Top Issue in Brownsville: Fear of the Teens, Fear for the Teens

Photo by: Anthony Lanzilote
Brownsville has less violent crime than it did 10 years ago, but residents are split on whether conditions are deteriorating now.

Ask people on Blake Avenue what's their No. 1 campaign concern, and they'll say "crime." But their worry seems to be less about violence and more about whether young people are on the wrong track.

By: Jarrett Murphy

This article is an installment in The Five Borough Ballot, a collaboration between City Limits, City & State and WNET's MetroFocus. In each edition of the print and video series, we return to a location in each of the five boroughs to ask real New Yorkers their take on the 2013 election as it unfolds. For a complete overview of the series, go here

On the front door of the 14-story building at 422 Blake Avenue in Brownsville, there is a warning for residents. Because of the rash of rapes and robberies in the area, it recommends that people keep visitors out of the hallways, lest they be stopped by the police.

Out on the sidewalk on a recent weekday morning, a man named BJ was waiting for his sister. He's lived in the area since 1972. "It's better, safer than how it was in the eighties, with crack and whatnot," BJ says. He actually lives about six blocks away. He feels those six blocks make a difference. "A lot of rapes and robberies over here," he says, indicating the block where we're standing. As he talks, two police officers on foot step out of the building across the street. It, like 422 Blake, is part of the massive Van Dyke I public housing complex.

BJ's mother lives about a mile away in the Plaza Residences. It was once called Noble Drew Ali Plaza, but the new owners—a company headed by former Mets slugger Mo Vaughan—changed the name to try to shed the property's reputation as a den of drug-dealing and violence. "They done cleaned those projects up," BJ says. "They've got cameras everywhere." The cameras bother some people, but not BJ's mother—or at least not BJ, a thickly built man in his mid-50. Neither do the "vertical patrols" that the NYPD does in his sister's building and others, even if it means you're not supposed to stand in the hallways of the place you live.

But he feels differently about the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy. "I don't like that," he says. "Bunch of cops jump out of the car at somebody. I've seen it."

Among the people who live in and around the building at 422 Blake, BJ's take is a familiar one. Crime is by far the chief concern cited by people in Brownsville. In a recent survey of low- and moderate-income New Yorkers by the Community Service Society (which owns City Limits) , "reducing crime, drugs and guns" was ranked the third more important issue; reducing stop-and-frisk ranked eighth.

But in Brownsville at least, the common worry about crime masks different ideas about which way the neighborhood is heading; some feel things are worse than ever, while others believe conditions are better than they were in the bad old days, but have deteriorated recently. Accompanying their nuanced reading of history are complicated feelings about the police. And underlying all of it is not so much worry about crime as a fear of—and for—young people in the neighborhood.

Fear the teens

Betty Weems has lived in the neighborhood for 41 years. Ask her what the most pressing issue facing Brownsville is and she'll say, "Crime, really. Crime is up in the neighborhood." (Through the end of February, NYPD crime statistics showed less felony crime so far in 2013 in the 73rd precinct that includes Brownsville, though the number of rapes was up compared with the same period in 2012.)

Weems believes the area is "definitely worse" than it used to be. But what stands out to her is not so much criminal behavior ("I'm not really afraid of going out. If you mind your businesses, you’re going to be fine," she insists) as a lack of order. "The neighborhood was beautiful. We had doormen. You couldn't go on the grass," she recalls. People took care of their trash. This is a common refrain among long-time residents of 422 Blake—that respect for the norms of social living has eroded.

"You know what it is?" says Brenda Martin, who moved to the area 58 years ago when she was two months old and has resided at 422 Powell since 1996. "It's just, like, so many teenagers, everywhere. I see these groups and I worry someone will start shooting."

"There's nothing here for them to do," Martin continues. She has three children and the youngest, who is 21, still lives with her. "I used to have to call him upstairs [from outside]. Now all he does is just go in and out. Most of his friends have been into drugs or gangs." He doesn't want anything to do with them, she says. Her son's been robbed of his jewelry.

Worried about robbery, some residents of the building don't take the elevator with strangers. Many are concerned about the scaffolding that surrounds the building because they believe it limits the effectiveness of the security cameras.

