parking lot next to housing complexes

After years of crime and drugs, bright days are ahead for Huntington.


Originally published in West Virginia Focus magazine

The sun rises, a blue sky gradually becoming visible among streaks of iridescent clouds. Shadows recede. A new day dawns in the Jewel City, its glimmer tarnished by a decade of depression. The roaches, as the mayor calls them, are retreating. The insidious fog of addiction and crime that has enveloped Huntington, West Virginia, and its residents for years is slowly being beaten back. For years those witnessing its decline from the safety of the La-Z-Boy in front of home TVs and the nightly news have winced at the thought of visiting, let alone living in Huntington, with its streets reputedly crawling with gun-toting drug dealers and prostitutes. Today the city’s scars are visible and fresh wounds await tending, but the healing has begun.

Huntington’s wide boulevards bustled through the 1940s and ’50s with more than 80,000 residents. The population was sustained by the steel and manufacturing industries, buoyed by the rivers and rail running through the heart of the metro area. At the end of a busy work day Huntington’s residents retreated to bedroom neighborhoods—the elite to grand houses abutting even grander parks, and the blue collar workers to snug communities surrounding the downtown business district. The downtown had a proud history: When the Hotel Frederick opened in 1906, it was reputedly the largest hotel in the South. The Keith-Albee, an opulent vaudevillian theater, was built in the 1920s at the cost of $2 million and lit up Fourth Avenue with its live performances and motion pictures. Even through the mid-to-late-20th century, as industry declined and the population began to dwindle, Huntington glittered with big-city attractions and a neighborhood feel. But something changed. Sometime in the 1990s or early 2000s Huntington lost its reputation as West Virginia’s crown jewel for one of a crime-ridden ghetto.

Jewel City to Little Detroit

“The way this happened was twofold,” Huntington Mayor Steve Williams says. “One, we had a reduction in law enforcement that opened the door, if you will. But the next part isn’t a Huntington problem, it’s an Appalachian problem.” Expert after expert point to the fall of economic opportunity as a precursor of drug addiction. As steel, glass, and mining dried up, jobs left Huntington and the state. Some followed work to major cities. Others stayed to scrape together lives with the remaining jobs. Those who could do neither found comfort in chemicals. “As a result, I have a city, we have a state, that is sick,” Williams says. “It’s almost like a Huntington daytime and a Huntington nighttime. In Huntington daytime what you see is a beautiful sunny day, clean streets, a vibrant downtown. It doesn’t look at all like this would be an area that’s infested with drugs. But then when the sun starts to go down, those who are addicted start looking for their fix.”

A fix may have begun with prescription pain pills acquired from unscrupulous local medical providers, but a cycle of drug epidemics soon emerged. A new industry moved in, bringing violence with it. “Drugs in Huntington sell for about three times the price of what they would in Detroit,” says Huntington Police Chief Joseph Ciccarelli, a former FBI agent who previously headed the southern West Virginia drug beat. “I tell everybody—what you need to know about the drug business you could learn in a marketing class or an economics class. We have the market, so there’s going to be somebody who fills that need and supplies the demand.”

A Northern Panhandle native, Ciccarelli arrived in Huntington in 1975 to attend Marshall University, first as a political science student and later as a criminal justice major. He joined the Huntington Police Department as an officer through the late 1970s and early ’80s, before the FBI took him to Miami as an agent fighting the influx of cocaine across America’s borders. In 1998 he transferred back to West Virginia, determined he could make more of an impact in his home state. “I spent 11 years in Miami as an agent and worked cases on an international scale,” Ciccarelli says. “There were huge quantities of drugs—things they make movies about—but I think the impact is much more felt in West Virginia, at this level.” West Virginia is classified as a user state by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, meaning it’s the last stop on the drug trade pipeline. Ciccarelli took demotions three times so he could stay in West Virginia and not be transferred. He rejoined the HPD in 2014, after retiring from the FBI. “I realized I’ve got 35 years of law enforcement experience that I’m not ready to put on the shelf. I have something to offer in terms of bringing that experience to the table and helping make this city better,” he says. “I see good things happening and I want to be a part of it.”

In the early 2000s, when Detroit drug dealers and others from Columbus saw how lucrative the trade could be in West Virginia, they rushed to fill the demand. “The drug dealers in Detroit, being ever the businessmen, decided there’s not a market for pills in Detroit but there sure is in Huntington,” Ciccarelli says. “Then, the price of a pill was so expensive that they realized, ‘We’re killing ourselves in the market. We can fill that same demand with heroin at a much cheaper rate.’ So we get inundated with heroin.”

