was accustomed to, having grown up in a safe, working class Uptown community. But she learned fast.

Eighteen years later, McMillian, now 40, points to a spot on the sidewalk outside a Fourth Street apartment building she owns, one of more than 20 buildings she renovated in the neighborhood. This is where Keisha "Keedy" Love was shot to death, she says, recalling the grisly image of the young woman lying face down next to a bicycle, her body in plain sight of children playing nearby.

There are dozens of spots like this throughout the eight-block area McMillian calls home. There's one in an apartment where a stray bullet fatally struck Norma Perez in February, and another on a second-floor balcony near where Maurice Sparkman was killed in 2014.

McMillian has known most of the people who died on these spots, eight over the past seven years, including an additional six people who survived being shot. The death and violence was too much at first, she said.

Her initial impulse was to move and never look back. But, instead, the college graduate with a master's degree in philosophy staked her ground and committed herself to understanding the people who inhabited what she called a "forsaken and abandoned" community.

Over the course of the ensuing two decades, McMillian witnessed a never-ending cycle of tragedy and death. It all seemed so senseless, she said. Over time, though, she came to know the murderers and robbers, the junkies and victims. Many were "spiritless and loveless," beaten down by "economic disadvantages, educational disparities, and social isolation," McMillian said. But she also saw in some of the most hardened of hearts a glimmer of hope, a yearning for something more.

It was through these relationships that McMillian came to realize that human connection and opportunity could be the key to change.

"For the past 18 years, I've had a front row seat to a terrible reality, to a world that's full of hopelessness, disappointment, anger, poverty, distrust and general oppression," McMillian said. "Eighteen years later, I know, without a doubt, God placed me here for a reason."

'All I know is the shooting. I saw fire.'

On a recent Monday afternoon, McMillian walked from her home in the 2600 block of Dryades Street to the 2400 block, one of the last remaining areas in the neighborhood where she says drugs are still openly sold.

A group of men and women sat underneath a tree in an empty lot, drinking beers wrapped in paper bags and smoking Marlboro Reds with the filters ripped off. Among them was 39-year-old Troy Lee.

Lee sat in a red transport chair from Tulane Medical Center, the tips of his fingers and toes peeking out from the casts that wrapped his left hand and foot. He wore a black tattered President Obama T-shirt. The name "Veronica" was tattooed across the front of his neck and "Kendia" across the right side -- his girlfriend and daughter, respectively.

Lee was shot five times on the night of Feb. 10: twice in the foot, twice in his hand and once in the back of his leg. Just before dusk, someone driving a dark-colored sedan slowly rolled past the corner of Second and Dryades streets and opened fire on a group of people.

When the shooting stopped, five people were left bleeding on the pavement. Some escaped with minor wounds. Two were hit multiple times, including Lee.

One bullet ripped through the exterior wall of a green apartment building and into a first-floor unit where it fatally wounded Norma Perez Lino. She had recently moved from Honduras with her 13-year-old daughter, to be reunited with her longtime boyfriend and father of her child, who has been in New Orleans for a decade working at McMillian's construction company.

"It didn't shock me or any member of this community that that occurred down there," McMillian said of that stretch of Central City. "I think that speaks volumes."

Central City, New Orleans: Through the eyes of neighborhood resident Candince McMillian

The neighborhood is one of the city's poorest communities. Its residents, 72.4 percent of whom are African American, live in households where the average income is just under $36,000, according to the Data Center.

With that poverty comes violence. Last year, 10 percent of the city's 175 recorded murders took place in Central City.

Just across St. Charles Avenue, four blocks from Dryades Street, is the Garden District and its stately antebellum mansions. There the residents are 88.4 percent Caucasian and have an average household income of $151,000. There were no recorded murders in 2016.

Lee spent nine days in the hospital after being shot, and endured three surgeries. Doctors gave him a prescription for pain medication, but he said he couldn't afford to fill it. Instead, he had been taking Motrin, which is advertised as providing "relief for minor muscle aches."

"I don't know who it was. None of that," Lee said, shifting his weight in his chair, moaning as he tried to alleviate some of his pain. "All I know is the shooting. I saw fire. A bullet exploded in my feet. I ain't know bullets explode in your feet."