Asked about the police, who are frequently criticized for being too aggressive in neighborhoods like Brownsville, Martin chortles. "Where are they? I don't see them. I think they're in a building hiding. These boys got big guns." Martin insists the latter bit is not hyperbole; just the other day, she heard gunfire and instinctively crouched. (In fact, the NYPD's efforts in Brownsville, including using Facebook to track gang members, have been in the press recently.)

"It's a different generation," she says of kids today. "They don't care. There's no hope. We had a lot of parents who got strung out on drugs. There's just no respect here. No type of respect."

Perceptions of danger differ

Weems blames the system—namely a lack of jobs—for the problems of local youth. Notably, she doesn't explicitly call for more police in the area. But maybe that's just down her list. "We need schools. We need retail. We need a lot in Brownsville."

"I think I live in the best and cleanest building" in Van Dyke, says Martin—who recently retired from the Administration for Children's Services after 27 years of service. But would she leave Brownsville if she could? "Oh, hell yeah."

Still, what really gets her goat is Channel 12, which she think paints Brownsville as more crime-ridden than it is. "It could be a crime in East New York—they always say 'Brownsville.'"

"It's not like we have dead people all over the ground," she adds. That's what outsiders miss, differences of degree. The statistics actually back that up. While the number of murders, rapes and robberies in Brownsville is much lower than it was a decade ago, there were about as many assaults in 2012 as there were in 2001.

During the day in the middle of winter, it was—not surprisingly—hard to find the bands of unruly teenagers that worry Weems and Martin. The only person under 50 visible in the neighborhood, a guy in his 20s walking down Powell Street, had face tattoos that didn't welcome inquiry. But when one was made, he said in a gentle voice that he couldn't talk. "I'm late to pick up my little one," he said, gesturing with his hand to about a three-year-old's height.

Meanwhile, a race for mayor

Lisa Kenner, the head of the Resident Association for Van Dyke I, is concerned about the respect issues like her friend Martin. Equally troubling to Kenner is the turf consciousness that young people in the area seem to have internalized. To her, beefs between this building and that building create red lines that constrain a childhood already hemmed in by poverty (Brooklyn Community District 16, which covers Brownsville, had a 39.8 percent poverty rate in 2010, fourth highest in the city).

That's one reason why she's organizing a youth conference for sometime this spring—an event for parents and kids. She wants to target children ages 5 through 12 "because nobody ever cares about the little ones. They always do it for the teenagers or the adults." Her longer-term goal is to find some role models for the young men in her midst. "We don’t have the males stepping up."

Kenner, a former Democratic district leader, is keeping one eye on the youth programming and another on the mayoral race. "Everybody's talking about it," she says, though Kenner is unusually engaged. BJ's sister didn't know there was a race on, but was glad to hear that Mayor Bloomberg is in his final year. "Thank God! He was ripping the city off, is all he was going," she said, strangely. Neither Weems nor Martin is paying much attention to the race yet; both voted for Bill Thompson in 2009.

Kenner says 2009 is the last time Thompson was seen out at Van Dyke; this absence is a reason she's leaning against voting for him. She likes Bill de Blasio, but isn't sure he'll rally enough support. Kenner feels a woman or Latino candidate might be what the electorate wants this year, and is inviting Christine Quinn to a women's history event she's planning (a "high tea," where the ladies in attendance wear hats, Kenner hopes).

As Kenner sits in her office in the basement of 422 Blake, a Barack Obama bobble-head vibrates subtly on the desk behind her. I ask Kenner and her friend Penny if their neighbors might feel some pull to vote for Thompson because he, like nearly all of them, is black. Both wave the notion off.

"Ain't no black or white thing now," Kenner insists. If you can give Brownsville what it needs, she'll vote for you, she says. "You could be a green tiger."

  • Simone

    My family lived in 422 Blake for years – apt 6H – we left in the early 80s just when things really started to get really get rocky, but even back then people living there and raising families there were discussing the same issues and voicing the same concerns. Some of us left and some of us stayed. And now with the re-gentrification of other rough but prime real estate areas in Brooklyn I can’t help but wonder if Brownsville will be next to be cleaned up and re-branded…