In a Crime-Free City, How Does a Young Gangbanger Represent?

You now live in the safest New York City that has existed since the Beatles came to America.

Murders are now so rare—at least for a city this size—that you have to go back to the Kennedy administration to find similar numbers. Just ask Mayor Bloomberg. Like a kind of political Tourette's syndrome, he tells you that's the case every chance he gets.

New York is now so tame that old-timers grumble that it's become a boring town and wish openly for at least a little of 1977's grit and grime.

Pat Kinsella

So considering what a patsy your metropolis is now, it's hard to believe any of you are going to be alarmed at what some young people in the Lower East Side are telling us—that actually, for them, this town is still a jungle.

Yeah, we had the same reaction.

Prove it, kid.

There's this one street kid—we'll call him Johnny—who's 18 and lives with his asthmatic grandmother and cousins in a cramped East 12th Street apartment because his father kicked him out of their apartment and his mom left the city. He says he's on probation for five years, which stemmed from a robbery arrest. He says he knocked someone over and took their cash so he could buy lunch. He says he's been jumped and beaten with metal bats. He says he's afraid to walk past certain public housing projects that he considers rival gang territory. He wants to leave the neighborhood, but feels like he has no other option than to stay.

Johnny describes a world of young louts endlessly roaming the streets, of the constant presence of drugs, of brazen instigators who post YouTube videos to make threats and call out other groups and who fill MySpace pages with tough-guy images and over-the-top boasts. These wannabes and badasses associate themselves with the public housing projects they live in, giving themselves colorful names like Money Boyz in the Campos Houses, and No Fair Ones (NFO) in the Smith Houses.

"I'm just like a billion other kids I bang with," Johnny says, clearly exaggerating. "We gotta look over our shoulders all the time. You can't be by yourself on the street. We gotta run in pairs."

But everyone knows that the neighborhood he's talking about—the Lower East Side—has been rapidly gentrifying in the past few years, and walking on Hester or Orchard Street isn't like strolling into some Jimmy Cagney two-reeler. The whole place has turned into a suburban shopping mall, right?

We first met Johnny one evening in late November. He happened to be up against a wall: Two police officers were frisking him, checking his puffy black jacket and his jean pockets. The stop-and-frisk is a routine police tactic to deal with street crime. More than 500,000 people were subjected to the procedure in 2008, 83 percent of whom were black or Hispanic, most of those young men and teens. Eighty-six percent of the time, no arrest was made.

The cops didn't arrest Johnny. They just asked for his ID and wrote his name on a stop-and-frisk form. They were polite enough. But Johnny seemed both weary and resigned to the process, having been through it several times already.

"Man, I was just standing there at the corner," he says with some exasperation after the officers depart. "And they rolled up on me."

"Why did they stop you?"

"They said I fit the description. I always fit the description. Black youth, winter jacket. That's anybody!" he says, shaking his head. "If a white guy's standing on the corner, they aren't going to stop him."

At the pizza parlor, Johnny alternates between bravado ("We warriors out here") and bemoaning his lot in life ("I'm trying to get my life straight. I see me getting shot or stabbed. I just want to get out of here before I die"). He peppers his speech with street slang. Good things, for example, are "Gucci." Going "up the hill" means walking by the Smith Houses, a rival gang's home base. "Squadding up" means getting the boys together and going out looking for a fight.

Later, the two of us catch up to "Jay" and "Keith" at a pool table at an East 13th Street community center. They are both 20, two years older than Johnny, but say they're still caught in the crap swirling around the neighborhood.

Jay says that he was taken from his mother as a boy by city foster care workers and raised by his grandmother on East 8th Street. In high school, he fell in with a group of older men and began selling and smoking marijuana. That led to selling and smoking crack, a lot of fighting, and finally, inevitably, jail. (For a while, Jay says, he shared a dorm at Rikers with Christopher Robinson, the teen beaten to death in October 2008 by inmates who had been deputized by guards to enforce order. The Voice wrote extensively on that practice from 2007 to 2009.)

"The reality is that the cops could never really stop us, but they could slow us down," he says. At one point, he and some friends severely beat a rival crew member at Tompkins Square Park. The next day, five of the victim's friends caught him, fractured his eye socket and broke his nose, and slashed one of his friends.

1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
New York Concert Tickets
Loading...