Carmelo Rodriguez says he’s lived in “hot” areas in the past, parts of the city like Tremont and Stapleton.
Now, he lives in a private home in the Bronx, not far from Eastchester Gardens, one site of gang raids by the NYPD and federal agents this week, said by authorities to be the largest such operation in city history.
Rodriguez, 42, says in the winter, when it’s empty, his son likes to play in the playground, particularly crawling through the short plastic bridge. But as it gets warmer, Rodriguez says he’ll take his son elsewhere.
It feels unsafe for a child, he says, when the benches and playground area are crowded with young men smoking marijuana and hanging out, he says, instead of kids. He says he takes a different route home in those cases.
“It’s a shame,” he says, but “a bullet don’t got no name.”
The pre-dawn, show-of-force busts targeted two rival gangs engaged in drug sales in the area and whose rivalry is said to be the source of multiple killings, spanning nearly 10 years of violence — reportedly including the death of an elderly woman by a stray bullet in 2009.
Eighty-seven suspects from the original raids were charged in federal court.
At Eastchester Gardens on Thursday, some residents said they were glad for the police attention, though others claimed some of the people swept up in the police action had been minimally involved if at all with the gangs.
Only a handful of people walked the complex's quiet paths in the afternoon on the day after the raids — two kids throwing a baseball on a stretch of grass, others wandering past a basketball court, with what appeared to be new hoops whose rims had yet to be installed.
Near the court, an adult harangued two children about the “choices” they’d have to make soon, and urged them to make the right ones, before walking away without giving his name. The children, elementary school students, said they’d played basketball with some of the people arrested. The suspects had been arrested because of “what they used to do,” one said, even though they were “trying to change.”
William Foster, executive director of Neighborhood Initiatives Development Corp., which operates a community center at Eastchester Gardens, called the gang busts “a good start” although “moving the violence that existed only creates a vacuum.”
“If everyone around you is in a gang, you either join a gang for protection or you lead a precarious life,” Foster says.
NIDC tries to help young adults break out of that cycle with afterschool and recreational programs. The center is working to line up employment training, as well as youth programming for the summer, though Foster says funding from the city for the summer is not yet firm.
Clearing the top
Along with the criminal charges, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara also noted that his office's civil division is investigating health and safety conditions at NYCHA developments.
This focus on underlying conditions is an important piece of the puzzle. Public safety should be a right to NYCHA residents, as should working elevators and functional appliances and lighting.
Derrick Haynes, a community activist in the Manhattanville Houses in Harlem which have also been troubled by gang violence and experienced its own gang raids in 2014, says violent conditions can lead to the need for law enforcement intervention.
Situations where "Little kids can't play in the park," for example: “Nobody wants to live like this,” he says.
But there is also a need for “socioeconomic services,” says Haynes, to help prevent the conditions that lead to gangs flourishing. These services include thriving community centers, especially non-“cookie cutter” programs, Haynes says, which should include various stakeholders and engage kids when they’re likely to be tempted to other activities — nighttime, summers.
After the raids in Manhattanville, Haynes says "the shootings did stop, and some of the back and forth things did stop." But mainly, the arrests "cleared the top off," and there were other kids who filled the vacant spots.
“What do you do after the raid?” he asks.
This is amExpress, the conversation starter for New Yorkers. Subscribe at amny.com/amexpress.