Spartanburg, South Carolina

Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation

Spartanburg, South Carolina

BCJI Funding Year: FY2020 

BCJI Grantee: City of Spartanburg

Research Partner: Dr. Michelle Covington, University of South Carolina Upstate

Focus Area: Highland Neighborhood - Population 1,166

Challenges: Violent Crime, Gun-Related Crime

Neighborhood Characteristics

The Highland neighborhood has experienced extreme poverty and isolation for several decades, which has resulted in substandard neighborhood conditions, a consistently higher crime rate compared to the rest of Spartanburg, and general disorder. The median income of the neighborhood of $12,039 is a third of that in the surrounding city and a quarter of that of the surrounding county ($43,907). In Highland, 68.7 percent of adults aged 18-64 are living in poverty. The highest rate occurs for children, where 92 percent of residents under the age of 18 live below the poverty level. Both the city and county have much lower rates of poverty among children, with the city at 44.4 percent and the county at 19.8 percent. Of the 650 housing units in the Highland neighborhood, approximately 22 percent are vacant, while both the city and county have much lower vacancy rates, with 14.5 percent and 10.4 percent vacancy, respectively.

In the mid-20th century, Highland became one of the victims of urban renewal initiatives, which introduced a large amount of public housing, resulting in concentrated pockets of poverty. Families were restricted to an area with high poverty and little transportation, as well as few businesses and work opportunities. As a result, Highland has struggled with a high density of distressed public housing apartments, domestic violence, neighborhood gangs, limited public transportation, and a significant lack of community trust in the city and law enforcement.

Gang activity is pervasive and criminal activity has created an atmosphere where residents may be under-reporting crime because of a belief that police will not provide solutions. There is also general distrust for the city police due to a limited understanding of the role of law enforcement. A 2015 survey, led by the Highland Neighborhood Association (HNA), indicated over 90 percent of respondents knew little to nothing about, or even the name of, their community patrol officer. Residents are reluctant to report criminal activity due to fear of reprisal from criminal elements in the community. However, the survey also indicated a willingness by some residents to work with law enforcement: roughly 80 percent indicated they would be interested in learning more about the police officers in their community and over 60 percent responded that they were willing to help the police department improve the quality of life in the neighborhood.

A November 2019 neighborhood transformation plan study identified a lack of housing, crime, and crime perception as the top issues for Highland. According to the Spartanburg Police Department (SPD), the community has its own gang, the Highland Gang (HLG), which has no rank or structure and is constantly at odds with the Park Hills Gang located less than two miles away. Highland also contains multiple sets or cliques of traditional gangs, including the Bloods and the Crips. Many of the individuals who are committing the crimes or being victimized live outside the area, and the subjects that do live in the area have been living there for several years.

The HNA was founded in 2012 in response to the many challenges facing the neighborhood, including abandoned, vacant, and substandard public housing, violent crime activities, gang violence, and overall neighborhood dissatisfaction. The Highland neighborhood is led by a 71-year-old resident of the neighborhood and at least 20 other residents. To highlight history and culture, the Association organized a “video village” exhibit that included an art installation of oral histories of Highland residents projected onto the windows of one of the vacant public housing structures.

In 2018, the city issued a request for proposals for the creation of a community-led transformation plan for the Highland neighborhood to provide a framework for the redevelopment of the neighborhood that leverages recent investments in the community and previous engagements. The plan identifies two specific redevelopment sites which are key to the community and in need for crime reduction: Cammie Clagett and Norris Ridge. Cammie Clagett apartments, previously owned by the Spartanburg Housing Authority (SHA), were demolished in 2018. The Norris Ridge apartments, located in the southwest corner of the neighborhood, was one of the major sources of the violent crime calls in the community. 

The plan envisions positive change through the redevelopment of these sites, resulting in a reduction in criminal activity, concentrated poverty, and property vacancies, as well as increased homeownership rates, income levels, income diversity, and reuse of vacant and abandoned properties.

Longstanding neighborhood assets include The Journey, a non-denominational church, Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, the Bethlehem Community Center, Spartanburg Soup Kitchen, and Thornton Center, a city-owned facility near Stewart Park. However, without a significant decrease in violence and drug-related activity, it will be difficult to alter the perceptions of those within and outside the community and attract new businesses and residents. 

Planning Phase

The vision for the Highland project will seek to verify chronic micro hot spot locations for violent crime; identify strategies to reduce crime related to drugs, gangs, and gun violence; engage community stakeholders in trust-building with the city, law enforcement, and other partners; and identify specific strategies for the community partners to help reduce crime.

The City of Spartanburg and its partners intend to accomplish the following goals and objectives:  

  • Create or select a community quarterback through building the capacity of the Bethlehem Center as an anchor community-based organization to coordinate activities during and post grant completion.
  • Create a transparent plan for sharing information with the SPD and the City of Spartanburg during the Planning Phase.
  • Reduce violent crime in the Highland neighborhood, specifically gang and gun offenses.
  • Continue to identify crime drivers to assist with strategic planning.
  • Increase trust of the SPD by Highland residents.
  • Increase safe and affordable housing, as well as develop new economic opportunities.

The goals of the Planning Phase process are to:

  • Identify the specific places and mechanisms that continue to encourage violent crime and gun-related activity, as well as the barriers that need to be overcome to begin to address these issues.
  • Strengthen mutual trust between community members and neighborhood leaders, including the HNA, the Bethlehem Center, the SPD, and other city officials in order to create an environment that fosters a united community approach to addressing and reducing these issues. 

Other Key Partners

Highland Neighborhood Association, Local Initiatives Support Coalition, Bethlehem Center, City of Spartanburg Neighborhood Services Department, Spartanburg Police Department, University of South Carolina Upstate, Highland Working Group

This project is supported by Cooperative Agreement No. 2018-BJ-BX-K035 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions contained herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. References to specific agencies, companies, products, or services should not be considered an endorsement by the author(s) or the U.S. Department of Justice. Rather, the references are illustrations to supplement discussion of the issues. 

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