Huntington law enforcement seized more than 5,000 grams of heroin in 2013. One seizure alone found 1,700 grams, a record amount for the city. But the cycle is starting to change again. Crack cocaine is on the rise, a drug problem last seen in the 1990s, even before the prescription pill surge. Through 2014, police estimate crack seizures in Huntington rose more than 500 percent, while heroin seizures dropped by 30 percent.

The problem with any drug addiction is the rise in violent crime—addicts will do anything for a fix and dealers will do anything to maintain their turf. Between 2003 and 2007 Huntington’s violent crime increased by 20 percent. “Our Fairfield neighborhood was one of those where the crack cocaine epidemic just destroyed it,” Ciccarelli says. “It was a traditionally African-American community that was tight-knit and close.”

A City Divided by Tracks 

“When I first came to Huntington, people knew each other. People had close-knit friendships,” says Samuel Moore, 30-year resident of Huntington and pastor of the Full Gospel Assembly Church in Fairfield. In the 1980s when Moore arrived, he says Huntington was the only town in Cabell County with a sizable black population. Fairfield, the neighborhood around Hal Greer Boulevard that carries drivers from I-64 into the city, was traditionally a black, working-class area. After work or on the weekends kids chased each other outside and neighbors socialized on porches. “If I went out and saw African-Americans, I knew those faces,” Moore says. “Huntington at that point had the largest population in the state, but you still knew people.” In the late 1990s, those faces stopped being ones Moore recognized.

Out-of-staters arrived from places like Newport News and Detroit, bringing heavy drugs like crack cocaine with them. The modus operandi of out-of-state dealers was to identify someone in the community, quite often a young single mother, and move in with her. The dealer would provide help with food and living expenses in return for a place of operation. “That really started to change the culture,” Moore says. “You go out and you don’t recognize the faces. They were strangers, for lack of a better word. There were turf wars.” Neighbors spoke of hearing gunshots almost daily.

For a while the drugs and violence stayed in Fairfield. Its neighborhoods deteriorated, cut off from the rest of the city by the railroad that separates Fairfield from more affluent neighborhoods. City Hall, grocery stores, and the police and fire departments sat on the north side of the tracks. On the south side, Fairfield had public housing and a gas station that became an epicenter of drug trade.

“The attitude of the Huntington community was, as long as drugs and crime were in public housing, we could tolerate it,” says Tim White, community activist and coordinator of the Prestera Center’s drug abuse prevention and outreach program. “In May of 2005, two blocks from public housing, four high school kids were execution-style murdered on prom night. That snake slithered across Hal Greer Boulevard, and it’s two blocks from Ritter Park.” Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Ritter Park is one of the most affluent areas of Huntington. There doctors, lawyers,

and university elite live in magnificent houses built in Huntington’s heyday. “All of a sudden, Huntington has a drug problem,” White says. “Well, we’ve always had a drug problem.

The community didn’t want to admit it or recognize it until it showed up in their backyard.”

On May 22, 2005, 19-year-old Donte Ward and three other teens were gunned down in the early morning hours. Their bodies were found strewn outside 1410 Charleston Avenue in Huntington. Ward is believed to have been the target of the attack, after having allegedly ripped off a Detroit dealer, stealing money or drugs. The three other teenagers are believed to have been killed in order to leave no witnesses. The Charleston Avenue shooters have yet to be found.

The quadruple homicide was a shock to the city, but it wasn’t the only violence to occur. That year saw eight homicides, a sharp spike from the city’s more typical three or four. Robberies and burglaries also increased. “The Fairfield African-American community makes up less than 15 percent of the overall population in Huntington, but 80 percent of the drugs and crime were in their community,” White estimates. Meanwhile, the city’s police staffing levels had dipped dangerously low.

Budget Cuts and Broken Windows

Through the 1990s Huntington’s police staffing fluctuated between 95 and 105 sworn officers, with a population north of 50,000 residents. In 2002, the city lost 22 officers, 16 of whom were laid off, bringing sworn officer staffing from 96 in fiscal year 2001-02 to 74 in FY 2002-03. Nationally, officer-to-resident ratios hovered around 2.3 officers per 1,000 citizens. With the 2002-03 drop in Huntington’s police staffing, the city’s ratio was 1.5 officers for every 1,000 residents. “So these drug dealers are businesspeople,” Mayor Williams says. “They see that they can go into an area where there’s going to be less resistance. That’s why it became known as the Wild West here. There was no resistance and they came in to take over.”

It’s easy to take over when there’s no one guarding a city’s gates. It’s easier still when there are row upon row of empty houses awaiting tenants. Huntington’s housing stock can easily accommodate the population of 80,000 of the mid-20th century. Today, as the city’s population hovers around 50,000, there are hundreds of abandoned and rental properties whose owners live hundreds of miles away. “They’re in very poor repair, and that kind of environment allows criminal activity to fester,” Ciccarelli says.

