Twelve hours into 2007, Brownsville registered the city’s first murder of the year—a 26-year-old man shot in the back while walking to the store. This year, the neighborhood held the same unfortunate distinction: Just after 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day, another 26-year-old—shot in the chest in front of a Brownsville housing project—became the city’s first murder victim of 2008.
The intervening year was chaotic and violent in this pocket of Brooklyn. As the citywide murder rate was dropping to its lowest level in decades, murder was on the rise in four neighborhoods here: Brownsville, East New York, Bushwick, and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Together, these adjacent police precincts in northeastern Brooklyn accounted for nearly a fifth of the city’s murders and almost half the borough’s. The police scanner rang out with these locales all year: a teen shot in the head in Bushwick Houses; two teens and a 21-year-old gunned down on Brownsville’s Lott Avenue, the site of at least three shootings; a 16-year-old pounded with two slugs to the chest in Bed-Stuy’s Tompkins Houses. On it went.
Of course, like the rest of the city, northeast Brooklyn is still phenomenally safer than it once was. Back in the early nineties, people in these neighborhoods got killed at two and three times last year’s rate. “We had 765 murders in 1990; this morning it was 207,” said Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, a few days before Brooklyn’s final 2007 tally reached 212. Still, the murder rate here has been trending upward—with occasional fluctuations—since 2001. What is making this part of Brooklyn so resistant to the positive developments in the rest of the city? In 2003, Hynes commissioned a study to try to answer this question. “I woke up one day and said, ‘I can’t figure this out. We see the numbers coming down, but we see certain areas of definable levels of violence, particularly homicidal violence, and maybe we should go to academe [for answers].’ ”
What the academics found was a new kind of gang. The massive, corporate-style drug organizations of the eighties and early nineties are long gone from the streets of Brooklyn—driven out during the boom years by aggressive policing and an improved economic outlook. What they left in their wake is a wildly fractured drug market populated by an amorphous and crowded field of close-knit, hard-to-identify miniature gangs—and a form of violence that may be even more difficult to tamp down than what came before it.
Names like “Crips” and “Bloods” conjure images of old-school, dyed-in-the-wool gangsters orchestrating crime through disciplined, hierarchical posses. But that’s not modern New York. “These are all young kids,” says Ric Curtis, chair of John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s anthropology department and one of the authors of Hynes’s study. “They may claim allegiance to ‘Bloods,’ but it’s a bunch of neighborhood guys who got together and decided to call themselves Bloods.”
They’re still gangs, to be sure, but the label is more stylistic than organizational. The distinction’s important: Instead of a couple of big gangs, there are dozens of small, clannish sets, often made up of literal cousins and next-door neighbors. Walk around Brownsville and the signs cry out from the walls. There are spray-painted B’s and C’s with arrows pointing upward, meaning “Bloods up” or “Crips up.” But that’s just the beginning. There’s a laundry list of acronyms—GCC, L*C, MAC, COC$, all groups calling themselves Crips. Northeast Brooklyn is chock-full of these mini-gangs, and they’re fighting.
The question is, what are they fighting about? Yesterday’s drug violence was a means for dominating the market and protecting the product from stickup artists, who targeted street-level salesmen. Today, dealers sell primarily to known customers and avoid risky street-level sales—and, thus, should be less likely to get involved in competitive gunplay. So why all the killing? “The idea that the shootings are drug-related has some truth to it, but it’s overstated,” says John Jay’s Greg Donaldson, who wrote a 1993 book about Brownsville and is working on a follow-up. “What they are, are people who are armed because they’re in the drug trade, but then it’s often personal—somebody said something to someone’s girlfriend.”
That’s what happened to Danny’s best friend. Danny, a baby-faced 19-year-old who didn’t offer his last name, has spent his whole life in Brownsville’s Tilden Houses. He claims not to be in a gang, but “Crips” is scratched into the wall on his floor at Tilden—and he carries a chain of black rosary beads, which the D.A.’s office says is a gang sign that comes from prison, where guards can’t confiscate religious iconography. Danny does admit to having a gun, and he’s puzzled by questions about how he got it. “I took it off somebody else,” he says matter of factly.