Brownsville’s ‘broken windows’…



Between Thanksgiving weekend and the first week in January, when the gang rape of an 18-year-old woman in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn was reported, the neighborhood could too easily have found confirmation that it was a place doomed to lurid violence, if its broader history hadn’t proved the claim.

On the morning of Nov. 27, Robert Hinton, who two months earlier had been awarded a settlement from the city, ending a lawsuit against the guards who had beaten him on Rikers Island, was shot to death in Brownsville. Later that night, a father and his grown son, said to have been gang members, were also killed. In mid-December it was determined that an elderly woman who had been found dead in her apartment several weeks earlier, presumably of natural causes, had in fact been stabbed in the neck.

The murders all took place within the bleak and dangerous parameters of Brownsville’s public housing complexes, where both crime and the Police Department’s efforts to impede it have been concentrated. The suspected rape, which has led to the arrest of five teenage boys, did not; it occurred at night, in a playground (adjacent to a school), which was neither locked nor adequately lighted.

Six days after the attack, in the early evening, the playground remained very dark, and even during rush hour, foot traffic around its borders was minimal. Three of the four lights attached to a small building of toilets illuminated a tiny section of the park, but on the night that the incident occurred all three of those lights were broken. A handball court almost entirely walls off another quadrant of the park, situated in a low-density section of Brownsville, from public view.

The case, with bizarre and conflicting details as if from a Richard Price novel, has emerged to highlight, affirm and upend common biases surrounding urban poverty. A father and his teenage daughter were drinking together on a Thursday night, in the park; you can hear the refrain of good liberals telling themselves that this would never happen among the chess-playing families of Park Slope. Some of the suspects said the father and daughter were having sex, a claim one law enforcement official felt the need to point out would not mean that the woman “was not a victim of a pretty horrific attack.” What seemed to go unrecognized was that if the assertion turned out to be true, she would already have been horribly victimized.

Beyond that, two of the suspects were turned in by their mothers, women clearly unafraid of difficult lessons in consequence. The gesture provided an image strikingly different from what we received at the hands of Tonya Couch, known to the world as the affluenza mom, who was accused of helping her privileged son leave the country to avoid probation for killing four people in a drunken-driving accident.

Although the events that unfolded at the Osborn Playground on Jan. 7 are still unclear, what seems obvious, as it did in the case of Akai Gurley, mistakenly shot to death in a dark stairway in the Louis Pink Houses in East New York when a light bulb was out, is the inconsistency with which “broken windows” policing is practiced. The philosophy behind it is that safety and civility arise as a function of well-maintained public spaces, and yet, not surprisingly, it is the challenged neighborhoods that are the most poorly tended. Playgrounds in Brooklyn Heights, for example, are locked at night, precisely, one assumes, to protect the well-established from whatever might erupt if the ill-behaved were to congregate there.

Consider the state of Osborn Playground alongside the story of Shamuel Cherry, a teenager in Brownsville who was needlessly funneled into the criminal justice system. Over a year ago, Mr. Cherry was confronted by a police officer in the lobby of a building in the Tilden Houses; he lives in the Tilden Houses but he didn’t live in the particular building where he was approached. This was apparently problematic, as was the fact that he wasn’t carrying identification. As a result, he was ticketed. When he didn’t appear in court to resolve the issue — because, he said, he felt he had done nothing wrong — he was issued a bench warrant.

Fortunately, Mr. Cherry was remanded to the Brownsville Community Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that works to help young people — through counseling, tutoring, mentoring and paid internships — who have had contact with the legal system.

One of the center’s stated goals, James Brodick, the executive director, recently told me in his office, is to improve public space in the neighborhood, essential as it is to crime prevention.

Empty lots are a problem in Brownsville. So are vacant storefronts, particularly along Belmont Avenue, where businesses have vanished over the years because of the violent feuds among neighboring housing projects. The Justice Center has spearheaded projects both to revitalize Belmont Avenue and to build a clubhouse, designed by young people, in a shipping container in a vacant lot on Chester Avenue. The idea is to hold movie screenings there, as well as games, sporting events and so on. Prior misery isn’t destiny. Over a year ago, Brownsville got a clean and bright gym on Rockaway Avenue, a branch of Planet Fitness, where membership is $10 a month. It has punctured the neighborhood’s drab streetscape of check-cashing outfits and dollar stores. If only the city could keep the rest of Brownsville looking as energized.

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