Along the steep landscape of the west Bronx where the roads run parallel to the Harlem River, a series of step-streets cuts almost vertically across the avenues. Lined by fences, trees, and fresh graffiti – red, black, green and white, sprayed in specific patterns on cold concrete – the step-streets act to connect Morris Heights residents on different avenues and altitudes.
But longtime residents like Cathy Stroud have gradually watched as pockets within Morris Heights have become riddled with separation and tension, delineated by housing complex and street, and marked with stories of shootings, candlelight memorials and weeping mothers.
“I don’t know if it’s so much gangs as it is rivals,” Stroud said slowly, as if choosing her words carefully. She’s lived at Riverview Apartments for 39 years and is the executive director of River Watch, a community outreach nonprofit based in a small office on the first floor of her building. “I don’t like you because of where you live, or that look you just gave me or because you’re talking to my girl. This has been going on for years and it’s steadily been escalating.”
There have been 19 murders so far this year in the 46th Precinct, which includes Morris Heights, according to the latest statistics from the NYPD. In all of 2010, there were 12.
But murder statistics don’t accurately reflect the number of shootings that didn’t result in a death, or incidents in the nearby 44th Precinct involving Morris Heights residents, like the shooting at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital in mid-November. The frequency has been increasing over the last few years, but after 20-year-old John Vasquez, Stroud’s neighbor, was shot and killed in September, she decided to do what she’s done before: fight back.
Twenty years ago, the step-streets were a repository for used needles, garbage and other forms of refuse. Drugs were a pervasive problem in the neighborhood, as in many areas of the Bronx, and fed violence. Hy Frankel, chief of staff to then-Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, was quoted in the New York Times describing the neighborhood as “bombed-out rubble, abandoned cars, really bad.”
In 1997, Stroud banded with a group of 15 or 20 neighbors who’d decided to clean up the mess, dubbing themselves the Undercliff-Sedgwick Neighborhood Safety Service Council.
“We were on top of the situation, cleaning the neighborhood physically,” the 70-year-old said. “We saw results pretty fast, over a couple of years. They noticed we were watching.”
Stroud’s weathered eyes perk up when she gets to the next phase in her story of triumph. In 1998, the nonprofit National Civic League recognized the Bronx as an “All-America City,” an award for towns or regional areas that have seen significant revitalization due to grassroots efforts. When the Bronx won, the organization specifically acknowledged the safety council for their work in cleaning up the drugs and violence in the west Bronx.
She doesn’t have the same committed neighborhood contingent this time around; the core members of the ‘90s safety council have moved away, are too elderly to participate or have simply died.
“I think … I think I’m the only one left,” Stroud said, nodding slowly and giving a slight, pursed-lip smile. “This time I’m relying on politicians. It’s their areas, so they should be involved and held accountable.”
In late September, she gathered elected officials like Assemblywoman Vanessa L. Gibson and community board chairman Dr. Bola Omotosho for a rally in the run-down playground adjacent to her building on Sedgwick Avenue. Emphatic speeches were given, the audience chanted, and a candlelight vigil was held for Vasquez as his mother and grandmother, both 20-year residents of Morris Heights, told friends that they were starting to look for apartments in other neighborhoods.
Then, in early November, they organized a march starting at River Park Towers on the corner of Cedar Avenue. Another event will be planned before Christmas, though Stroud isn’t sure when.
Each event has gathered about 100 people, though not usually at one time; residents filter in, stay for a while, and leave, chanting, “Stop the violence, increase the peace.” Young children carry signs decorated in bright colors.
“People have to be made aware,” Stroud said. Children and adults alike know her affectionately as Miss Cathy, and she makes an effort to get to know many of the young people in her building. “We don’t like it and it’s not good for our young people, these shootings. It doesn’t make sense how they’re valuing lives.”
Though she hasn’t been a part of Stroud’s rallies yet, Dayanna Torres, 27, was named the youth committee chairperson for Community Board 5 this year, one of the few leaders on the board who can relate to the young people in the district, not only because of her age, but because she grew up in the neighborhood.
Torres was 13 in 1997 when her family left an East Tremont apartment building that had become a crack house and moved into a building in Morris Heights, but the new location was the same: drug deals on corners, shootings and robbery. In 1998, there were 21 murders in the 46th precinct, not far off the current statistic. There were 43 in 1995.
“It was a normal part of our life,” Torres said. “That’s how I remember it.”
It wasn’t until she left for college a few years later – she now has a bachelor’s degree in communications and information management and two master’s degrees, in international relations and public relations, from Syracuse University – that Torres said she realized the violence and drugs shouldn’t have been so commonplace. After working for Big Brothers Big Sisters in Brooklyn and Queens, Torres is now employed at the New York City Housing Authority, recruiting candidates to enroll in job training.
“Growing up here, a gun shot means nothing,” Torres said. “We can’t accept that and raise our children like that, thinking that it’s normal.”
Still, Torres said she’s torn over whether the rallies will address the problem, preferring direct contact and counseling with young people to find the source of each person’s struggles.
Stroud is confident that the rallies and speeches will reduce the violence and garner attention from powers-that-be as it has in the past. But although other community leaders agree that something must be done, many aren’t so sure the speeches will be enough.