McMillian asked Lee for the prescription the doctors gave him. He handed her the piece of paper. "I'll take care of this for you," she said.

As she walked back home, Lee's prescription in hand, McMillian remembered her frame of mind before she moved to Central City. She was "very judgmental" of people who might be on government assistance, who abused narcotics or were involved in drug dealing and violence.

"I tell people all the time, as a black American, if I didn't want to be associated with those blacks, I can only imagine how my white counterparts think."

A bullet hole in a stop sign at the corner of Dryades and Fourth streets is a daily reminder of violence in the Central City neighborhood. (Photo by David Grunfeld, | The Times-Picayune)

'It's like living amongst zombies'

McMillian was raised by a "hands on, affectionate" mother and grandmother in a safe and working class neighborhood on General Pershing Street. When it came time to pick a college, she eyed schools like Xavier or Dillard universities, but her mother insisted otherwise.

"My mom was like, listen if you're going to make it in this world you have to get away from here."

She was accepted to Sweet Briar College, a small school in Virginia.

"I had never been out of New Orleans. It was just this beautiful campus with all these trees and these hills and all these faces I had never seen because it's really diverse. I was just really blown away and said, 'This is the place for me.' It literally changed my life."

After graduation, McMillian attended Tulane University where she got her masters in epistemology, a branch of philosophy that studies the nature and limits of human knowledge.

While studying at Tulane, a friend told her the best way to make money was to buy cheap properties, renovate them and resell them. She bought her first house at 22. Her mortgage was $580 and her tenant in the back paid $550, allowing her to save money and buy her next property, a four-plex on Thalia Street for $12,000.

McMillian's nascent construction coming was up and running. Life was good. But the violent nature of her new community quickly revealed itself. First came through bullets through her front door. Then, one night, McMillian was returning home from classes at Tulane University when she saw yellow police tape, flashing red and blue lights, and the silhouettes of police officers congregating on her corner. Her neighbors were gathered on the outskirts of the scene.

As she walked closer, McMillian said she recognized the boy lying in the street. She looked around, at the faces of her neighbors, expecting to find sadness or sympathy. Instead, she found an absence of emotion.

This was her initial struggle, McMillian said, trying to comprehend how people got to the point where it seemed as if life and death, even their own, no longer mattered.

"People were just so overwhelmed with their own sense of hopelessness. They were spiritless and loveless. It's like living amongst zombies."

'I don't have time for a dream'

Across the street from McMillian's house lived a "big-time drug dealer." She said, "He was always very nice to me but he was scary because he had these gold teeth and he was really dark and never smiled."

There was a man named Melvin in his late 20s and he worked for him. One day he walked up to McMillian and said, "You do the construction stuff? I want to do that."

McMillian put him to work, gutting houses, painting, unloading and loading construction materials. As they spent more time together, McMillian said that Melvin began to tell her about his life.

He lived with his mother and grandmother, McMillian said. By the time he reached his mid-teens, he felt it was his responsibility to provide for the household. He got the only job he felt qualified for and that paid well, a corner boy working for drug dealers.

He stayed with it for years, eventually falling in love with the lifestyle. But as he grew older, he wanted a straight job, a profession that would teach him skills and provide a lasting career

He had no education, though, no marketable skills and a criminal record, McMillian said.

"Melvin gave me the framework and then I saw it over and over and over and over again with the young black boys in this community."

Melvin also made McMillian realize that she had the means to help. He saw there was a successful businesswoman living in his own community and that inspired him. He wanted what she had and he was willing to work for it. And if he saw that, surely others noticed to, and were willing to do the same.

"I've had people straight up tell me, 'I don't have time for a dream. What that mean? I might have had a dream but then my kids came along and my mom got killed and my dad went to jail.' But when you expose them to a different situation and they see an alternative, it allows those dreams to come back up."




'I was praying for him while he took his last breaths'

In the 14 years McMillian has lived in Central City, she said she's bought and renovated more than 20 properties, turning some into affordable apartments, and selling the others. She said she's employed dozens of young men and women from the community, making sure at the end of each day, everyone gets paid. Because she knows from talking to Melvin that their needs are immediate, and they can't wait two weeks for payroll to kick in.

