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Well, which is it?

Is Gorrell Street the life-blood of an inner-city neighborhood, a vital artery linking east Greensboro and downtown?Or is it a mean street, a land of cheap wine and hard drugs, an incubator of violence and crime?

In the wake of the recent shooting of an N.C. A&T State University football player after an altercation on Gorrell Street, the old debate about exactly what Gorrell Street is - and exactly what needs to be done about its stubborn troubles - has flared anew.

On one side of the fence is Pamela Harris, a life-long area resident and president of the newly formed Bennett-Gorrell Street Neighborhood Improvement Association. She knows the neighborhood's problems well from 29 years of living with them, and she believes blocking off Gorrell Street to traffic and bulldozing businesses, as some have proposed, is not the way to go.

On the other side is Bennett College President Gloria Scott, whose three-year tenure at the private women's school has been marred by violence on campus - the recent shooting, a rape, beatings, thefts. She is about to renew her pressure on City Hall to block off Gorrell Street in front of the campus, raze the cluster of nearby businesses and replace them with housing.

Caught in their cross-fire are city planners, who have the tricky job of juggling the neighborhood's diffuse interests and forging a consensus on how to attack such problems as teenage gangs, loitering, littering, vandalism, vagrancy and prostitution.

But all parties agree on one thing: Gorrell Street is at a crossroads, faced with a golden opportunity to move forward and haunted by a history that says things never change and probably never will.

As city planner Sue Schwartz puts it: ``The neighborhood is struggling with itself right now, and anything could happen.'

Opposite sides of the road Pamela Harris helped start the 100-member neighborhood association in June because the familiar problems seemed to be getting worse.

``Something had to be done,' she said recently. She was sitting in her cramped but tidy apartment on Sampson Street, spooning baby food into the mouth of her 7-month-old son, Denzel, and waiting for her 11-year-old son, Donmnic, to return from school.

``The crime rate has increased. The neighborhood is nothing like it was when I was growing up. We've got two homeless shelters and a soup kitchen nearby now, and that's created problems for everyone. Those people have nowhere to go during the day, so they're on the street. You find them sleeping on your back porch. You used to see a lot of people out walking, interacting. Not anymore.'

The group also was galvanized by opposition to a city proposal to tear down the neighborhood businesses and replace them with single-family housing.

It got the city's planning department to agree to undertake a thorough survey of the neighborhood, which is now being prepared. It will be conducted soon by A&T sociology students. The goal: to arrive at a consensus on how to spend $900,000 in redevelopment money still available from a 1988 bond referendum.

Meanwhile the group runs litter pick-up patrols, distributes medical questionnaires to elderly residents, alerts them to available social and medical services, and plans to distribute educational pamphlets on AIDS and Alzheimer's disease.

Pamela Harris, a University of North Carolina at Greensboro graduate, is obviously enjoying her street-level, post-graduate education.

``The most important things I've learned are that we don't have to sit around and take what City Hall dishes out - and that we all need to get involved in what's going on in our neighborhood.'

Meanwhile, Gloria Scott lives across the street with a gnawing fear.

``My greatest fear is that we're going to have to wait for a death to occur before anybody does anything about Gorrell Street,' she said, adding that Bennett College now pours $250,000 a year into security, money she would prefer to spend on education.

``It seems the only way to stabilize the area is to make it residential. It's not a question of getting rid of businesses - but of relocating businesses.'

As city planner Dan Curry knows, the jury is still out on the fate of this troubled street in the shadow of downtown.

``The neighborhood association is commendable,' he said, ``but can they take care of the problems of Gorrell Street by themselves? It's a question that remains to be answered.'

I hope the answer proves to be yes.

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