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Lawrence Harmon

Deadly streets

Addresses may dictate whether Boston’s boys live or die

By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / May 16, 2010

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A SCHOOL essay on youth violence written by 14-year-old Jaewon Martin of Boston is an invocation from his grave. “I would start teen programs that talk about the causes and effects of youth violence,’’ he wrote last year. The effects are clear: an assailant shot and killed Martin on a basketball court near the Bromley Heath housing project in Jamaica Plain last weekend. The causes are harder to grasp.

Police were working on several motives related to Martin’s death late last week. One is that he was shot by a raider from a rival housing project that has been feuding with the Bromley Heath development for decades. But even disputes over girls, cases of mistaken identity, and perceived signs of disrespect are often rooted in neighborhood antagonisms. No one, of course, bothers to check IDs. Martin didn’t even live in Bromley Heath. He may simply have been “breathing in the wrong place at the wrong time,’’ according to Larry Mayes, Boston’s chief of human services.

Home address dictates the health, safety, and outright survival of many teenage boys in Boston. Some poor neighborhoods stand apart from the violence. But in others, boys must become expert at recognizing safe, neutral, and danger zones. Overstepping a boundary by even a few feet can get one killed.

David Harding, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, offers a brain map of Boston’s youth in “Living the Drama: Community, Conflict, and Culture Among Inner-City Boys.’’ Harding spent the better part of 2003 and 2004 interviewing scores of black and Hispanic teens in three poor and working-class neighborhoods of Boston. The quality of their lives depends not so much on the personal finances of their families, or even if they have fathers at home. It was where they lived that made the difference.

“Violence in poor urban neighborhoods is socially patterned, not random,’’ writes Harding. He highlights areas around Roxbury Crossing and Franklin Park where, “Beefs between neighborhoods often go back years, before today’s teens were even born, and their exact origins are almost always unknown by the current participants.’’

The violence looks mindless to outsiders, but not to the teens. “Defending one’s turf is an important end of its own, and not usually for the reasons typically assumed, such as the need to defend particular drug markets,’’ Harding continues. In the worst of Boston, neighborhoods rigidly define “insiders and outsiders, friends and enemies.’’ The stronger a neighborhood’s social identity, the worse for boys.

Boston proudly bills itself as a city of neighborhoods. Southie pride. Historic Beacon Hill. Leafy West Roxbury. But the city’s black and Hispanic boys often fare better in neighborhoods with a weak social identity, like Dorchester’s Lower Mills. Harding’s interview subjects from Lower Mills were economically indistinguishable from their counterparts in Franklin Park and Roxbury. Youths in all three neighborhoods often subscribe to similar middle class values about education, marriage, and the meaning of success. But in Lower Mills, boys are safe to live those values and free to use the entire city as their steppingstone. In Roxbury Crossing and Franklin Park, boys hug the borders of their neighborhoods and settle for simply staying alive and unhurt.

Harding explores Boston’s “cultural heterogeneity.’’ It sounds like a neighborhood selling point. But not in Boston. Even in the most violent neighborhoods, teens see people going off to work and doing what’s right. But they also see older layabouts who dominate the street life of the neighborhood. These older teens and men often serve as the younger teens’ protectors from rival neighborhoods. Like street corner dramatists, they pass on the stories that keep neighborhood rivalries at a boil. In culturally homogeneous Lower Mills, there are few such inhabitants poisoning the futures of the young.

Mayor Tom Menino, Police Commissioner Edward Davis, and the city’s leading black ministers are expressing outrage at the homicide of a 14-year-old honor student. They pledge his killer will be punished. But one arrest won’t do much to end this cycle.

Does Harding have any idea what might? He suggests extending the hours of middle and high schools, or at least starting and ending the school day later. That, at least, would cut down the afternoon exposure of teens to the older instigators in their neighborhood.

It sounds like a sensible, if small step. And an offering to 14-year-old Jaewon Martin, whose new address is Oak Lawn Cemetery.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.

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