Councilman walks neighborhood where arsonists struck

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson talks to Deacon Dorsey Teagle, 63, on Wharton Street regarding the fire damage on the south1300 block of 20th street in Point Breeze Wednesday May 3, 2017. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )

Wearing a dark pinstripe suit and tie, City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson toured the neighborhood surrounding the 20th and Wharton Streets arson site Wednesday afternoon.

Johnson, who represents the Point Breeze neighborhood, where arsonists vandalized a residential construction site early Monday, said he wanted to let neighbors know whom they could call if they had any information on the fire, as well as address any public safety concerns.

“When I saw the blaze on the news, it was terrifying. Anyone could’ve gotten hurt, whole block could’ve burned down. So, it shouldn’t be tolerated, can’t be tolerated,” he told reporters.

He spent 25 minutes stuffing fliers with public safety and city service information into people’s mailboxes. A few residents came out to greet him -- some happy, some not so much.

“A man died back there,” Jeanette Coleman said, pointing to an overgrown lot next to her house on South Capitol Street, off Wharton. An abandoned minivan was in the middle of the weeds. "Car got gas and it’s sitting next to mine, they ain’t cleaning it up.”

Johnson assured her that the city could at least get the van removed. “We’ll get it done,” he said, before moving to another block.

Coleman, 69, said she has lived in the property her entire life and seen the neighborhood transform dramatically. Her home, valued at $68,700, is sandwiched between two vacant and overgrown lots, both owned by the city Redevelopment Authority. Across from her is an empty field that is to be redeveloped into 48 townhouses. Just past that is the site of Monday's fire --  a 22-townhouse project being built by Ori Feibush, a developer who ran unsuccessfully against Johnson in the past. The individual properties are to be valued at upward of $550,000.

“I wouldn’t buy none of them,” she said, noting that the neighborhood  has its ills, including crime. “Still the same crap.”

A half-block away on Wharton, Dorsey Teagle greeted Johnson with delight, but quickly called him out for not coming around in a while. Johnson said his 5-month-old baby had been keeping him busy.

“That takes all the time, all the time,” he said, adding that he was doing some outreach in the neighborhood after the fire.

“It’s all one happy family,” Teagle, 62, said of the neighborhood. “I don’t see why someone would do something like that.”

Teagle said that even if his taxes go up because of the new development, he and his wife, Nancy, were planning to stay. “It’s going to make the neighborhood look good.”

Feibush, who had crews back on the site Wednesday cleaning up the debris left from the fire, said he expects construction of the project to be done within a year. When asked Wednesday about Johnson's walk, he said he didn't know about it.

“I don’t care,” he said. 

On Tuesday, Johnson announced he would offer a $2,500 reward for any information leading to arrest and conviction of Monday’s arsonists. The $2,500 would come from his campaign funds. The reward comes on top of $10,000 being offered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is investigating the blaze.

Anyone with information is being asked to call the ATF 24/7 hotline at 1-888-ATF-FIRE (1-888-283-3473), email ATFTips@atf.gov, or submit a tip by using the ReportIt app on a mobile phone.