Another painful reminder of the dangerous reputation neighbors hope to shake will come Friday in a Champaign County courtroom, when Brandon Collier is sentenced for the July 2015 murder of Terron Jackson on Garden Hills Drive (below). Among the other chilling statistics in the story of Garden Hills:
➜ Last year, 14.6 percent of all violent crimes involving a weapon in Champaign happened in Garden Hills, according to police data obtained by The News-Gazette.
➜ Mr. Jackson is among five people shot and killed in Garden Hills over the past 25 months. The most recent victim, Ericka Cox-Bailey, was not the intended target of a bullet that killed her on her way back from picking up snacks.
➜ April’s death of Ashley Gibson — at a home on Hedge Road — made national headlines after it was discovered that a group of six people dismembered the body of the 24-year-old mother.
CHAMPAIGN — Midmorning on a summer weekday, the intersection of Paula Drive and McKinley Avenue in Garden Hills isn’t bustling, but it’s not abandoned, either.
Arrowhead Lanes, on one corner, isn’t open yet, but two Comcast workers sit in their trucks in an otherwise deserted parking lot chatting, waiting for their next assignment. Across McKinley, a black iron gate surrounds an apartment building. At each of the other corners, two single-family homes are tucked behind old trees, visible but shaded. One has a pile of mulch in the yard, waiting to be spread.
At the intersection, every couple minutes, someone passes by — two pre-teen boys in basketball shorts, a young couple holding hands, a McDonald’s employee chatting on her cell phone on her way to work, a woman riding an old-style bicycle, the kind with a basket on the back.
This is the very spot where Ericka Cox-Bailey became Garden Hills’ latest victim of a senseless shooting. Around 8 p.m. on June 12, while walking back from the store with a friend on a toasty summer night, she was struck by a stray bullet which police say came from a speeding white Oldsmobile. It was intended for someone else.
Seven weeks later, there’s no memorial at the corner, just a sign for a garage sale that already happened.
In the aftermath, there were no anti-violence rallies, like the ones that followed other recent shootings here. It was seen as just another tragedy in a troubled neighborhood, as unpreventable as it is random.
Same old Garden Hills.
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Midmorning a few weeks earlier, at the corner of Hedge Road and Garden Hills Drive, a full block is shut down and basketball hoops are set up. Each day for a week, the street — often considered among Champaign’s most dangerous — is off-limits to traffic for four hours in the middle of the day.
City councilman Will Kyles is out there, and he goes live on Facebook, broadcasting the event to the public. He shows boys playing 3-on-3, while others sit in the yard and cheer them on.
An announcer calls the action on a loudspeaker, while volunteers hand out water.
Like other community organizers, Kyles has been busy the past few weeks, attending this "Above the Rim" event hosted by the Berean Covenant Church, block parties, neighborhood cleanup day and other events in the neighborhood. He stresses the importance of being out and about in Garden Hills, giving kids something to do in the day, an alternative to getting in trouble.
Show them people care about them. Be invested in the neighborhood.
"This is what it’s all about," he said.
"Everybody doing something, every week, just to change the Garden Hills story."
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One of the largest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Champaign, Garden Hills is made up of more than 1,000 homes, stretching from Mattis Avenue to Prospect Avenue and from Bloomington Road down to Bradley Avenue.
It was once viewed as a nice place to raise a family, and for many here, that part hasn’t changed.
But for those who live outside Garden Hills, the overwhelming narrative surrounding the neighborhood is an ugly one:
— In 2015, there were 37 separate violent crimes with a weapon reported in Garden Hills — 14.6 percent of the total in all of Champaign, according to police statistics obtained by The News-Gazette via open records request.
— Of those 37 incidents, 24 involved a firearm, including handguns and automatic weapons.
— At the moment, there are 17 abandoned homes in Garden Hills, 14.2 percent of the vacant houses citywide.
— In the past 25 months, there have been five people shot and killed on Garden Hills streets — Ericka Cox-Bailey, Jermel Hedrick, Terron Jackson, Allen Redding and Yojevol Sturkey.
— The neighborhood was also the scene of one of the city’s most gruesome crimes — in April, police say, six men cut up the deceased body of Ashley Gibson at a home in the 1500 block of Hedge Road, then disposed of her remains in Clinton Lake.
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This is the story that Kyles, councilwoman Clarissa Fourman, neighborhood organizers and city officials are working to rewrite, through community activities, government programs, even just making their presence known.
In council meetings, Garden Hills is discussed more than any other Champaign neighborhood. Lately, the conversations have revolved around:
— The idea of dividing the neighborhood into six sectors, each with its own leader who would serve as a liaison to the Champaign Police Department.
— A drainage study, which will be presented to council this fall, that could help prevent flooding and potentially add a new amenity to the area, like the Second Street Reach or new West Washington Street watershed.
— The fire department going door-to-door, offering to install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors for free to help keep residents safe.
— A number of programs in the works that would improve the look and feel of the neighborhood, including one that would tear down vacant nuisance properties.
