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Past Present Meet At Crossroads

The intersection of West Jeff Davis and Rosa L. Parks avenues has modern problems.

At the intersection where Rosa L. Parks Avenue crosses West Jeff Davis Avenue the civil rights movement meets the Civil War.

People from out of town comment on it or see it as an ironic geographic statement — the Civil War meeting the civil rights movement on a street corner. A recent Associated Press story about Montgomery called the intersection of Rosa L. Parks Avenue and West Jeff Davis Avenue “one of the city’s great ironies.”

Cleveland Avenue (named for President Grover Cleveland) was renamed Rosa L. Parks Avenue in March 1986. Thus began the peaceful coexistence of the president of the Confederacy and the woman who ignited the civil rights movement.

To the people who live here, though, it’s just an intersection.

But it’s anything but peaceful.

This crossroads and the part of Rosa L. Parks Avenue that extends from it to Mill Street, once known as the “dividing line” between black and white sections is just a city block. It’s facing challenges like a lot of other neighborhoods, but it’s steeped in a history of civil rights-era events but also of modern-day crime and poverty that sets it apart.

It’s just a stretch of road. But it gives a glimpse of what this section of Montgomery once was, as well as what it has become.

At one time there were grocery stores on three of the four corners of Cleveland and West Jeff Davis avenues. Through the years, just one of those stores survived — Moseley Grocery. There are no big-chain grocery stores around here, just Moseley, and a few other mom-and-pop stores like the Holt Street Superette.

Moseley’s is kind of a merged convenience store, all-purpose grocery, and social gathering place for area residents, many of whom walk here from their homes.

Debbie Green started working at Moseley’s 20 years ago and now is a Moseley’s manager. Her work has given her a window to the area’s decline.

“It would be great to see an improvement in the housing around here,” she said. “There is property that people just don’t take care of.”

Indeed, there are run­down houses, abandoned lots and long-shuttered businesses surrounded by overgrown weeds, immobile cars and other junk.

But there are exceptions. Jessie Mae Smith’s prim white house with its neatly groomed, tiny front lawn is one of them.

“I’ve always taken care of my home,” said Smith, 78. But beyond her fenced-off, minuscule square of property, there’s little she can do.

Across the street is Moseley’s parking lot, so friendly during the day but a different place altogether after it closes for the night. Just because the store has closed doesn’t mean business has stopped.

Just about every night, Smith sees men in cars pick up prostitutes, depositing them later in the same location. It can start as early as dusk, when she’s sitting on her front porch talking on the phone, and sometimes it goes on all night. But dangers can loom even before sunset.

Gunshots aren’t rare. Smith said they’re pretty much nightly background noise. It’s O.K., as long as they sound like they’re coming from two or three streets over, not that close to home.

Smith only has lived here for three years but already has seen a steady stream of short-term neighbors taking their leave.

Lillian Peterson Hill, 72, was born in this neighborhood and lived here until 1977, when she and her husband moved farther east in the city.

“I can tell you why it declined: The interstate was being built, and the way the city rezoned made the property values go down very, very low,” Hill said. “They bought up all those houses and the surrounding area on the west side, and they made the Cleveland Avenue area a truck route, which it hadn’t been before. That was the beginning of our decline there.”

Until the 1980s, when conditions got perilous, Hill’s late mother, Johnailene Tarver Wilson, was one of a handful of holdouts, Wilson refused to leave the home her father had paid off in 1905, where she’d raised her children and watched her, grandchildren grow up.  Soon after Wilson moved out, moving in with her daughter, the vacant “home house” was ransacked. Vandals took everything, from the mantle to the clawfoot bathtub. The city eventually tore the house down.

Now, it’s just a vacant lot on Rosa L. Parks Avenue, one of a growing number where no one is rebuilding.

Down the road, past a building dubbing itself the “Holy Ghost Headquarters” and a shut-down barbecue joint is Cleveland Court Apartments. The building that houses apartments 620-638 was Rosa Parks’ intended destination when she boarded the bus the fateful night of Dec. 1, 1995. As the former home of a civil rights icon, it’s made the National Register of Historic Places.

For the last 30 years or so, it also has served as a hotbed of crime.

Gonzales Hargrove lives in Cleveland Court. He clearly remembers the night he, his girlfriend and her child hit the living room floor to avoid getting caught in the crossfire of a gunfight just outside their door.

But like many of the other residents on Rosa L. Parks Avenue, Hargrove said that in recent years, things have gotten better.

There’s a new black iron fence surrounding the complex, bicycle cops regularly circling the area and frequent meetings at the community center where residents can voice their concerns and actually be optimistic about someone taking action.

But some things seem to never change.

Every hour of the day, young men hang out in front of the complex, just down from the “No Loitering” sign. Hargrove has no proof, but he’s sure they’re up to “something illegal.”

Penrose Mosley, 56, who lived in Cleveland Court as a child, remembers teachers, lawyers, judges and politicians as his neighbors.

“It was a really nice place to live, down through the late ’70s and early ’80s,” Mosley said, full of what were called.”nice homes,” with good upstanding families who all knew and looked out for one another. Then came drugs, and prostitution as an outgrowth of those drugs.

“By the time crack moved in, it was really bad,” he said.

People here can detail what Hargrove calls the “unsavory” aspects all day. But despite that, there’s an optimism that suggests things will improve.

Just not right now.

“I have hope I always have hope that it may i­prove,” Hill said of her childhood neighborhood, which she barely can recognize now, “but not anytime soon.”

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