In fact, 46th precinct community affairs officer Luis Melendez, who remembers the rallies in the late ‘90s, said he wasn’t entirely sure the group’s effort back then had a direct impact on the overarching drug use and violence, or that it would now.
“I think those kind of things make people aware and it educates people about what’s going on,” said Melendez, who has been serving the precinct for 26 years. “I mean, we had a peace rally a couple weeks ago and then had a shootout.”
Melendez said he thought the biggest hurdle for Stroud and her new band of neighbors would be getting enough people involved because so many are afraid to go outside after dark.
“I think they feel like if they don’t face the problem, it won’t affect them, that it’ll just go away,” Melendez said. “It’s tough to force someone to come out of their house and march down a street where they know there may have been some violence. At what point do you stop caring and bar yourself up in your house, or get involved?”
Stroud agreed that participation was her most daunting challenge, especially as the shootings continue. Planning a gathering on the heels of any recent hostility won’t work, she said just a few days after a mid-November streak of shootings Bronx-wide, including an errant bullet that hit a 4-year-old in the midst of an evening robbery near the Fordham Road shopping district.
“If we had a rally today, this week, we’d have very few people show up now, when it’s all still fresh,” she said.
Stroud isn’t the only one attempting to make a difference in community quality of life. Sidney Flores has been taking matters into his own hands for the past few years as a self-appointed peacekeeper and community activist in Mount Eden, the neighborhood next to Morris Heights.
But rallies and marches aren’t enough for the 52-year-old handyman. He works largely out of his Toyota Highlander, making the rounds with stacks of fliers for Crimestoppers, a New York City Police Foundation organization that provides rewards for information about violent crimes, strewn across the SUV’s dashboard. A police radio sits in the center console so he knows when and where to turn up with hot cocoa for officers or a helpful pair of binoculars.
He keeps a roll of yellow caution tape handy for when he stumbles upon open potholes and other pedestrian hazards, and has called 311 so many times that the operators know him by name.
“What we really need is to patrol our neighborhoods – that’s the bottom line,” Flores said. “Rallies are fine to get out your feelings, but people need to do what I do. When they talk about taking back their neighborhoods, they’re not doing it. They do it for the day, for the rally.”
Rolling past a corner bodega in late November, he spotted a new set of candles, signed posters and Yankees caps that had been placed strategically in a cluster – the clear sign of a violent death in the area.
“This one happened on Friday, I think,” Flores said, lowering his voice. He pointed to the top of an iron gate next to the memorial where a navy blue and white bandana hung precariously between the spikes. “See that? That usually means it was gang related.”
Leaving the scene, Flores, dressed in a blue tracksuit and sneakers, paused and shook his head, concerned about the cruelty of the recent shootings. He said he views the violence as a community tragedy and suggested the National Guard be brought in.
“It’s scary because a lot of the victims are getting shot in the head, instead of a few shots in the body like it used to be,” he said. “These gangs really get angry at each other. There’s no love.”
Both Flores and community board chairman Omotosho have been supporting Stroud’s mobilization effort by attending the rallies, but agree the solution to the problem is clear: more police personnel. Inspector Timothy Bugge, commanding officer at the 46th Precinct, said the number of officers on his force has been 275, the same as last year, but Omotosho has lobbying the City Council for more.
“The same way the city advertises the effects of smoking, they should display the effects of guns,” Omotosho said. “The violence needs to be treated as terrorism. The entire city is under siege.”
Omotosho’s main fear, however, is that pockets within the community district and the city at large aren’t putting forth a united front when it comes to rallying efforts like Stroud’s. He said he still believes she’ll be successful in raising awareness in the immediate neighborhood, but he’s worried her efforts could simply push the hostility to other areas of the Bronx.
“Unfortunately, a lot of community leaders are territorial,” he said. “I talk about the city as a whole because we as a community, as a district, don’t have the resources. All we can do is see what’s out there and go to our elected officials.”
But while an increased police presence would help, Torres is worried it wouldn’t affect the source of the issue, which she said she believes starts in the home. She brings a special kind of expertise to the community leadership – not only because she grew up here, surrounded by similar temptations, but because much of her prior employment has related to working with young people in single-parent, low-income homes, where high school dropout rates are high.
“I always say, statistically, my life doesn’t fit what my surrounding was or what was expected,” she said, crediting her single, Dominican Republic-born mother for instilling a sense of drive and high self-esteem. “These kids can be deterred from thinking that being in a gang is their only option if they have a strong support system at home. We can’t depend on better lighting and more police presence because it doesn’t target the real problem.”
Torres said she thinks more direct involvement with young people is critical, both the troubled ones and the successful ones. She warns other community board members against becoming so fearful of the troublemakers that they become blind to the kids accomplishing their goals.
“Highlighting the achievement of kids in the same neighborhoods and showing that there’s no excuse, other kids will see that they can go another route,” Torres said. “The message has to meet them where they are and do it at an early age instead of when it’s too late.”
For Stroud, that’s what the rallies are all about – to educate young adults about options to be more productive members of society, and showing that the police can have a relationship with residents beyond showing up, lights flashing, in the middle of the night to arrest a perpetrator or cordon off a street.
“I see that I need to give back,” she said. “I have a passion to see that our young people can have productive lives and have the resources without the fear of walking down the street.”