In Newburgh, Gangs and Violence Reign
As Charley puts it: “What is it about black “culture” that turns everything to complete shit? “. Good question and I think we all know the answer.
Hat tip: Charley J
NEWBURGH, N.Y. — It started with adolescent taunting near a frozen pond on a January afternoon and soon escalated into a brawl.
By the time it was over, Levi King Flores, a 17-year-old suspected gang member, was dead from a stab wound between his shoulder blades. A 13-year-old was in jail for his murder. And the year was off to a bloody start.
Gang violence is nothing new in this dilapidated city an hour north of Manhattan. Built along a scenic bluff on the west bank of the Hudson River, Newburgh has long been known for problems far out of proportion to its population of 29,000. In the 1960s and ’70s, it was racial strife and disastrous urban renewal efforts. In the 1980s, when the city was known as “crack alley,” it was drug-fueled violence, which has ebbed and flowed here ever since.
But this latest round of violence is shining a harsh new glare on the city, both for the intensity of the attacks and the young ages of many of those involved. The community led the state in violent crimes per capita in 2008 and is on course to do so again this year.
Gang violence has been responsible for all but 2 or 3 of the city’s 16 homicides in the last two and a half years. By law enforcement estimates, gang members with national affiliations outnumber the city’s police by a ratio of three to one, not counting the hundreds of young people in homegrown groups.
At a Senate hearing with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in Washington last month, Senator Charles E. Schumer called the situation in Newburgh “shocking.”
“There are reports of shootouts in the town streets, strings of robberies and gang assaults with machetes,” Mr. Schumer said.
At the senator’s urging, Mr. Holder promised to send a top-level official to Newburgh to examine the problem. Even before that assurance, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York had already made Newburgh one of its top priorities in the region after a spate of killings in 2008.
“I think that we will see shortly some of the results of that work,” Mr. Holder said at the hearing.
Newburgh’s persistent violence is remarkable considering what the community is not: a big city. Though people on the streets here like to call it the sixth borough of New York, it is no such thing, either in density or geography.
Adorned with brick row houses and 19th-century Gothic Revival mansions, relics of its industrial past, the city has a certain nostalgic charm. Pleasure boats and upscale restaurants with colorful awnings line the riverfront esplanade. From there, a grassy slope leads to Grand Street, a tree-lined avenue where the expansive homes of the city’s Gilded Age stand in varying states of renovation and neglect.
But just a few blocks away is Lander Street, a menacing little stretch of boarded-up row houses and graffiti-tagged walls that has become one of the state’s most implacable centers of poverty and violence. Young men with pit bulls occupy porch stoops at all hours, guarding barely concealed drug markets inside. It is one of several such streets within a few blocks in the city’s northeast end that law enforcement officials say are mainly controlled by the Bloods street gang, the city’s largest with an estimated 160 members.
A number of homegrown groups — not formal gangs necessarily, but with the same territorial and violent tendencies — occupy various blocks and bear names like Ashey Bandits, Ave World and D-Block.
The narrow avenues and one-way streets make it hard for police — even in unmarked cars that are by now well known by the residents, including a green Chevrolet Suburban they call the “Green Goblin” — to sneak up on anybody.
“As soon as we turn the corner, they call out ‘One time!’ ” said Officer Joseph Palermo, on a recent night patrol.
The city’s southeast side, a largely Hispanic area known as the Heights, is controlled by Hispanic gangs like the Latin Kings, la Eme and a local group known as the Benkard Barrio Kings.
A sense of how embedded the gang culture has become can be gleaned at the local high school, the Newburgh Free Academy.
Two years ago, Torrance Harvey, a social studies teacher, and Mark Wallace, the school’s violence prevention coordinator, created a class where students could come and talk about issues important to them. During a recent session, Mr. Harvey drew a diagram on the board with the word “community” in the center and asked the class to define it. The students rattled off the usual institutions: churches, schools, law enforcement. But high on the list they also called out “gang-bangers,” “drug dealers” and “crackheads.”
Central to the problem, Mr. Harvey and Mr. Wallace said, is the lack of jobs and activities available to young people. The city has no supermarkets, one Boys and Girls Club that is closed on weekends and a virtually nonexistent bus system, leaving young people without cars too far from the only steady source of employment, at regional malls well outside of town.
“Kids are energy,” Mr. Wallace said, “and if they don’t have some place to go, where are they going to go? The corner.”
Many of those involved are not yet teenagers. Among those stabbed in the January fight was a 12-year-old who, while later testifying against Mr. Flores’s killer, lifted his shirt in court to show his knife wounds. Three months later, that same boy would find himself in jail along with seven others, accused of beating and stabbing a man nearly to death with baseball bats and knives.
