Under a red-and-white striped tent in a troubled Selbyville-area community, Donald Johnson bangs on the keyboard and Daren Purnell holds a beat on the drums. More than a dozen people have visited the tent on this Tuesday to hear Johnson preach and attempt to uplift a community beleaguered by drug problems and among some, a general unwillingness to change.
On this night, though, and on many others when Johnson erects the tent, the open-air market along Lincoln Avenue, where even teenagers sell crack cocaine openly, simply does not exist.
Instead, shrieks of “Hallelujah!” and “Thank you, Jesus!” dominate the streets. Adults and children alike sway their heads to the church music and Johnson sweats up his blue T-shirt — which would not be acceptable when he is preaching in the church nearby — while calling for a sensible alternative to the drug-dealing lifestyle many young residents there have inherited.
“You can’t change your past,” Johnson tells those in attendance, “but you can change your present and your future.”
The tent church service, offered up to three times weekly, is the most visible of the efforts to clean-up Polly Branch, a community riven in ways not often associated with southeastern Sussex County, where beaches and boardwalks — not drugs — are symbols of culture. Those efforts, though, have been largely unsuccessful in the community where many take pride in the criminal lifestyle while others ignore the issue in fear of repercussions.
Polly Branch is made up of a series of trailers and small homes along the beleaguered Roosevelt, Lincoln and Washington avenues, just north of downtown Selbyville. Drug problems have stressed the community for decades and, despite recent arrests, persist.
It’s an issue that divides the community as a whole, and even individual families, some of whom work to clean-up the neighborhood while others wait for the protection of darkness to run between cars, distributing crack cocaine.
McKineo “Mack” Middleton, a 21-year-old, self-professed former crack cocaine dealer stood outside the tent on this Tuesday, waiting for the service to begin. Since his arrest for dealing crack cocaine in March, Middleton said he has been “saved” by faith and no longer deals drugs.
Two others arrested this spring alongside Middleton, who had records of drug charges dating to 1998, were sentenced to eight and nine years in prison, respectively. Middleton had his prison sentence suspended and is currently serving 18 months probation.
Drug dealing was a black-market trade he was born into, Middleton said, and one that earned him $3,000 a week if he hustled enough.
“I was tired of wearing Bobos. I wanted Jordan’s,” said Middleton, adding that it was more than a thirst for material rewards that drove him to deal drugs. The 21-year-old is already a father of three and has been turned down for jobs because of where he lives, he said.
Middleton said most people don’t have “compassion” for how he and others grew up in Polly Branch, where the black-market trade transcends generational boundaries. “You got to do what you got to do to survive. When my daughters are crying, they need that milk.”
Middleton, who shed light on the drug culture that dominates Polly Branch in a candid conversation, said the culture is self-sustaining.
“It goes down the bloodline from grandparents to parents to kids. When they see us running the corners, they want to run the corners,” Middleton said.
Sgt. Rodney Workman heads the Governor’s Task Force, a Delaware State Police unit that targets problematic Sussex communities. He said Polly Branch is one of roughly a dozen communities county-wide that is home to a persistent open-air drug market. Undercover officers from Workman’s unit led the investigation that ended with the arrest of Middleton and several others in March. Stings such as those, though, only deter dealers, many of whom treat the role as a full-time and sometimes lucrative job, at least for a short time.
Many believe the lack of regular police patrols helps facilitate the constant resurgence of drug trafficking in the area. Task force officers’ time is spread across the county and, although Selbyville officers respond to emergency calls there two to three times weekly, they cannot regularly patrol the community because it lies just beyond town limits.
Workman could not say how often his officers patrol the area but he did say that members of his unit have responded to Polly Branch “a few” times since the March arrests. In late June, task force officers arrested a 21-year-old man for selling crack cocaine and recovered 155 grams of crack stashed behind a tree — an amount worth roughly $10,000 on the street.
“It got quieter after that big operation, but it’s still an open-air drug area,” Workman said. “It starts right back up.”