The fact that the city pays so much attention to Garden Hills isn’t lost on the neighbors.
Said Amy Revilla, president of the United Garden Hills Association: "We feel blessed that we have the attention we have from the city."
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Garden Hills has one through north-south street: McKinley Avenue. Otherwise, it’s separated by railroad tracks and reputation.
North of the tracks, two-thirds of the homes are owner-occupied. Garden Hills Elementary School, multiple churches and both bowling alleys are there. A number of restaurants are within walking distance.
South of the tracks, less than half of the homes are occupied by their owners, serving largely as rental property. While city officials consider Garden Hills to be in good condition generally, some of the rental stock is among most blighted property in Champaign.
Exacerbated by the collapse of the housing market, much of it has fallen into disarray. On the south side, 45 percent of housing is considered less than "well-maintained."
Renters target anyone willing to pay, critics say, which has led to so-called "trap" houses, or homes used to traffic drugs.
That’s led the city to target the rental housing market through a variety of programs. Among them:
— Targeted code enforcement, which has helped the city identify problem properties, particularly vacant houses. Four will be torn down this year, said Code Compliance Manager David Oliver.
— A proposed pilot rental property inspection program, which is scheduled to go in front of the city council this year.
— Exterior improvement programs that help homeowners replace siding, driveways and trees.
But even with all of the attention the city is paying to Garden Hills, the neighborhood still lacks some of the basics that people who live in other parts of town may take for granted: sidewalks, curbs, streetlights.
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Fourman, who grew up in the neighborhood as a foster child and now owns a home there, said that living in Garden Hills used to be a sign that you were doing well.
"Somewhere along the lines, I don’t know what happened, it just went down," she said.
Landlords bear a brunt of the blame, officials say. Many aren’t selective enough in who they accept as tenants.
"We need to figure out how to get good renters and get people who aren’t going to bring in bad situations," Fourman said.
She said the majority of the problems are caused by renters, who bring in bad people.
Police Chief Anthony Cobb often points out that the people committing crimes that happen in Garden Hills don’t have Garden Hills addresses. People who live there do care, Kyles adds, no matter what you might have heard.
"When you read the news or look at Facebook, you get this one impression," he said. "But when you actually go into the neighborhood, you get a totally different impression."
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Back to the corner of Paula and McKinley. The woman on the bicycle is Kathy Shannon, a member of the Champaign school board. She rides through Garden Hills every day to pick up her company’s mail at the Mattis Avenue post office.
"It’s a really nice part of my day," Shannon said. "People are friendly. They smile and wave."
This has been part of Shannon’s daily routine for five years. She believes that riding her bike through the neighborhood helps keep cars going slower, important in an area with heavy pedestrian traffic and no sidewalks.
She hasn’t had any trouble. But sadly, Miss Cox-Bailey wasn’t the only innocent person on a walk down Paula Drive to fall victim to violence.
Jodi Hamilton lived in Garden Hills from the time she was a toddler until she was a grown woman.
Seven years ago, her father was walking home from Western Bowl, taking the same route as Miss Cox-Bailey — from Francis Drive to Joanne Lane, a five-minute trip. He was approached by a group of five teenagers, who beat him senseless with a two-by-four and left him in the street.
"They just beat the crap out of him to beat the crap out of him," Hamilton said.
That was it for the decades-long Garden Hills resident. He sold the house and moved out of Champaign for good.
Hamilton said the Garden Hills she left in 2006 and the one her parents departed three years later isn’t the same one she grew up in.
"The area I grew up in was a lot of families, elderly people. There was a sense of community," Hamilton said. "That just kind of faded away."
Miss Cox-Bailey’s death was just another reminder that it could happen to anyone, Hamilton said.
"That hit me really hard. I can feel for her family. My dad took a blow to the eye that could’ve killed him," she said. "That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, when you can’t feel safe in your own neighborhood."
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Despite the random violence and the frequent sound of gunshots at night, a number of lifelong Garden Hills residents hope to stick it out here.
Becky Restad was in Garden Hills Elementary’s first kindergarten class, back in 1958. She raised three kids in Garden Hills and worked at her alma mater for 19 years.
At one point, four generations of Restads were living in Garden Hills, not an uncommon story in the neighborhood.
"I’ve noticed several children moving back to take over their family’s house," Restad said.
Restad, who serves as secretary of the United Garden Hills Neighborhood Association, said the people with roots here remain devoted to making it safer, tidier, better.
"The people that are out here are people that are passionate about it, and passionate about bringing it back to a family environment," Restad said. "People aren’t all wanting to move out."
Restad volunteers as the sector leader of her area of Garden Hills. She has helped organize block parties and is preparing for the biggest event of the summer: Tuesday’s National Night Out. There will be crafts, balloon artists, face painters, free food trucks, a bounce house, the works. Seventy kids will get free backpacks.
When people act surprised when she tells them where she lives, Restad resents it.
"I lived in this neighborhood my whole life. I raised my children and grandchildren here. It’s a great place to live," she said.
"Bad things happen no matter where you live, but so much good is happening here."