"I tell them, you may not have all of the money you had in your pocket from when you was hustling. But you have your peace of mind."

McMillian also bought a bar located across the street from her house and turned it into Exodus Place Community Center where she offers mentoring, tutoring, computer skills and job training. She hosts annual holiday parties there, too, handing out presents, food and clothing to the neighborhood families.

McMillian, however, is aware of her limitations.

"I had two boys at my door this morning and this one boy asked me for a job opportunity and I don't have it for him. What the hell is he going to do?"

McMillian said the boy reminded her of the two deaths that weigh on her conscience the most: 28-year-old Maurice Sparkman and 25-year-old Jowanda "Muff" Netter. She described Sparkman as a troubled man "leading a real negative lifestyle," but somebody who was always trying to turn things around, and always seemed to ask her for work when there was none to give.

Walking through her neighborhood on a recent weekday, McMillian stopped at a small apartment building in the 2500 block of Dryades Street, just two blocks from her own home, and pointed to the second-floor balcony. That's where she found Sparkman, she said.

It was about 4 p.m. Dec. 3, 2014. McMillian was working on the second story of her house when she heard a series of gunshots and someone yell, "They got Maurice!" She ran down Dryades Street and found him on the second story balcony of an apartment complex, choking on his blood, his eyes rolling back in his head.

"I held his hand tightly and just kept talking to him. I stayed by his side and was praying for him while he took his last breaths."

McMillian said she later heard that Sparkman and Netter robbed a dice game down the street and the man they robbed went looking for blood, an account supported by police reports at the time.

After Sparkman was killed, word on the street was that Netter was next, McMillian said. Netter, who lived in the neighborhood, was enrolled in the Exodus mentoring program and was working for McMillian gutting houses. She had just gotten out of prison and was trying to get her life straight. When the construction work ran dry, she bought herself a bicycle and rode down to Canal Street every week looking for steady work, McMillian said.

One day, McMillian saw Netter walking down Baronne Street. "She couldn't find a job and soon thereafter she went back to the streets selling drugs. She looked tore up. She was sweating. I could tell she was probably full of those pills. I offered her a ride and I remember her telling me, 'I don't want to be in a car with you.' I think she felt the wrath coming upon her."

One week later, Netter was found shot to death on Willow Street on the morning of Jan. 28, 2015.

Seven days after Netter was killed, police arrested Quintin Hankton on a second-degree murder charge in connection with the Sparkman killing. Hankton is currently serving 25 years as a repeat offender for distribution of heroin and is awaiting trial on the murder charge.

McMillian said she has never forgotten that small gesture of Netter's, refusing a ride because she didn't want to put McMillian's life in danger.

"So what that does for me, it gives me the strength to believe in them no matter what they do because I know that deep down, maybe if had they encountered more people like me, then maybe their psyche would be different."

'This thing is growing out of control'

McMillian flashes back to that image from four years ago of Keesha "Keedy" Love lying on the pavement on Fourth Street, bleeding from her head as children played just feet away. She becomes angry thinking about it, how growing up in a violent environment impacts children, how it could distort their worldview and behavior.

"Resolving conflict looks like that to them," McMillian said, referring to the murder of Love. "When they see a dead body on the ground that's some type of justice, that was some type of retaliation or payback. 'Bam!' She's dead so we're good now. This thing is growing out of control. As a unit, we're letting these poor black people get away from us."

McMillian admits that after 14 years, the violence has affected her as well. She is not so desensitized that she doesn't care when someone is hurt or killed. She still goes to bed "heavy every night," thinking about Love, Perez, Sparkman, Netter, and countless others.

The random violence, however, no longer carries the same level of shock it did when she saw her first dead body outside of her home. She understands now, that in some pockets of the city, this is life.

But it doesn't have to be, McMillian said. Getting to know personally the people committing the crimes, and those affected by crime, has taught her that hope and goodness still exist - even when it looks otherwise.

They are ready to be cultivated, she said, if people would only take the time to look closer, instead of disregarding entire communities and leaving them to wither and die.

[This story was originally published by The Times-Picayune.]

[Photos by David Grunfeld, / The Times-Picayune.]