Jay says the older drug dealers in the neighborhood are almost celebrities, in a strange way. It's almost a badge of honor to have served prison time. The youth gangs thus wind up becoming recruiting pools for the dealers.

"The older guys have been doing it for so long that it's easy for them to manipulate the younger ones," he says, from experience. "It's easy to suck them in. And pretty soon, instead of ABCs and 123s, you're learning about counting baggies and cooking crack, and how to measure out grams."

As he followed the well-worn path of jail and rehab, Jay's views evolved. "Growing up, you're fed all this bad information, and all you're doing is reinforcing the stereotype of the inner-city kid," he says.

Jay says he's now clean and spends more and more time in New Jersey with his girlfriend. He's going to New York City Tech for graphic design.

Keith, meanwhile, looked back on a time a couple of years earlier at East River Park when a group of 15 teens approached him and mistook him for someone else. One of the teens punched him in the face. Four stitches. "That's how it went those days," he says. "The next day, I see him, and he comes up to me and says, 'Yo, my fault. We were looking for someone else.' He was trying to prove himself. A year later, he was shot."

Keith lives with his mom on Avenue D. He's looking for an entry-level job, without much success, and he's got an infant daughter he sees on the weekends. He doesn't see much change in the way things are in the neighborhood: A friend of his, he says, just got jumped the day before. The friend is now looking for revenge.

"There's always something dumb going on," he says.

While they talk, all three guys are trading text messages with friends. Eventually, all of them are off into the night to wander as they do, ever watchful from the street to the park to friends' apartments in the nightscape of the Lower East Side.

Safest big town in America. It's like Disneyland, but with a few bums. Nothing to worry about.

Jason Ramirez is 10 years older than Jay and Keith, but he went through a similar experience growing up on the Lower East Side. Ramirez thought he was done with the drama of those streets, but then his 20-year-old brother, Christopher Guerrero, was fatally knifed last summer in the lobby of a public housing project.

"I remember being young and not wanting to pass this or that street," he recalls. "You see crews walking around. You just have to know where you're stepping and stay in your own area. It's a pitiful thing for these crews to want to defend that little area."

"It's a pretty fucked-up neighborhood," he adds. "It's a little cleaner now because of the gentrification, but it's all a façade."

Last June, Guerrero, who aspired to the music biz and affected the nickname "ATL," had gone with some friends to a Midtown joint called Club Pacha, where something happened between rival factions from two Lower East Side housing projects. As is often the case, the origins of the beef are murky. Someone was robbed of some jewelry. Or maybe it had to do with an old score to settle involving an ex-girlfriend and a baby, and was the culmination of three years of confrontations. At any rate, it's clear that Guerrero was not the intended target.

Outside the club, the two rival Lower East Side factions clashed. One guy was shot in the stomach, and another was cut with a knife.

Paramedics took both wounded men to Bellevue Hospital, which turned out to be a mistake, because members of the rival group ended up at the same hospital to check on their fallen comrades. A scuffle ensued in the emergency room waiting area.

Guerrero and Jason Grey, 27, visited one of the wounded men and then left the hospital. As they walked home, they were allegedly followed by Robert Rosado, 33, his brother, Marcus, 37, and a third man whose identity remains unknown. (While Guerrero was trying to make his way into rap music, Robert Rosado was already there. Known as "Tru Life," he had signed a record deal with Jay-Z and recorded with Saigon, a rapper who had a recurring role on the HBO series Entourage.)

At some point, Grey and Guerrero noticed they were being followed, and they started to run, trying to make it to a Phipps Houses building at 330 East 26th Street, where Grey's relatives lived. Neighborhood sources say the killers' target was Grey—not Guerrero.

The two had just made it into the lobby, closely followed five to 10 seconds later by Rosado's crew. A security guard failed to stop or question the Rosados or the third man as they burst into the lobby.

Grey and Guerrero turned somewhere near the elevators, as the trio fell upon them. Both men were stabbed. A video shows the attackers exchanging words with the wounded men, but it's unclear what was said. The trio fled. The security guard apparently called his boss, but did not immediately call 911, Ramirez says.

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