(First Appeared) Raleigh News & Observer | Community Voices [READABLE TRANSCRIPTION APPEARS BELOW PHOTO REPRINT.]
August 31, 1995, pg. 3B
A young man apart, a world apart (Title By: Raleigh News and Observer)
By Brian Johnson
Brian Johnson, 22, grew up across the street from Durham’s Few Gardens public housing complex. He is a recent graduate of Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte.
(News & Observer Article)
I was back in the small, two – bedroom duplex on Morning Glory Avenue where I grew up. I could picture the long white wall running through it, lined with cracks. And the abandoned, trash covered field next door, crawling with rats. Out the window, across the street, a sign read Building II. It hung sideways because we threw rocks at it.
That was Few Gardens.
In my dream, I’m running down our driveway and across the street, as I used to do everyday. From the sidewalk, I see row after row of brick apartments leading farther and farther away, the roofs littered with bicycle tires, dolls, and tennis balls.
Then I’m in Few Gardens, sitting on a stoop with my old buddies, talking junk and laughing. All of a sudden, the faces change, and I’m surrounded by my fraternity brothers from school, flirting with university women strolling past on the project sidewalks. It was like Few Gardens became my college campus.
Other times I dream about a former basketball teammate who was paralyzed from the waist down by a gunshot two years ago. But in my dreams, he is walking and playing ball again, laughing and telling jokes.
I know these dreams are trying to tell me something.
Of all the people I grew up with , of all the people I went to school with, I’m the only one who made it out of inner city Durham, the only to make a life most people would call typical.
I can count at least 10 friends who are dead, two more who have been paralyzed by bullets, and numerous others who are in jail, selling drugs or using them. Of all my friends in Few Gardens, I cannot name 10 high school graduates. The success stories of my old friends? Working full time jobs flipping burgers or waxing floors or washing dishes.
I don’t know why, but I’ve been blessed. I’ve graduated from college. I am going to law school this fall.
But what has it earned me from my old community?
When people from my high school see me in a suit and tie, they will not even speak. I have lost many friends. I have been isolated and ridiculed. There are communication gaps that are far too large to close. I can honestly say I was happier cutting classes with friends from my community than I was graduating from college without a friend.
But I understand their feelings. How would you deal with growing up in a place where success is having a $13,000 a year job because there is no reason to believe you can ever do better? And then, one out of all your friends slips through the cracks and receives a college degree and pursues law school. How would you feel?
Money magazine has named the Research Triangle Park area one of the best places to live in America. And there are so many good reasons: outstanding universities, respected hospitals and, of course, RTP, a global leader in technology that creates high salary jobs that energize our economy.
But I can’t think of anyone in inner-city Durham who would vote this place No.1. Most cannot afford health care at Duke. Most have not received an education that would prepare them for the rigors of study at Duke, NC Central, UNC or NC State. The only job opportunities available for them in the Research Triangle Park are janitorial.
Ever since my mother moved us away from Morning Glory Avenue to a better neighborhood in 1988 – whether I was living across town, attending college, studying in Italy or staying at Meredith College this summer for my internship with the State Bureau of Investigation – I’ve dreamed about Few Gardens at least once a week.
This summer I had to find out why.
First, I tracked down Red Bone. He was a guy I looked up to, a member of the Few Crew, a bunch of guys from the Few Gardens are who started hanging out 15 years back. The Few Crew used to fight with guys from other neighborhoods – Bluefield, Hoover Rd, Braggtown and on and on. Everybody said it was gang , but it really wasn’t.
When I knew Red Bone, he was the leader of the Few Crew II, the next generation, a milder version of the original. I was never a member, but I knew all the guys. They fought, too, but were really more in it for the girls.
I found Red Bone in the Durham County Jail, where he’s doing 90 days for driving with his license revoked. We went down the list. Nobody we could recall in either Few Crew graduated from high school. A few are holding down hourly wage jobs. Many are in prison for robbery, drugs, assault – and one for second degree murder. Others are selling drugs or using. Three are dead, including one who was kidnapped, tortured and shot, then left in a ditch.
Speaking to Red Bone through the thick glass divider in the jail visitors room, I couldn’t get him to understand what is happening to us. I left, wondering why our paths are so different.
Then I talked to Peggy Howard, a woman who was like a second mother to me. She lived in Few Gardens when I was growing up.
What she told me came as a surprise. Once, Few Gardens was really nice, and it was tough to get into. It had a day care, a swimming pool and tennis courts. Residents were given tools to maintain their yards. There were two grocery stores and two drug stores within walking distance.
Peggy’s had been one of the first black families to move in, back in the mid- 1960s. Sometimes she encountered racism, but her complaints would be ignored. “However, if one of my kids walked on the grass of the whites, I faced eviction threats from neighbors and the police, ” she said. “I had to fight to stay in Few Gardens.”
Peggy told me things started changing in 1969, as more black families moved in and white residents fled the inner city. Gradually, the city stopped caring about Few Gardens. There were no more gardening tools provided, no more policing and the stores disappeared. Over time, Few Gardens went downhill. Peggy moved out in 1989.
“It’s a shame what happened to Few Gardens,” she told me. “The difference was like night and day.”
The same could be said about my old friend and me.
I still don’t know why my life turned out so differently. Maybe I’ll always struggle with the question.
I don’t believe I’m special. I don’t believe I’m lucky, But I do believe in God. He was always there watching over me, and I believe he has a purpose for me.
I continue to dream my dreams and for that I am grateful. They fuel my ambitions. They inspire my hope. And if they stopped now I would be scared to face tomorrow.