But the abandoned and dilapidated property wasn’t central to Fairfield. It was all over Huntington. An empty lot stretching four city blocks in the middle of downtown was nicknamed the Superblock. It sat vacant for more than 30 years before the city and developers could acquire it and begin construction on the large Pullman Square shopping and entertainment center in 2004. West End, a district that traditionally housed lower middle class workers, began to empty with the pullout of industry like the Owens-Illinois Glass Company. When the company closed in 1993 more than 600 workers were laid off. Today rows of houses in West End still sit empty.

Highlawn, a once-affluent neighborhood on the east side of Huntington, is currently witnessing the abandonment of its stately brick homes. “When I was a police officer the first time, you could work the Highlawn area and drive up there and go to sleep,” Ciccarelli says. “It was essentially a bedroom community. Everyone there had a nice job, they came home, they went to sleep. Now we’re seeing the same things that we’re seeing in other residential neighborhoods where housing has declined.” The county assessor estimates a large percentage of the homes in the district are non-owner-occupied, while neighbors figure the number is over 50 percent. “We know what kind of issues that brings,” Ciccarelli says.

The Cleanup

The cleanup began in Fairfield with community efforts led by Tim White. Before White began working for Prestera, he was director of Huntington Weed and Seed, a Department of Justice grant-funded program that encourages communities to “weed” out violent crime, drugs, and other illegal activity from neighborhoods and “seed” those areas with revitalization, prevention, and intervention projects. The program came to Huntington late in 2008. The city was to receive $1 million over five years. Federal funding for the program was cut short, but not before Huntington received around half a million dollars, according to city estimates.

White had previously found success working in Fairfield as a drug elimination program manager with the Huntington Housing Authority. For eight years his efforts encompassed the public housing in Fairfield, most of which would become part of the Weed and Seed focus area. “One of the things we realized is that if you don’t get buy-in from the people who live there, nobody or no group from the outside is going to come in and make a difference,” he says. Getting buy-in from Fairfield, a community long ignored and left to fend for itself, wasn’t easy. “Talking to residents, there was a huge disconnect between law enforcement and the community. It was the whole ‘snitches get stiches’ thing,” White says. “People didn’t trust the police.”

White says that attitude began to change in 2008 with then-police chief Skip Holbrook. Like every other public service, the police station sat on the north side of the train tracks, but Holbrook had a vision of a police force more involved with the community. “On his own, every Sunday morning, he would go to a different church within the Fairfield community and he would sit there. He wasn’t there to be recognized. He wanted to learn the aspects of the community,” White says. “And one thing we learned in the Fairfield community, there’s a very high regard and respect for clergy. For most people, the church is where they get their information. They don’t get the newspaper. A lot can’t afford cable.”

In partnership with those neighborhood churches, community members, and the city, White opened the Barnett Center in 2009. Located on the corner of 10th Avenue and Hal Greer Boulevard, the building sits just blocks away from the spot of the 2005 quadruple homicide, in the center of Fairfield’s struggle with crime. Calling on the support of local businesses, White raised the funds separate from Weed and Seed money to renovate the building. Though the building became the Weed and Seed headquarters, it was also able to stay open once the federal grants ran out. The Barnett Center has since become a focus of civic life, accommodating cooking classes, exercise classes, after-school programs, and Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Down the hall, several rooms house a city police K-9 unit and a street crimes unit dealing with prostitution and drugs.

Across the street from the Barnett Center, the city is pulling down barracks-style public housing blocks built in the 1940s to build senior townhouse complexes, new single-family homes, and affordable housing units throughout Fairfield. The city’s goal is to build a grocery store, which the area currently doesn’t have, and other commercial opportunities. Artisan Avenue, a couple blocks north, once the hotbed of criminal activity, now hums with rebuilding. New public housing units, freestanding houses spread out among yards, help to alleviate the concentration of poverty once synonymous with Fairfield. A few blocks away, a gas station was a drug front just four years ago where addicts could purchase drugs and packs of utensils to use them, White says. It’s been torn down and the lot sits ready for the city to build a fire department.

Weed and Seed ended four years ago, but the Barnett Center is still going strong. Redevelopment continues throughout Fairfield and the neighborhood is markedly changed. Marshall University co-eds jog down the streets, blocks from campus, passing families with strollers. “Fairfield went from being 80 percent of all the drugs and crime to less than 10 percent today,” White says.

Chasing the Problem

Despite the success in Fairfield, residents and city officials alike are worried the problems are just being pushed into other neighborhoods. “I do think there have been tremendous strides made in cleaning up the violent activity here in Huntington,” Pastor Moore says, adding that there is much more work to do. “Fairfield was the target area initially, but it scattered to other places in the city. I don’t see that as a remedy. I see that as spreading it elsewhere.”

