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Harlem Caught in the Crossfire of Youth Gangs

By DNAinfo Staff on December 16, 2009 7:52am  | Updated on December 19, 2009 9:28am

By Jon Schuppe, Shayna Jacobs and Jason Tucker

DNAinfo Staff

HARLEM — From East Harlem to Sugar Hill, more than two dozen youth gangs are claiming territory and pulling triggers over petty rivalries.

They are not Los Angeles-style gangs such as the Bloods and Crips. They are crews of local kids from the same block, or cluster of blocks, authorities say, with names like “Broad Day Shooters,” “Gun Clappin Goonies,” “From Da Zoo,” and “Money Stackin High.”

Representing their turf often comes down to street-corner clashes, such as a Nov. 18 afternoon shooting in which a purported member of the "Original Young Gangsters" opened fire on a rival at the corner of Lenox Avenue and 135th Street and mistakenly hit a 66-year-old grandmother. The victim, Virginia Valree, was hit in the leg and survived.

Other Harlem residents tell stories of being caught in a gun battle, of seeing a crowd of teens running down their blocks with sticks and bats and shovels, of being too intimidated to walk to the corner Laundromat.

And they’re fed up.

“We can’t be afraid of our children anymore,” said Barbara Nelson, a resident of West 150th Street and a member of Community Board 10.  

Gangs have existed in Harlem for years, but authorities have renewed their interest relatively recently. By making it a priority, they've learned about how the gangs operate, and shared that information with the public, a law enforcement official said.

"We're just much more aware right now than we've ever been," the official said.

The gang problem—and a more general youth-violence problem—broke into public view after a Memorial Day 2008 gang shootout in which six young people were injured. Since then, several more juveniles have been injured or killed in shootings, some of which have been linked to gang activity.

This is happening even as crime continues its steep decline across Harlem and the rest of Manhattan. In Harlem’s 32nd precinct, where much of the gang battles are taking place, overall crime is down more than 9 percent this year, including a drop in murders and assaults.

There have been several gang-related shootings in recent months, and many gang members deal drugs. But authorities say the Harlem gangs—also referred to as crews, or groups, or “street teams”— often engage in activity that doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of serious crime. They fight, break things, “tag” sidewalks and buildings with graffiti, or just hang out in large, loud groups.

They also post videos of some of their antics, or lack thereof, on YouTube, MySpace and other social networking Web sites, tagged with their gang names.

Deputy Inspector Kevin Catalina, commander of the 32nd Precinct, spends many nights addressing block associations, tenants associations and other community forums on the gang issue.

He told residents of West 130th Street about feuds between a gang at 129th Street and Lenox Avenue, and another in the Saint Nicholas public housing complex.

“Between them is where you all live,” he said.

Catalina, a former commander of the Queens gang squad, has said that the NYPD is on “an aggressive campaign” against gangs. “Sky Watch” portable surveillance towers have been deployed on violent street corners. Rookie officers flood crime hotspots called "impact zones." In less serious cases, officers take the youths to the station house and call their parents to come get them.

Even so, Sky Watch can't see everything. There have been two shootings within a block of one installed at Lenox Avenue and 131st Street in the past six weeks.

The NYPD is also working with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to throw the book at the most violent gang members, Catalina has said. That strategy is based on the theory that most violent crime is committed by a relatively small number of hard-core gang members. Police have already noticed a drop in shootings where those people have been arrested and jailed.

Mylinda Lee worries about her 16-year-old daughter, who hangs out with boys and girls from different blocks. She tells her to be careful where she goes, and with whom.

“Every time you turn around, (the gangs) are making new territory, a new place to fight, and she’s not part of it, so she doesn’t know,” Lee said.  

But many long-time residents don’t want to rely on the police. They see the crews as manifestations of a variety of social problems. Many gang members have fathers in prison or otherwise absent from their lives or they may be getting raised by an elderly grandparent. They have little money and few opportunities to work or participate in after-school or recreational programs. In short, they're available and impressionable.

Rev. Vernon Williams takes to the streets late at night to confront the gangs. Guided by text message tips, he goes where the battles are happening. He tries to talk gang members out of fighting each other, and has managed to earn the trust of gangs and the police.

“When you call the police you’re asking them to suppress the situation,” Williams recently told residents of West 128th Street. “We need to cultivate them. These are our kids.”