A Community Divided
By: Shjon Stamps, John Sales, Nikita King and Paris Boynes
Despite how friendly Thomas Harris was, greeting everyone who came to the Lambert’s Point Civic Meeting on March 18, 2014, there was tension in the large cinderblock room. Harris, who has lived in the neighborhood the longest, said he would be glad to answer any questions. The meeting was about crime surrounding ODU, what causes it, and how to control it. Central to the discussion was whether ODU students helped create an atmosphere that encouraged crime, or were perhaps involved in criminal activities. The tension in the room was not about crime, but about who was best suited to lead the civic league, Harris or newcomer Ian Wilson. A vote for a new civic league president was planned for late in the meeting.
Residents were upset about the recent beating death of ODU student Paul Johnson, across Hampton Boulevard from ODU on February 23, 2014. Despite being outside their neighborhood, the violence of the attack concerned those who came to the meeting. In attendance were 21 residents from the neighborhood and Old Dominion University, two Norfolk police officers and two representatives of the old Dominion Police Department.
Officers reported there had been seven crimes in the prior week, five larcenies, one auto theft and one assault, and two citations for underage drinking. Officers said crimes were down because students were on spring break. They asked for help keeping an eye on 38th street where there had been numerous parties where alcohol was sold. There was some discussion of people carrying firearms near the campus. Police explained that while it was illegal to carry a gun on campus, it is legal to openly carry a weapon off-campus. Drug trafficking between 35th and 39th streets continues to be a problem, police said.
Most residents said students cause problems by throwing large parties, inviting non-students and unsavory characters. “They attract thugs and hoodlums,” said one resident.
“I love being a student at ODU, but I no longer want to live in this neighborhood,” said one student.
“The crime is frustrating. I no longer want to live around campus. I’m trying to transfer. It’s sad that I have to keep a knife on me to walk to class,” said another student who lived in Lambert’s Point.
Residents were not sympathetic. “I think there needs to be more accountability for ODU students who are responsible for the majority of the disturbances and littering in the neighborhood. These students are transient.” said Nicole Nicbhols, a 31 year-old former student and employee of the university.
One resident, William McKinney, 56, complained that students walk right past them while they sat on their front porch and don’t say hello. Also, the students leave red beer cups.
McKinney said he was tired of students “speeding up and down the streets in their expensive cars, when some residents have lived here all their lives and only have bicycles.”
Others said the problem was absentee landlords who don’t care what’s happening in the neighborhood. “The rental properties should be more controlled. Loud parties should stop after a certain time,” said one middle-aged white man, a 15-year resident.
Two men wanted to become president of the league: Thomas Harris and Ian Wilson. Harris, an African-American who has lived in Lamberts Point for 37 years, has a good reputation and a lot of friends. He has organized many events to fight crime and clean up the neighborhood. Wilson, who is white, has lived in Lamberts Point for 15 years, and has also been active in the community.
Harris gave a heartfelt speech about his previous work in the community. His number one priority was to clean up 38th street and to build a stronger community, where neighbors could come together and take back their community. He criticized ODU students who threw parties and created litter.
“There are a lot of mental health issues in this neighborhood and problems with homelessness,” said Harris.
Wilson said he is an avid supporter of the Old Dominion Community and that under his leadership the community and Old Dominion would become united. Wilson’s wife is a doctoral student. His main criticism was that the group opened every meeting with prayer. This struck a chord with those in attendance and a slew of unpleasantries where exchanged. The divide was not racial but was a split of old members of the community versus new, residents said.
Harris won, with only five people voting for Mr. Wilson. The younger residents were visibly upset and questioned whether everyone present was eligible to vote.
A peace walk was planned for March 29.