After WABE-FM reporter and weekend anchor Jim Burress finished grabbing sound for Stuck in The Bluff: AIDS, Heroin and One Group’s Illegal Quest to Save Lives, a 30-minute documentary that airs tonight, he drove home, crawled into bed and stared at the ceiling for hours. “I could not wrap my head around everything that I saw,” he recalls of his day chronicling the work of the nonprofit Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition’s needle exchange program. “There’s the drug use and the drug sales, the nonprofit doing this work and the neighborhood itself. Spending time there forces you to ask: ‘Is this a forgotten land? Are these people basically being sentenced to a neighborhood like this because that’s the easiest solution?’ No matter what side of this issue you fall on, you’re going to be challenged as a listener hearing the stories of these people. This is a deep, complex and troubling issue.”
Burress first stumbled onto the Bluff back in 2011 when he accidentally drove through the city’s biggest open-air heroin market on the corner of James P. Brawley Drive and Cameron M. Alexander Boulevard while out on a reporting assignment for the public radio business program Marketplace. Drug dealers began chasing his car, elbowing each other for first crack at the new customer. At the height of the real estate freefall, houses in the boarded up blocks of homes in the northwest Atlanta neighborhood were going for under $10,000 each.
Burress says crossing Northside Drive and entering into the Bluff, better known to most Atlantans as the neighborhood of English Avenue, is like driving into another country. “It’s like night and day,” he says. “If you drive into the Bluff by accident, you will immediately know when you reach the intersection. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen: the dire conditions, the homeless everywhere, the sense of hopelessness. It’s very strange to drive one block and everything is suddenly very different.”
Under Georgia’s 1978 anti-drug paraphernalia law, the very work the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition does — exchanging clean needles for dirty ones in an effort to prevent HIV among its drug addicted clientele — is against the law. The nonprofit only decided to come above ground with its work and participate in the WABE documentary when it’s funding plunged from $320,000 in 2012 to $120,000 in 2013. According to Burress, the AHRC’s coffers are currently too low for the nonprofit to go out to do its weekly needle exchange. But securing interim executive director Mona Barrett’s blessing on the doc yielded multiple benefits for the WABE doc.
Burress explains: “Later, when I went back and listened to the recording, I heard one of the clients ask, ‘What’s that white man doing here?’ There was a little hesitation but once they saw what we were doing, the walls started to come down. I didn’t try and put on an act with these people. I let my vulnerability show. We met each other where we were. I didn’t try and pretend this was just another day at the office. I just listened.”
When he was able to get back out of bed, Burress went to his bosses at WABE and told them: “’I’ve captured voices and stories we’ve never heard on the radio before. We need to make sure people hear them.’ From there, it wasn’t a matter of if we would do the story, only when. It’s why I love working here.”
Listeners tuning into Stuck in The Bluff: AIDS, Heroin and One Group’s Illegal Quest to Save Lives Friday at 7 p.m. can expect a harrowing, transformational experience. Explains Burress: “It’s our job to seek the truth and report it. Sometimes, the truth may sound biased. Let’s be clear here: this neighborhood suffers from all kinds of neglect. It’s just not a heroin problem that keeps the Bluff the way it is. We’re talking about economic development, racism and a lot of other societal complexities. To turn our heads and ignore that, we’re missing a critical part of finding a solution to the problem.”
Stuck in The Bluff: AIDS, Heroin and One Group’s Illegal Quest to Save Lives will air tonight on WABE 90.1 FM at 7 and will have an encore broadcast Sunday at 9 p.m.