KINSTON, N.C. (WNCT) — The city of Kinston is home to more than 20,000 people, and sometimes comes with an appearance of two different tales.
9OYS reports on them all the time: One of crime and one of major development.
But in the city of Kinston as a whole, poverty and wealth live side by side.
The development of downtown Kinston has been a frequent headline in the news.
Ribbon cutting after ribbon cutting celebrates the growth of an area that was once forgotten.
It’s a change that’s in part due to one man, homegrown entrepreneur Stephen Hill.
With the help of grants and his own investments, in 2009 he started revitalizing abandoned buildings and helping to create an art district downtown.
“There are some people in Kinston that come downtown and say, ‘Wow, I haven’t been downtown in 10 to 15 years,’” Hill said. “Well, if you haven’t been downtown in 10 to 15 years you will see a remarkable change.”
The change is one that many residents who were born and raised in the area want to see grow beyond the limits of downtown Kinston.
“You go down and you’re like, ‘Where am I at?’” said Apostle Sherri Ezzell, senior pastor of Groundbreakers Ministries in Kinston. “You can turn a corner in some of these places, and it’s such a difference, so we’ve got to get a vision for the whole town.”
Ezzell grew up outside city limits and later in life on the west side of Kinston. Her children attended a private Christian school in the area, just as she did growing up.
It’s a stark difference compared to the schools on the east side of town, where proficiency rates in both math and reading are low.
“It’s not acceptable for our community to have a school that has less than 10 percent math proficiency and less than 30 percent reading,” Ezzell said. “That’s not acceptable. It’s time for us to say what it is”
But for years, she couldn’t ignore the changes she was seeing in her community and wanted to join forces with other leaders to get involved.
However, Ezzell says there are some barriers that attribute to bringing change to the area.
“I think we’ve got different areas that talk about getting together, talk about unity,” said Ezzell. “We’ve talked about unity for too long. It’s time for us to put action behind it and come together, east, west, north, south. Let’s consider ourselves one community. Quit separating everything.”
In Kinston, poverty is drawn along racial lines, affecting 16 percent of whites and 40 percent of African-Americans, but Ezzell didn’t directly tie the issues the city is facing to racism.
“I think it’s just in history,’ said Ezzell. “I think this area has a history, and we have to overcome that. “It’s been too long.”
To some, the crime rates are a direct reflection of those numbers; however, police say that’s simply not the case.
“The stereotype of gangs being locked down to a four or five block radius just isn’t true anymore,” said Sgt. Chad Rouse with Kinston police. “It’s not color, it’s not economics, it does not matter.”
For the most part, Ezzell agrees but says while so many people are working to improve conditions in and around all areas of Kinston, more needs to be done to reach those who need the help.
“There are resources but I think a lot of people don’t realize that they’re there because we don’t go out in the communities and tell them,” said Ezzell. “We’re sharing the resources with the people in certain areas and not the areas that are most poverty stricken.”
Ezzell says there are around 300 churches in Kinston and several of them are working together to develop better outreach programs.
“If we are the number one disadvantaged town in North Carolina, then it’s time for the leaders and the churches to rise up and do something about it,” Ezzell said.
One person that agrees with Apostle Ezzell is community activist Tyshun Wilson, who was born and raised in Kinston. The 42 year old says he knows all too well how easy the streets of the east side can pull you in and just how hard it can be, to let you go. Wilson admits, “I actually used to be a drug dealer some years back, probably about 15-20 years ago, I used to run around the streets real heavy”
But after a near overdose, Wilson says his life changed he now currently owns three businesses, a couple of homes and he’s a leader in the community and an elder within his church. He strongly believes the east side of Kinston can change too – with the right resources.
Wilson says in East Kinston the only investment he’s seen is the redevelopment of Lovitt Hines Park and recreation center located on East King Street. It was renovated last year with a $108,000 investment through the city of Kinston. Wilson says he wants to see more done to maintain the area.
“Even with the bugs, they used to spray in our neighborhoods, now with them allowing this habitat to grow up and them not spaying like they used to, I’m pretty sure you can come out here and walk around and the bugs will tear you up. But get on the Vernon Ave area and the bugs aren’t as bad because they don’t have to indulge in these wooded areas in their communities,” said Wilson.
Wilson spearheads an effort called “Church in the Street.” His goal is to reduce violence, drugs and gang activity in the area. While he’s had no problem gaining the support of city officials and other church leaders in the area, Wilson says their presence needs to be seen more than just after there’s been a murder or other crime committed in the area. “I believe that it’s good to do the prayer sentiments the prayer vigils and all that I honestly believe in order to change the community you have to come into the community every day,” he said. “Everybody in the city should be all for trying to motivate, encourage, to educate you, to help you get to a greater place but for some reason on this side of town you don’t get a lot of that,” he added.
With a past of his own, Wilson knows the obstacles others are facing and he’s happy to see all of the new investments around downtown Kinston. However he says some of the opportunities aren’t beneficial to those who need them most because most felons in the area don’t qualify for the new jobs.
Wilson wants to see more people investing time, energy and money in the community he’s called home for so long. “If a lot more city leaders, community leaders, people within the community step up and really begin to hold up a few more people’s hands in the community there will be a change. In the Bible it talks about it, “am I my brother’s keeper?” Yes, I am and at the end of the day everybody has to be accountable for somebody and the thing is why only be accountable for your child when it takes a village to raise a community”
Elder Wilson says through his church and other organizations, he wants to find ways to help those who don’t have the money for the tests that you need to qualify for the job readiness programs in the area.
Regarding the bugs in the area, Kinston City Manager, Tony Sears says the city does spray in East Kinston and after complaints the spraying is done around 3 a.m. in the morning. Sears added that currently the entire city of Kinston has a problem with gnats due to the recent flooding in the area.
As far as the overgrown vegetation near Lovitt Hines Park, Sears says the area is part of a conservation easement that’s protected by the state to help the area out when it floods.
Kinston Mayor B.J. Murphy sent a statement in response to the story that reads, “The City of Kinston’s elected body is comprised of six citizens who are elected at-large and represent all of Kinston. We are united in our resolve to prioritize funding throughout our entire community, whether it’s a community center or street resurfacing. Kinston has incredible momentum and we’ll continue to address our pockets of challenges. We do believe the best is yet to come!”