Eileen Shelton is all too familiar with the drug problems that continue to taint Polly Branch. Shelton regularly attends monthly meetings of the Polly Branch Civic Association, where a small group of area residents discuss ways to clean up and shed light on the troubled community. Her daughter, Fallon, was one of those arrested on drug charges this spring.
Shelton’s story is a familiar one in Polly Branch, where family members regularly fall on opposite sides of the divide. As of a few weeks ago, Fallon Shelton remained a sentenced inmate.
“If my child is in it, they got to go. I pray to the Lord to clean up the community,” said Eileen Shelton, who lives just outside the Polly Branch neighborhood. “It’s really sad. But we’ve got to be real. If you get caught up in it, you’ve got to pay the price.”
Shelton was one of only a half-dozen area residents to attend July’s association meeting, which took place in a community building beside the Johnsons’ church, just down Route 17 from Polly Branch.
Juanita Johnson, a Polly Branch homeowner who no longer lives in the community, serves as president of the association, which limps along without much community support. For at least two decades, with only minimal help, Johnson has worked to secure funds from state and county officials to remove garbage, fix dilapidated homes and better the community. Many efforts, though — including one to create a community center within Polly Branch to educate its children and give residents a place to congregate — have fallen through without much support.
Countless hours and thousands in governmental funds have been spent on Polly Branch, but Johnson said a lack of interest and a frustrating resistance to change — especially among many who see drug dealing as an accepted way of life and “easy money” – continue to undermine the group’s efforts.
Johnson is attempting to organize residents to request annexation into the town of Selbyville, a move that could come with regular police patrols to combat the drug problem, trash clean-up and, potentially, street lights. Even that effort — which is only preliminarily supported by a few area residents — could be blocked by others who prefer the status quo.
During a recent tour through the neighborhood, a frustrated Johnson was reminded why she has considered abandoning her mission to clean up Polly Branch.
One woman, who sat with a group of adults and children on a corner of Washington Avenue where drug problems abound, said a cleaned up Polly Branch “would not be Polly Branch.” Another dismissed questions about the drug problems, expressing the “if it’s not happening in my yard, it’s not happening,” attitude that is common within the community.
“You can’t get people changed. They think you’re against them,” said Johnson, who has been threatened with violence while attempting to organize residents in the community.
Much of the problem is also based in the fact that when people leave jail, they are sent back into the community where problems await them, she added.
“We’re trying to get them a better way of life,” Johnson said. “But why are you going to spend money to do the same thing?”
Longtime Roosevelt Avenue resident Howard Dennis, who walks his grandchildren to and from their bus stop to ensure their safety, expressed hopelessness about the situation in Polly Branch. After decades of living in the community, where drug problems and grime have just been a part of daily life, Dennis accepts and largely ignores the distressed environment, mostly staying inside his home with the curtains drawn.
“There’s a lot that needs to be done,” said Dennis, who like many others, does not attend association meetings and chooses to ignore the problems. “You can only do so much.”
Middleton agreed with Dennis’ last statement, saying that despite seemingly endless efforts, the criminal tradition that has been passed down through generations and continues to pollute the area will endure.
Some people can change, Middleton said, but the community will remain the same. Even after his own “salvation,” Middleton said he would not happily part with Polly Branch’s drug culture. Inside the community and its black market, he and others share a comfort level many on the outside simply do not understand, Middleton said.
“I love this place. I love the people here. They got to live,” Middleton said. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable here if I didn’t see the people and the traffic.”
Despite doubts and temptation, though, the 21-year-old said he will continue to represent at least one small victory by using newfound faith as a motivation to stay on the outside.
“It’s all thanks to this tent,” said Middleton, as he swayed to the sounds of the church music that at least temporarily closes the Polly Branch drug market. “People look at me and say, ‘He’s not going to change.’ It’s tempting, but I don’t do it anymore. I don’t want to do it anymore. I could have been in jail for five to seven years. What would my daughters do?”