NEW YORK—A walk down Church Avenue in East Flatbush yields block after block of much of the same: a bodega, a hair salon or barber shop, and churches with locked doors. A few small businesses, mostly restaurants, dot the stretch from 31st Street to 55th Street.
The thriving economic development enjoyed by those in Manhattan, or even just a few miles northwest in downtown Brooklyn, has not made it to East Flatbush.
The lack of development has left the community with few employment options, and consequently high poverty and crime rates have followed.
With no community centers, sparse after-school programs, and limited green spaces, the streets have become the hang out place, with young men gathering in front of stores or on street corners.
“Idleness can lead to problems,” said Royce Douglas, 29, who has lived in Flatbush for five years.
On March 9, Kimani “Kiki” Gray, 16, was shot and killed by two plainclothes NYPD officers as they approached a group of people standing outside of a building on East 52nd Street near Snyder Avenue. On March 11, a vigil set up for the slain teen turned into a riot, as tensions between police and the residents boiled over.
“Tonight, we saw an explosion of anger from the youth in my community,” said Councilman Jumaane Williams in a statement Monday night. “It spoke to the overwhelming frustration that people are living through day after day.” Williams urged Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg to tour his district and see for themselves what the lack of positive outlets in his community has led to.
Both have declined so far.
Outlet for Change
“At the end of the day, there is nothing for kids 12—18 to do,” said Leon (who asked his last name not be used for this story), a 20-year resident of the neighborhood, who has been on the streets since he was 12.
Ricardo Johnson, 16, agreed, saying the lack of after-school programs led him to hang out with friends on the corner. He said the basketball courts have broken rims, but even if they were fixed, the NYPD kicks them out or issues tickets any time there are more than five people, leaving few options for friendly games.
“I think if they put in a community center it would be a big change for the youth in this community,” Johnson said.
Williams said in a statement that he has been fighting to get a community center, but with no luck so far. During the 2011/2012 participatory budget project, $350,000 was secured toward the purchase or renovation of a space for a proposed community resource.
Since 2010, only 1.6 percent of the constituent services budget is spent on youth services, according to data presented at Williams’s State of the Borough.
Leon pointed to the numerous churches in the neighborhood as a place to start. He said many of them remain closed, even on Sundays, and most do not take a leadership role in the community—although the 67th Precinct Clergy and Pastor Gil Monrose were active in quelling the riot Monday night.
However, when The Epoch Times went to visit the church Wednesday afternoon, the gate was locked.
Douglas, who manages several buildings in the neighborhood, said he has seen youths as young as 13 smoking marijuana in the hallway. He also thinks community centers and after-school activities could help, but he said he senses a greater need for a cultural shift.
“As a community, as a race, we accept too many of the things others races don’t accept,” Douglas said. He said it is common practice for children to make fun of other children getting straight As. “Why is it uncool to get all As?” Douglas asked.
Kenny Fitzpatrick, 42, a 10-year resident of Flatbush, said young parents are not holding their children accountable like his parents did. He recalled getting into trouble as a youth, and getting met with a hand. “That was the last time I did that!” Fitzpatrick recollected with roaring laughter.
Fitzpatrick also faulted a culture that sensationalizes getting rich by making rap music or selling dope. “Show them a career,” he suggested. Fitzpatrick said as a youth he helped his father and learned a trade, something he still does today.
A lifelong resident of Flatbush, 16-year-old Johnson will have to endure at least two more years before he can move out on his own and try to scratch out a living in his neighborhood.
“I hope everything can change,” he said, “but I don’t know if it will.”