Chief Ciccarelli talks of enterprising young dealers adapting to pose as Marshall University students, complete with caps and T-shirts. In a city-wide drug sweep in August 5, 2014, a heroin dealer was arrested working out of a house in an affluent neighborhood in Southside near Ritter Park. “The problems started in Fairfield, but the roaches went out everywhere,” Mayor Williams says.

At one time West End was a lower middle class neighborhood with blue collar families who owned their homes. Like in Fairfield, neighbors knew neighbors. “It was a safe neighborhood, and it’s not that anymore,” says Ford Price, pastor of the Central United Methodist Church. The issue began in the 1990s but picked up through the last decade. “West End supposedly has the highest incidence of crime in Huntington now.” Though West End makes up less than 6 percent of Huntington’s geographic area, 11.3 percent of the city’s drug crimes and 12 percent of violent crimes in 2013 occurred in the area, according to police.

Price says much of his congregation is made up of the area’s long-time families, but most have moved away. “We have a lot of dilapidated homes and a lot of abandoned homes,” he says. “There’s vandalism now.” To combat the drug tides, the city has begun an initiative called River to Rail. Modeled after Weed and Seed, the program focuses on economic revitalization, particularly in what’s known as the West End antiques district. The city sponsored the 2014 move of local agriculture anchor Wild Ramp into the Central City Market to bolster the shopping quarter. So far, store managers say the move has been successful.

“They are really working on the economic piece of it and that will help,” says Price, who serves on the River to Rail committee. “The piece that is missing is the community center.” Unlike Weed and Seed, River to Rail doesn’t have the same centralized effort under a direct supervisor and it isn’t headquartered in one building like the Barnett Center. It also lacks the hundreds of thousands in federal funding. “People are struggling and there’s nothing for the kids to keep them off the street,” Price says, adding that, while he and the community would like to see a more cohesive effort, the River to Rail program is only two years under way. “We’re trying to take back this part of the community. It’s going to get better, but it does have a ways to go,” he says. “These are infant stages.”

A City in Flux

A major step in Huntington’s revitalization has been the city’s efforts to reform its code enforcement. “In 2012, the year before I became mayor, we had one code enforcement officer and there were just over 100 citations over the entire year,” Williams says. “After we implemented the program last year we had over 2,000 citations in six months.” Eighty percent of those citations, he says, were complied with. “Anybody who comes and visits Huntington now, particularly those who were here years back, they say, ‘My god, this town is so much cleaner.’”

And it is. Downtown practically gleams. “Our budget now is about $3 million more than it was just three years ago and I didn’t raise fees,” Williams says. Instead the city began aggressively pursuing past-due bills. “I come from an investment background,” Williams says. “I learned a lot of lessons in those years I was running my business.” He calls it enterprise budgeting. The funds collected by the additional code enforcement officers from people who didn’t take care of their properties paid for the officers’ salaries. Williams also hired a man—a retiree who, legally, could only earn $15,000 under social security laws—to collect past-due tax bills. “Within three weeks he had collected nearly $50,000,” Williams says.

A decade ago, the city’s financial situation was dire. “There were concerns the city would have to file bankruptcy,” Chief Ciccarelli says. The police department had fewer than 75 officers. That has changed dramatically. “Now we’re at an authorized strength of 120 officers. That’s, I think, the first time it’s been back to that level since the 1980s.”

With an increased police presence, there has been an increase in enforcement. In West End, River to Rail has been joined by a sister law enforcement program called River to Jail. In anticipation of the August 5, 2014, crime sweep, officials say, the 11 a.m. bus heading to Detroit was full.

A New Reputation

Police data show Huntington’s total violent crime is down by about 20 percent since 2006. As of early December, the city’s total number of violent crimes in 2014 sat at 279 incidents, under the national average for a city its size. “When you try to compare us to Chicago or New York, we’re not even on the radar,” Ciccarelli says. “If you look at Charleston, which is almost identical in population size, you’ll see about the same numbers.” The city’s homicide rate has lessened to the more typical number of four to five per year. Through November 2014, the city saw four homicides and non-negligent manslaughters. Most of those, officials says, are drug-related crimes.

“Huntington, in the last 10 years, has had such a series of problems, all drug-related, that has left an impression that you would come down and it is going to be like O.K. Corral—shootings everywhere, unsafe,” the mayor says. Residents and city officials across the board tell of incredulity on the part of other West Virginians when they mention where they live. But Huntington’s reputation, like the city’s streets, seems to be on the mend.  “We’re not going to try to fight the rumors,” Williams says. “We’ll invite people in to look through our town and they’ll start to see for themselves. When I hear people say, ‘I don’t feel safe coming into downtown Huntington,’ I’ll immediately challenge them and say, ‘Well, when was the last time you were here?’”

Written by Katie Griffith

Photographed by Elizabeth Roth