"THE West Side is the best side," goes the old adage, boasted by generations of Charlestonians who grew up west of the Elk River. While it is still a significant contributor to Charleston's economic and cultural scene, some West Side neighborhoods have unfortunately become a haven for drug use and criminal activity, including a "drug market intervention zone" near Charleston's new Mary C. Snow Elementary School.
As the Gazette's Mackenzie Mays reported last week, the West Side is the location for much of Charleston's violent crimes.
It's a problem that is not unique to Charleston. Across the country, inner-city neighborhoods began declines in the generations after middle-class home owners followed new highways and moved to the suburbs.
Retail businesses consolidated at malls and mega-shopping complexes reachable only by highway. They gradually left behind declining property values, abandoned buildings, short-term renters and an influx of drugs and crime to community members who feel they have little opportunity.
But some West Side leaders have seen enough. With the help of a $300,000 grant through the state Board of Education, community and school leaders are coming together on a pilot project to develop a comprehensive set of services to follow individuals from birth through adulthood and "improve the educational, social, emotional, physical and culture outcomes of youth."
"The bottom line is schools cannot do it alone," said project liaison Cheryl Plear. "We need the involvement of everyone in the community to help us meet these needs of these kids."
The Rev. Matthew Watts, long-time fighter for the West Side community, is among those involved. He said the group is working to break the cycle of poverty and dependence through education.
"We lost a whole generation of adults," Watts said, referring to the crack epidemic that swept urban
areas in the 1980s. "The students now in our schools have parents who were born during the crack cocaine era, and they often weren't parented themselves. They show up at kindergarten already behind because of lack of support."
It still seems ridiculously silly that West Virginia's public schools must apply for a complicated waiver from state law to implement innovative programs like this. But that just shows the dedication of those working to better the community.
More power to them. Their success, if it happens, will be good not just for the area, but the entire state.
Hopefully, today's youth from that area might once again be able to boast that age-old neighborhood motto: "The West Side is the best side."