If someone is shot or stabbed in the South Bronx, Marisol Rivera is more than likely to turn up at their bedside. She goes to them not to chastise, but to try to quell anger, and avoid a violent reprisal.
Rivera understands the conflicts in the South Bronx. She grew up in Crotona Park, and now works for Save Our Streets Morrisania, a group that seeks to interrupt violence in one of New York’s most troubled neighborhoods. But she encountered the organization, and her now boss, before she was employed by them.
“Before I could change other people’s lives, they changed my life as well,” she said, “I felt like it was normal to hear gun shots, because I only lived here, that’s all I know. And she,” her now boss, “was like, ‘Marisol, that’s not normal.’”
The Bronx, or at least parts of the borough, are still crime trouble spots. In his state of the NYPD address in January, Police Commissioner James O’ Neill identified six precincts with violent crime rates more than double those across the rest of the city. Three of those “stubborn pockets of crime” were in the South Bronx: the 40th, 41st and the 42nd precinct. Morrisania, Rivera’s neighborhood, and Crotona Park fall under the 42nd.
The NYPD, however, is keen to point out that across the Bronx as a whole, crime is dropping. At a community meeting in the 40th in February, Bronx Commanding Officer Larry Nikunin emphasized that the Bronx is seeing record low numbers of murder, shootings, robbery and grand larceny auto. But when numbers are examined at the precinct level, the picture isn’t quite as rosy. In 2019 to date, reports of rape, robbery, felony assault and grand larceny are all up on last year in the 42nd. In the 4oth and 41st, crime rates are down slightly on last year, but remain high compared to the rest of the city.
When asked directly about why crime persists, or why levels of crime have not improved in these pockets, the NYPD pointed back to top line numbers which show an overall decrease in crime, seemingly unwilling to comment on the more specific issues facing the South Bronx. The Bronx District Attorney did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Community Affairs officer Hector Espada, who works in the 40th precinct, says police are trying to “reach out to the community and have a dialogue about the conditions and quality of life. We need to help people make good decisions,” he says.
But O’Neill’s statement suggests that those good decisions, at least for some in the 40th, 41st and 42nd, aren’t easy to make. “In 2018, there were six precincts with violent crime rates more than twice as high as the rest of the city,” he said, in his January state of the NYPD address, “the 40th Precinct in the Bronx had the highest overall rate, including the second-highest robbery rate and the third-highest assault rate.”
For Clyde Thompson, it is not a mystery that crime remains a persistent feature of life in these neighborhoods. He’s the director of programming at the Butler community center, which sits in the center of a NYCHA housing project in Claremont, sandwiched between Morrisania and Crotona Park. He has worked with communities in the South Bronx for over 30 years. For him, it’s the same old problems that account for the high crime rates: poverty, lack of opportunity, and generations of persistently high crime levels.
“Behaviors here are not behaviors that just started yesterday,” he said. “There’s a long-standing lack of attention to employment and support.”
Morrisania and Crotona Park have the highest poverty rate in New York City—at 44 percent, according to city data, and one in six adults is unemployed—also the highest in the city. Thompson estimates that 50 percent of families in the neighborhood receive public support, and many have been reliant on it for years. “Kids have learned how to live without the rigors of employment,” said Thompson. “They know how to go day to day, how to eat. Through doing crime or selling drugs. And with crime comes conflict.”
Rivera agrees that poverty and the lack of opportunity for young people may be one of the main issues driving crime in Morrisania. “They aren’t doing nothing. They don’t have a job, no income, they feel they worthless,” she says, “so they just resort to negative things.” She sends street teams out every day to try to stop this cycle. One of the young people caught in the safety net Rivera tries to provide was 24-year-old Jade [she declined to give her last name to maintain her privacy].
A few years ago, Jade was spending her time on the block with what Rivera calls “high risk kids.” Kids she describes as young people carrying guns, who have frequent run-ins with law enforcement, or have just been released from incarceration. Jade explained a tit-for-tat culture in the neighborhood that drives young people to act tough, and to make negative choices.
“You’re gonna get picked on, if you’re not how I am,” she said, describing the pressures in the area. Clyde Thompson sees the same attitude in the community he works with: “Either you shoot it out,” he said. “Or you let the person take advantage of you.”
This community has had a difficult relationship with the NYPD in the recent past, say the advocates. Under former Mayor Rudy Guiliani, said Thompson, police were “picking kids up for the sake of picking kids up.” But Thompson has seen changes in policing the last few years. He says neighborhood coordination officers visit every day to build relationships, and thinks they are making some inroads. But “there’s still a pocket of adults and young people and you aren’t ever going to win their trust because of their experiences,” he says.
However, he points out, that there’s a group who have “an opportunity to gauge the police on their own.” Essentially, to form their own opinion of the police, rather than inherit those of old community members.
Persistent crime can also be associated with the loss of influence of community leaders like Thompson, said Patrick Sharkey, professor of sociology at N.Y.U. If local sources of informal authority, like coaches or church leaders leave or loose authority, he said, a rise in crime can be the result.
By the same token, these leaders can make all the difference. Without community leader Rivera, says Jade, for example, she wouldn’t have been able to turn things around for herself. She wasn’t satisfied with life on the block. “Waking up and not doing anything is a problem for me,” she said. She sought out Rivera after a friend told her she was someone you could talk to, and perhaps someone who could get her a job. That was four years ago. She’s now working, part time at a supermarket and part time doing administrative work at Save Our Streets. She’d like to make that job a full time one so she can become a violence interrupter like Rivera.
“I want to show the younger ones that if I can come here and transition, they can too,” she says. “They don’t have to follow what we did.” A powerful example and, perhaps, a way for a community to finally break the cycle of crime.