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.

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.

The two wounded men made it out of the front door of the building and collapsed. Paramedics arrived, and brought them to the hospital. Doctors did their best, but Guerrero died about an hour after the deadly assault, and Grey was listed in critical condition, but survived. Both the Rosados have been charged in the killing, but the third alleged assailant remains at large.

"I saw the video of my brother standing there, hands wide open, and you see Tru Life coming to him," says Ramirez. "My brother didn't have a weapon. These guys knew exactly what they were doing. My brother made it out the front door, and collapsed literally on the steps."

("He has pleaded not guilty," says Rosado's lawyer, Alan Abramson. "We're confident that Robert will be vindicated in court.")

The stabbing quickly entered ghetto lore. Rapper 50 Cent references the killing in a track called "Flight 187": "Today I read the paper and it said Tru Life caught a case/They said they found the victim with a knife stuck in his face." (187 is police code for murder.)

"I don't understand that," says Ramirez. "He's glorifying it. He's a fucking rapper."

(50 Cent's manager, Laurie Dobbins, didn't respond to an e-mail. A spokesman for the rapper's record label declined to comment.)

Meanwhile, Saigon recorded a song called "Free Tru Life" in which he claims that his friend is an "innocent man in the pen." "He ain't do it, my nigga innocent," Saigon declares.

Guerrero received his own tribute from local rappers Manhattan Mal and E-Man who say the following on their CD I See Dead People: "Rest in peace ATL and all our fallen soldiers." The CD also contains the slogan, "We are not a gang, we are a state of mind." A rap video posted on the Internet ends with an image of Guerrero with angel's wings.

Ramirez has spent the months since his brother's death trying to piece together what happened—that terrifying chase from Bellevue to the Phipps Houses, the confrontation in the lobby, the stabbing and its aftermath. He insists that his brother was not a gang member and was only a passing acquaintance of Grey's.

"My brother wasn't directly involved," Ramirez says. "He wouldn't put himself in jeopardy like that. He never carried weapons. He was just out to have fun with the big kids."

Ramirez questions how Guerrero got into Club Pacha, even though he wasn't old enough. And he wonders why paramedics took the wounded members of the rival groups to the same hospital, setting up a likely confrontation there.

"That makes no sense to me," he says. "I don't understand why they did that."

Ramirez says hospital security did move to keep the two groups of rivals apart, and held one group while the other left. But there was no follow-up once the young men exited the hospital. "There was a confrontation in the hospital lobby, and security told them they had to leave, but I don't understand why security didn't call the cops," he says.

Ramirez says he's considering suing Bellevue and Phipps Houses for what he perceives as breakdowns that contributed to Guerrero's murder.

But the Guerrero murder was only one of several violent incidents this year tied to the housing project cliques.

On August 16, Carlos Santos, a resident of the Campos Houses, was shot in the chest at 12th Street and Avenue C. He survived the shooting, but faces a long-term recovery. He was recently moved from Bellevue Hospital to a rehabilitation facility on Staten Island. No one has been arrested in connection with the shooting.

On September 12, Borough of Manhattan Community College student Glen Wright, 21, was jumped from behind by a gang member at the Baruch Houses and stabbed in the neck. He had been helping his grandmother with her weekend chores, published reports said. His assailant, Joel Herrera, 20, was soon arrested; several other gang members were present for the attack. The police believe Wright was targeted because Herrera thought the student was a rival gang member who had previously beaten up one of his friends. In essence, it was a botched revenge killing. Wright's relatives, friends, and teachers mourned the loss of a young man who devoted himself to his Down syndrome–afflicted brother, and who tutored students at an East Harlem tutorial program. Three hundred people attended his wake.

On November 18, 17-year-old Nelson "Punchy" Pena was stabbed to death outside Intermediate School 131 at 100 Hester Street, which does triple duty as a high school and Beacon after-school program. A Victor Fong, also 17, was arrested. A second youth was stabbed, and a third fled the brawl. After the stabbing, school safety officers amassed at the school in fear the killer would return there, a law enforcement source said.

Police denied that the killing was gang-related, but both youths had ties to neighborhood gangs that had been squabbling for some time, sources said. And, sources say, Pena and two friends were jumped by a group of teens who disappeared into a store and fled through a back entrance.

The victim's own cousin even posted a comment on a website saying it was gang-related. "The reality of it is that no matter what, a good or bad person should not have to lose their life over nonsense like this," the cousin wrote.

And then there are the lesser incidents, not contained in police statistics or reported in the tabloids. Consider the following incidents from the past few months:

• September: Teens shoot BB guns at the Lillian Wald Houses, injuring several pedestrians.

• September 14: Three teenagers steal a cell phone from a 14-year-old girl.

• Early October: A 13-year-old boy is arrested in Tompkins Square Park for committing a dozen burglaries. This follows the arrests five days earlier of 15-year-old and 13-year-old brothers, also for burglary.

• October 15: A teen is robbed of his cell phone outside 135 West 13th Street by another teen wielding a box cutter.

• Late October: NFO youths jump another kid on 5th Street and Avenue C in retaliation for a Money Boyz assault the day before on 14th Street and First Avenue.

