Friday, November 20, 2009

Violence in a Familiar Place

Young People Left Behind in Morrisania’s Housing Renaissance

Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University

When I picked up the paper two days ago and read about the shooting of Vada Vasquez on a Bronx street corner, I felt a chill go through me. Not only was it depressing to read about another young person hit by a stray bullet in an inner city neighborhood- there have been too many such stories in recent weeks- but the corner the shooting took place on, Home Street and Prospect Avenue, is one I have driven by hundreds of times, and walked through at least twenty times when leading tours of Historic Morrisania for teachers, student groups and visitors from abroad.

This particular shooting took place in the heart of what was once the Bronx’s largest and most dynamic Black community, a place which hummed with vitality in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s and produced an unmatched variety of poplar music ranging from jazz, to mambo, to doo wop, to salsa and funk. Even in the 70’s, when the neighborhood was devastated by fires, young people living in it helped create a new music form- hip hop- which eventually became the voice of disfranchised young people throughout the world. Today, Morissania is still a center of musical creativity, with new groups of immigrants form Africa, Mexico and the Dominican Republic fusing their musical cultures with hip hop and R & B. The very corner on which Vada Vasquez was shot, Home and Prospect, was the first place I saw young people in the Bronx performing a new kind of street dance that they had created called “Getting Lite.”

But all of this wonderful history meant little when I thought of Vada Vasquez, lying on life support in a local hospital, or the 16 year old who allegedly shot her,
Carvett Gentles, who may spend most of his life in jail. Why did this tragedy take place? And why was hardly anybody who lives in Morrisania surprised that someothing like this happened?

Some of the blame for this shooting has to be assigned to the easy availability of guns on the streets of New York,, many of them brought in from states like Virgninia which make it as easy to buy a gun as it is to buy a portable CD player

But much of it has to be attributed to the misguided priorities of those who have controlled community economic development in the City of New York.

From the outside, the neighborhood Vada Vasquez was shot in looks like a great New York City success story. If you walk ten blocks in any direction from the corner of Prospect and Home, you will see literally thousands of units of new residential housing placed on what were once vacant lots, some of them townhouses, some of them apartment buildings, most of them built in the last five years,

When I first encountered this wave of new construction several years ago, I was inclined to see it as a kind of Bronx Renaissance until Leroi Archibald, a long time Bronx activist and one of the wisest men I know said to me “Mark, what are they going to do with all the kids who are going to leave here? They haven’t built a single youth center or recreation facility along with all the housing. Those kids are all going to be out in the street and getting into trouble.”

More prophetic words have rarely been uttered. With thousands of units of new housing going up in Morrisania, virtually all of them being occupied by families with young children, why hasn’t someone in City Planning or HPD seen fit to make sure at least one new youth center, either operated by the City or a non profit organization, be built in the neighborhood.

Worse yet, why haven’t local elected officials pressed the Department of Education to keep every school in the neighborhood- and there are at least ten within walking distance of Home and Prospect- open from 3 PM to 10 PM with arts, sports and supervise recreation?

Morrisania is a neighborhood filled with teenagers who have nothing to do when they leave school- there are no jobs-- in part because there are almost no stores- no sports programs, no art programs, no places where they can congregate under adult supervision

Should anyone be surprised if they hang out on the streets, sell drugs, join gangs? What else do they have to do? Where else do they have to go?

It’s time that policy makers at all levels make youth issues a top priority when doing community economic development.

First of all, whenever large numbers of housing units are placed in particular neighborhood, youth centers should be built which offer free sports and arts programs to local children and adolescents. I am going to establish an arbitrary ratio- 5,000 units of new housing equals one youth center. Let’s make this official city policy.

Secondly, every school in New York City should be open from 3 PM to 9 PM for supervised recreation under the direction of licensed, public school teachers. This is what we had fifty years ago in New York, and we need to bring this program back. Our young people desperately need mentors like Vincent Tibbs, who ran the night center at PS 99, only two blocks from Prospect and Home, who influenced thousands of Morrisania young people to stay in school and keep out of trouble. As a model for the rest of the city, let’s open a Vincent Tibbs Center in PS 99 and invite all the young people in the neighborhood to use it on a regular basis. I’ll bet if we do that, there will be a lot less shootings

Finally, let’s put back the recreation supervisors in the City’s vest pocket parks, positions which were eliminated in the 70’s, and which we desperately need today. Fiftty years ago, just ten blocks from Prospect and Home, a “parkie” named Hilton White ran a community basketball program that served hundreds of youngsters and sent scores of its graduates to college, including 3 of the starters on the Texas Western team that won the NCAA Championship in 1966. Our young people need mentors like Hilton White even more now than they did then. Bring the Parkies back!

The policies I am suggesting all cost money. But no more than the money it takes to put and keep young people in prison.

It’s time we invest in young people before they turn to acts of violence

If we don’t, we are going to read more and more stories about broken dreams and wasted lives.

Mark Naison
November 20, 2009