Does It Still Take A Village?
On Sunday, an emergency summit was convened to talk about possible solutions to youth violence in the community. The summit was spurred by the recent barrage of shootings that took place in Harlem over the Memorial Day weekend where many young people were wounded. Politicians (including Governor Paterson), law enforcement officials, and community representatives all pointed to lax gun laws, lack of youth centers, and a frustratingly high level of unemployment as catalysts that affect the escalation of violence in communities where people are impoverished.
The sudden cluster of events forced the spotlight on our beloved Harlem once again . Only this time the attention was not grabbed by new condos, new anchor retail stores, or even the controversial redevelopment along 125th Street. Rather it was a story that might have fit better on a news article from 1992 when stories of violence in Harlem were commonplace. The thought of 10 people (6 of them teens) being shot along a 20 block stretch of the neighborhood seems a mismatch to the promises of a “new, chic Harlem” that many real estate websites capitalize on these days. Rather, it brings to the forefront one important issue that has been simmering and has finally reached a boiling point. No amount of redevelopment or gentrification (you pick a term) can singularly cure the ails of a historically disadvantaged community. While many community advocates have lambasted developers for taking away from the culture and the “look” of the neighborhood a whole other issue is being ignored. It is the subculture of gang and gun violence that is still very much a part of the new Harlem. This was around before gentrification and is still around now.
While tougher gun laws are crucial to dealing with violence on our streets there are issues that need to be dealt with on a micro level. The fact is that a new Pathmark or Duane Reade may light up the streets better and get the drug dealers off the corner but there are a lot more corners and back streets in Harlem that are left to exploit. Perhaps some people feel that as long as that “hood” element is confined to those streets with public housing and doesn’t spill over to the condos every-thing’s OK. We saw proof that it isn’t OK. In fact the latest shootings spilled over onto 125th Street, Harlem’s main thoroughfare and the future site of the River-to-River project. Among all the new wealth that is being created one has to ask “How come none of these new condo buildings have youth programs or community centers?” They receive financial incentives through tax abatements and rezoning laws but nothing is being injected into the veins of the community except commercialization. All these new buildings have Duane Reade’s, Chase Bank branches, Starbucks, and New York Sports Clubs. Do we really need that many more? None of them have a new P.A.L. facility or other youth sports program. There are no new Scores (except for the one on 125th Street and a Komin center on 8th Avenue). There is no investment in learning centers other than a few scattered programs that many families in Harlem cannot afford. There is nothing that betters the lives of our youth directly.
For years the Salvation Army and other modestly funded school programs have historically carried the burden of positively affecting our youth through summer programs and after school programs. However they have been over burdened, filled to capacity, and in some cases defunded rendering them unable to capture the thousands of youths that are lured into deadly gang alliances. Harlem’s youth violence will not be cured with a new Macy’s or a Chuck E. Cheese. It will take investment into our own community to provide outlets where youths can take refuge.
Secondly, it will involve real, effective meetings and summits that our youths can connect to. I am grateful that these emergency summits and meetings have been called. Their purpose is to show the community that these events are not being ignored. Now these symbolic gestures must be met with action and a call for measurable results. The people we must have present at these meetings are the youths themselves. And they are not going to show up to places where politicians whom they cannot connect with or law enforcement officials are present. Summits must be called by people who were involved in gangs themselves and turned their lives around. These meetings have to be called by people who have been there, done that, and made it out. These are the voices that our youths will listen to.
Finally, this is a call to our parents. There is no denying that there is a strong connection between youth violence and the lack of adult role models in the family. And without falling prey to stereotypes this is still a prevalent condition in Harlem. There are many families where the head male parent is either involved in illegal activities or in jail. And those that are home work long hours and can dedicate little if no time to sitting down with their children. These are real problems. However, there are also families of single mothers (and fathers) who try there best to juggle a job and at the same time stay active in their children’s lives. It is by far no easy task, but it can be done. Parents must reconquer their homes. Even if there were no programs or youth centers they would be the first line of defense. They must fulfill their roles as providers and the most important teachers for their children. They must retake the mantel of order in the household. We cannot let the streets raise our children or they will be killed by the streets. This cannot be a piecemeal effort. The Village of Harlem must take back the reigns of our streets for the sake of our youth. Churches, real-estate developers, politicians, teachers, and all citizens of Harlem old and new need to make a concerted effort to make sure our streets are safe again and remain that way for years to come.
Photo Credit: The New York Times