• October 30: A teen is arrested for threatening an older man with a box cutter.

• November 5: NFO youths chase nine-year-olds from the Boys Club at 10th and A to the Campos Houses.

• November 9: The Money Boyz jump another youth.

• November 12: A teen is arrested at Legacy High for hitting a security guard.

• November 14: Four teens are hospitalized after they were beaten with beer bottles by 15 to 20 men.

• November 17: A teen is beaten outside the High School for Leadership on Trinity Place.

But don't panic. If this were really a problem, the mayor and the police department wouldn't be telling us we live in the safest big city in the world.

Right?

Compared to the high-crime years of the late '80s and early '90s, the Lower East Side has far fewer serious reported crimes, according to police statistics. Of the four precincts, only the 9th Precinct showed an overall increase in crime last year, with increases in assault, grand larceny, and rape, and a big jump in burglary. The 5th, 7th, and 13th precincts, meanwhile, all showed overall declines.

On the other hand, comparing 2008 to 2009, there were some increases here and there. Felony assaults in the 7th Precinct jumped by 40 percent last year. Grand larcenies increased, as did rapes. Assaults in the 5th Precinct were up compared to 2007. And the 13th Precinct saw a rise in burglaries.

The number of neighborhood kids 15 or younger sent to the city juvenile justice system rose from 38 in 2008 to 54 in 2009. Typically, about half of those admissions were on robbery or assault charges.

The Voice also obtained misdemeanor arrest numbers for the four precincts, which show overall increases from 2006 to 2008—largely fueled by jumps in burglary and larceny offenses, along with a significant increase in low-level marijuana busts.

For example, misdemeanor arrests in the 9th Precinct jumped by almost 25 percent between 2006 and 2008, largely as a result of burglary and theft cases. Misdemeanor arrests in the 5th Precinct rose by about 20 percent, largely on theft offenses.

Overall, the numbers present a picture of relative order compared to the bad old days. But if you ask around the neighborhood, you'll find a pretty strong perception that things have worsened over the past year, particularly as a result of these loosely organized groups of teens and young men who identify with a given public housing project or city block.

"We certainly saw an upsurge in the past couple of years of the presence of gangs," says Matthew Guldin, a lifelong educator who retired as dean of students for a Lower East Side high school last June. "You knew it was there. I think some of it has to do with the economic downturn. The crisis always comes first in the poorest neighborhoods. With fewer jobs available for teens, parents being laid off, and schools and community agencies losing funding, there are fewer positive options available to engage teenagers during the after-school hours. And I think YouTube, MySpace, texting, the communications technology, exacerbates it."

"This is just their everyday experience," says psychologist Jeffry Solomon. "It's the world they know. And it's almost feudal in its organization. In a hierarchy of despair, enmeshed in a multigenerational, familial legacy of subsistence drug dealing, the sins of the fathers and mothers get visited upon the sons and daughters. The children pay the price in blood, in prison, in childhoods lost, and, finally, in death."

Solomon has spent the past eight years counseling hundreds of Lower East Side kids. He spends, it seems, every spare minute in the streets and the local community centers, checking up on kids.

"My main goal, unfortunately, is to keep them from killing each other," he says. "You see the effect every day. The police know about it, the [prosecutors] know about it, the social services organizations know about it, the politicians know about it."

Lenore Colon, a youth counselor at the Henry Street Settlement at 6th Street and Avenue D, says, "Sometimes, I feel like we're reverting back to the '80s," the high-crime era.

Thea Goodman, director of the Hamilton-Madison House, a youth services agency in the Smith Houses, says, "There's been a new gang issue in this neighborhood for about four years now. Overall crime may be down, but if you just look at youth crime in this neighborhood, it seems like it's gone up."

Susan Stetzer, the district manager of Community Board 3, and former City Councilman Alan Gerson say similar things. "There definitely has been more activity, and our board has been concerned about it," Stetzer says.

"Clearly, the city is experiencing a spike in youth- and youth-gang-related violence," Gerson says. "It's happening in many areas around the city." He points to the 16-year-old gang member who opened fire last month on a Bronx street and critically wounded 15-year-old bystander Vada Vasquez, and the gunfire that erupted in a gang turf battle in the Bronx and led to the slaying of 92-year-old Sadie Mitchell, who was hit with a stray bullet that came through her window.

But what about those stats?

"There's a disconnect between official statistics and neighborhood reality," Gerson says. "Youth crime historically has been the most underreported crime."

We asked Paul Browne, the NYPD's spokesman, about these perceptions, and also requested crime stats that might show whether youth crime was indeed surging, but he didn't respond to our e-mail.

What does the mayor think about all this? Hard to tell, but in his inaugural speech last week and a subsequent radio address, he actually referred to youth crime as an area he wants to focus on in his next term.

"In the years ahead, we'll redouble our efforts to fight crime by preventing it where it's still most troubling: among young people who are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of crime," Bloomberg said.

Well, at least that's under control. Shopping on Orchard Street, anyone?

grayman@villagevoice.com

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