Healing 44th Street
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Aired 11/14/12 on KPBS Midday Edition.
Dana Brown, commissioner, San Diego Gang Commission and San Diego Compassion Project
Dr. Audrey Hokoda, professor, SDSU's Youth Violence Lab
Aired 11/14/12 on KPBS News.
Following a fatal shooting, residents on a single City Heights block seek homegrown solutions to San Diego's recent uptick in violent crime.
Special Feature Speak City Heights
Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)
44th Street Homicide Suspect Sketch
By all accounts, 18-year-old Rickquese McCoy was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
He wasn’t the intended target of the three men who fired 40 rounds on his City Heights block on June 30, killing a second man and critically wounding another.
Rickquese's friends and family insist he wasn’t involved with gangs. They’ll admit "he was no angel" but point out that he had finally made the honor roll last year.
The murders shook the 2600 block of 44th Street, a community where residents aren't used to seeing violent crime up so close. Everyone here knows someone who knows someone who's been robbed, assaulted or killed, but usually those crimes don't happen right on the front lawn.
Residents on the block decided Rickquese would be the last of their teenagers lost. They had never been brought to the table before to talk about how to help their kids. Now, they're taking seats next to volunteers and police officers to find solutions, on their own terms.
"A lot of people have a sense of hopelessness because of what happened—because of what happens," Rickquese's grandfather, Ricky McCoy, Sr., said (emphasis his own). "Nobody has been addressing this to the point of making a difference."
The block sits four stoplights away from the Mid-City Police Substation, which was established in the 1990s to quell intense crime in City Heights.
Along with the rest of San Diego, overall crime in the neighborhood has since dwindled. But this year, City Heights and southeast San Diego—the city's poorest, most diverse communities—are shouldering an uptick in homicides.
The San Diego Police Department reported 41 murders from January through September of this year. That's up from 33 during the same time last year. City Heights and southeast San Diego account for more than 60 percent of those homicides. In City Heights alone, the number of murders tripled to nine this year from the previous year.
The numbers reaffirm City Heights' long-held reputation as a dangerous place to live. A 1998 San Diego Union-Tribune article calls it the "rotting core of America's Finest City." It's a reputation community members have railed against. They're not a cancer in the city, they say, and they're no more desensitized to loss than communities elsewhere in the city.
On 44th Street, Rickquese's death stunned neighbors.
When the police helicopter stopped whirring above, the block fell silent. Kids put away their bikes, opting for indoor activities despite the long, hot summer days. Chatty neighbors took their conversations from the lawn to behind metal screen doors. Even the ice cream truck stopped coming around.
For McCoy, the silence was too much to bear.
"For about a week or two, maybe even three weeks, nobody would even come outside," McCoy said. "I mean, we’re right across the street from an elementary school. It was eerie. It was horrible."
A man with 34 grandchildren, McCoy needed the noise back. And he needed his grandson's death to be more than a number. It had to be a catalyst. So McCoy took the lead on transforming his block. First, he wanted to get his neighbors out and talking again. Then he wanted to get them help.
"I decided instead of being a product of my environment, that I would have my environment be a product of me," McCoy said. "And the only way to do that is to get out there and change something, put your name on something, put your flavor out there in the world."
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He had a sign printed at the Home Depot where he works. It reads "Neighborhood Meeting" in big block letters and hangs on the bars surrounding his apartment complex.
Each Sunday this summer, he invited neighbors to meet in the courtyard of his building. They called it their "outdoor conference room." Residents pulled together a hodgepodge of patio furniture, dining room chairs and an Ikea armchair, then sat down to talk about stopping violence in their community.
Ideas ranged from installing surveillance cameras to hosting a sports tournament for rival gangs. For now, they've committed to hosting a block party, getting informed on trauma and conflict resolution, and starting a neighborhood watch.
McCoy and Jim Clark, a resident on 44th Street for 40 years, have also started going door-to-door to find out what people need, whether it's a ride to a job interview or the address of a local food bank.
The overall strategy for these neighborhood activists is to heal the community by healing its individuals. Tension here stems from poverty and a lack of resources. The median household income in City Heights puts most families at or below the federal poverty level. Many homes in the community are broken by incarceration or deportation.
"There’s homeless, there’s dropouts, there’s gangs, there’s domestic violence, there’s bullying," said Dana Brown, a volunteer counselor with the San Diego Compassion Project. "Just about anything in the world that is painful is on this block."
Brown goes into communities throughout San Diego after there's been a murder to help families cope with the trauma. She said she's never seen the kind of effort she's helping facilitate on 44th Street.
Mid-City Police Lt. Eric Hays agrees.
"Initially when an incident occurs, you get the crisis intervention response and things of that nature," Hays said. "But after the very first time, they’re left with this grieving process to deal with on their own."
Hays is working with McCoy and Clark to get their neighborhood watch going. He's also encouraging officers to get out and walk the block with the men.
One of the needs identified by residents at the meetings was a stronger relationship with the police.
McCoy and Clark, who together have seven decades on the block, said they never met their community officer before Rickquese's murder. African-American and Latino parents at the meetings said they're not sure they'd feel comfortable calling for help. Their teens have been pulled over too many times for petty infractions.
For Brown, the block's work with the police hints at something bigger than bringing resources to the underserved; it has a chance to change social systems.
Neighbors are tackling their immediate emotional needs, but they're also trying to change the institutions and ideologies around them that created those needs. Brown said that, in this respect, their work mirrors a social ecological model.
Clark puts it this way:
"An unhappy kid will take unhappy ways. In other words, if I don’t feel good, I’m going to get even. But if they’ve been treated good and they trust us, then they give back happy."
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McCoy is anxious to see the macro-level changes he and Brown talk about. But already, things are changing on the block.
On a recent Saturday, kids rode bikes in circles, neighbors chatted on lawns and the ice cream truck was back, idling on the curb.
"These things they’re having over here—the meetings—I think it’s nice," neighbor NeeNee Torbet shouted over the truck's cheery jingle.
"It’s very positive and it’s bringing the community together. We think it’s worth a try."
KPBS' Maureen Cavanaugh, Patty Lane and Peggy Pico contributed to this segment.