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From The Hilltop, Columbus' Crime Spike Comes As No Surprise

Esther Honig
Armando McKnight is giving a client a cut at Stews barbershop on Sullivant Avenue.

At Stew's Barber Shop on Sullivant Avenue, Armando McKnight is giving a client a cut.

“Right now, I'm giving him a line-up,” McKnight says. “This is like detailing a car. The cut is done and now I'm just perfecting the edges.”

McKnight has worked here for the last three years and lived in the neighborhood for a decade. Like many local business owners and residents, he's aware that violent crime is a pressing issue. He sees fighting in the streets, police conducting raids on drug houses nearby, but that's nothing he considers out of the ordinary.

McKnight sees it as a reality to living in this neighborhood.

“It's not scary to anybody anymore,” he says.

In Columbus' deadliest year since 1991, a cluster of 11 homicides have occurred within a single square mile, in an area referred to as Central Hilltop—generally located between West Broad Street and Sullivant. As a whole, the Hilltop neighborhood has seen about that many murders in the last three years.

But when it comes to the areas of the city with the highest murder rates, the Hilltop comes in at number three, behind Linden and Northeast Columbus.

For McKnight, the only marked difference he's seen in the last few years in the Hilltop is the rise in drug usage, specifically heroin.

“I see the needles everywhere. I see people staggering through the streets and talking to themselves,” McKnight says. “It's definitely something that's not in the dark anymore.” 

According to data from the Franklin County Coroner, this area has the highest rate of fatal opioid-related overdoses in the city. And Columbus Police data shows prolific drug use has led to an increase in human trafficking.

Local law enforcement says drugs are likely contributing to the increase in homicides. So far this year, Columbus has seen 120, nearing the current record of 139 homicides, back in 1991.

“With an increase in drugs, there's always an increase in crime,” Columbus Police Officer Ed Chung says.

Chung spent the last three years patrolling the Hilltop. To get a sense of what he sees on a typical day, I spent a night out on patrol with him.

Chung knows the area so well, he can point out the suspected drug houses and the cars that drive in from the suburbs to make purchases. He even recognizes some of the young women who sell sex on Sullivant Avenue to support their addiction.

Despite the numbers, Chung says that crime does not appear to be any worse than in previous years.

“I mean for us out here, we see everything and anything in any given day,” he says.

Credit Esther Honig
Lisa Boggs has lived in the Hilltop for over 30 years and helped found a neighborhood block watch group 20 years ago.

Chung says help from residents can be extremely effective in deterring more crime. The adage "if you see something, say something," may seem like a well-worn cliche, but for Hilltop resident Lisa Boggs, it's a way of life. 

In her living room, Boggs listens carefully to the police scanner. She’s learned to decipher the officer’s codes, and says she can often figure out what’s happening in the Hilltop before it’s reported on the news.

Boggs has lived here for decades and founded a block watch back when crime started increasing 20 years ago—right around the time that local factories shut down and residents lost good-paying jobs. Boggs says that she's seem crime go up with the recent influx of drugs.

“I also believe that we are becoming more aware of what's going on because of social media,” Boggs says.

In her block watch, neighbors stay in touch via Facebook, where they post any recent criminal activity. If they see something suspicious, they call police. They also organize public beautification projects and cookouts.

Boggs says it’s not enough to rely on the police. The neighborhood needs to take an active role in its own revitalization.

“To bring the community together, so that they feel like they're not alone and to empower them to do more,” Boggs says.

Boggs believes the Hilltop is one of the last Columbus neighborhoods where a middle-income resident can still afford to buy a home. If more people want to own a slice of the American Dream, Boggs says, they’re going to have to work together to preserve neighborhoods like the Hilltop.