“That’s the thing: Today’s victim is tomorrow’s suspect,” said Joseph Cortez, a Newburgh gang detective.
To complicate matters, the acting city manager, Richard F. Herbek, soberly announced earlier this year that Newburgh was broke. It needs $10 million to make it through the rest of this year and is facing a $6 million shortfall in the coming year, leading to fears of further cuts to community services, including the Police Department, which is already down to about 85 officers from a high of more than 100 a few years ago. Officials, though, say police cuts would be a last resort.
“It’s a tough, urban city,” said Nicholas Valentine, a tailor who doubles as the mayor of Newburgh. “We have pockets in this city that will rival any other area in the northeast, from Cleveland to Detroit, and we don’t have the resources to deal with it.”
Sitting on a stoop on Chambers Street recently, a 19-year-old woman, who asked that her name not be used for safety concerns, said she began “gang-banging” in seventh grade and stayed with it until a few months ago. She belonged to D-Block, an informal group named for nearby Dubois Street.
“I had the flag going on, the clothes going on, all that,” she said.
She had followed the example of her older brother, she said. “I’d see him getting so much respect outside in the ’hood, and I’m like, ‘That’s my bro, I want that respect,’ ” she said.
By 10th grade, she was selling marijuana, making as much as $2,500 a week. She had clothes, jewelry, everything she says a young girl could want. “You hear kids with jobs and as much money as they get paid in a week,” she said. “I was making that in a day or two, you know.”
But for her, things began to change the night of May 6, 2008. That night, Jeffrey Zachary, a baby-faced 15-year-old, was killed in a drive-by shooting across from his house on Dubois Street. Police officials said he was not a gang member and had been hit mistakenly.
The woman, who had been with Jeffrey earlier that day, wanted revenge. Everyone in D-Block did. But his mother, who had lost another son in nearly identical fashion three years earlier, pleaded with them not to retaliate.
“She said ‘Listen, that’s not what I want,’ ” the 19-year-old recalled. “ ‘This is going to go on and on, it’s never going to stop.’ And she was right.”
For Jeffrey’s family, his death was overwhelming. His sister, Tova Zachary, 23, had been in the house when she heard the shots. She ran out to find her brother on the ground. She clutched him, pleading with him: “Please don’t go. Hold on. Hold on.”
That night, she sneaked into the emergency ward at nearby St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital a few blocks away where doctors were trying to save her brother. She had done the same thing three years earlier as doctors tried in vain to save her other brother, Trent, 19.
“Everyone always mentions that they died in the exact same way,” Ms. Zachary said. “But not everyone knows they died in the exact same emergency room.”
Jeffrey Zachary’s death resonated beyond the neighborhood. In his office in Goshen, about 30 miles away, James Gagliano, an F.B.I. special agent who is head of the Hudson Valley gang task force, keeps a yellowed newspaper clipping of the teenager’s death under his desktop glass.
Mr. Gagliano had coached youth basketball in Newburgh for years. Though he never coached Mr. Zachary, he remembered him from the courts playing for a youth team at St. Mary’s Church.
“I can’t tell you how many times I saw him there,” Mr. Gagliano recalled. “When he caught a bullet and he was the second kid in that family to die as a result of gang of violence — you talk about a mother’s grief.”
Jeffrey Zachary’s death came about the same time that Mr. Gagliano took over as agent in charge in the Hudson Valley region, armed with orders to build federal gang cases, starting in Newburgh. Over the next several months, the number of agents whose primary focus was gangs increased from 1 to 10. He also enlisted the aid of the local police, the State Police and other federal agencies to build a 30-member gang task force to go after the city’s most hardened gangsters. But building federal cases takes time, and jail is only part of the solution, said Mr. Gagliano, a kinetic West Point graduate whose arms are covered with tattoos from years of undercover work.
For that reason, he has also taken an unusually active role in the community, lobbying city officials and business leaders to build an activity center where young people can learn job skills, play basketball or indoor soccer and find a safe place away from the street corners.
“Newburgh is hemorrhaging, and we have to make a change,” he said. “And it can’t just be on the law enforcement side.”
Others are also taking up that charge. A group of mothers who have lost children to violence recently formed an organization called Mothers for Upward Movement. They hope to raise money to pay for recreational activities for young people like bus trips to the Bronx Zoo.
“So many of these kids have never even been out of the community,” said Jennifer Murchison, 39, whose 16-year-old son James Murchison was stabbed to death in May 2008.
Reflecting recently on her lost son, who was the second oldest of her five children, Ms. Murchison started doing a silent roll call in her head.
“I’m almost 40, and all my friends are still alive,” she said finally. “My kids are young, and they’ve lost at least eight friends, and a brother.”