Friendship Court fenced in

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- The seven-foot-tall black fence around Friendship Court was put up in 1996, back when it was still known as Garrett Square. Residents who remember when the fence was installed say the community has not been the same since.

The sound of children playing in Friendship Court is familiar to Devin Gentry. He said growing up in the community, he was one of the kids playing in the street too.

"Back when I was here in the early 90s, late 90s, it was like, this was the place to be,” said Gentry. “It felt like you were just having a cookout or having a party every day. You would get all your homework done and then you were just out and have fun with your friends."

He said people were told that the fence and a courtyard that now divides Friendship Court into two halves was put up to help police catch criminals who would run through Garrett Square to get away. This was during a time when law enforcement was cracking down on the war on drugs in the city and around the nation.

"It kind of makes sense if you're looking at it from a law enforcement standpoint, but then again, they don't have to live here,” said Gentry. “It's different when you have to live here and be around like a fence that's trapping you in when you're used to walking right out, and then you can't get in."

He was about ten years old when the fence went up, and it changed the mindset of the children in the community.

"I guess let's practice with a game called cops and robbers, so some people would be cops some people would be robbers,” said Gentry. “And that whole mentality and that mindset of that game translates into life, and then it translates into the classroom, into the school system and you develop a mindset of trap or defense to law enforcement."

Mary Carey, who was raising her sons in Garrett Square at the time, said the fence only brought more danger to their neighborhood.

"The people in Garrett weren't doing anything. The drugs and all that stuff was coming into Garrett," said Carey. "Once they put that fencing up, that's when everything started happening down there. I mean drug dealing. Little guys were standing on the corners. From Sixth Street to where the ACAC is, they had blocks, it was their blocks."

Even as a kid, Gentry remembers how drugs affected the community. He said he would see older men start to disappear from their corners.

"As I got older, I realized it was President Bill Clinton with the three strike rule in the 90s. Three felonies and then you have to do your whole sentence,” said Gentry. “I lost my father that way. He was gone for 22 years, I only met him when I was 23, is when I first met him. It took a toll on a lot of folks family wise and growing up."

He said he never felt unsafe though, and that Friendship Court made him who he is today. He hopes that the Piedmont Housing Alliance decides to take the fence down before redevelopment so that people can see how it was before.

"I think they should be taken down because it would restore a lot of energy and home feel back over here in our Friendship Court," said Gentry.

The PHA said it is asking the community what should be done with the fence. Ideas have been circulating about remaking it into a bench or a sculpture in the hope of making something negative into something positive for the community.

This story is a continuation of a series of reports that can be found in the Related Links section to the right. For more history, check out Charlottesville Tomorrow's article, "The Reimagining of Friendship Court."

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