Dead Kids

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  June 15, 2010

Trapped by address
These boys find themselves defined by their small mini-neighborhoods — whether they want to be or not. They feel that they are in constant danger of assault, merely because of their association with a particular housing development or street.

This appears to have been true of both Fomby-Davis and the girl on Creston Street, who according to reports were selected as victims not for any of their own actions, but because they were innocent associates of one side in a dispute between rival neighborhood groups.

This is exactly what Harding writes about. In 2004, he interviewed 60 black and Latino boys, age 13 to 18. He spoke to 40 who resided in the crowded, high-violence neighborhoods of Roxbury Crossing/South End and Franklin Hills/Franklin Field, and for comparison, also spoke to 20 in the working-class neighborhood of Lower Mills in Dorchester. He also spoke with parents, community leaders, youth workers, ministers, social workers, and school officials.

Contrary to stereotypes that such kids want to be thugs, gangsters, and womanizers, Harding found them devoted to education, responsibility, good behavior, and long-term mainstream success in life.

But at the same time, the kids in violent neighborhoods had to adapt to the very real dangers they faced daily. One such reality necessitates the near-constant maintenance of their neighborhood's reputation, as Harding notes that it was vital to ensure the "respect, status, and protection of their home turf."

So, while youths in more peaceful neighborhoods are doing homework with classmates, these kids are joining in on fistfights, and trying to impress older, street-wise toughs. That leads them right into trouble, with school and with law enforcement. And — thanks in part to the examples of those older teens, and the status that sex plays in proving manhood to peers — trouble with girls. (A chapter on sexual behavior and attitudes is eye-popping in the boys' frankness.)

In fact, Harding estimates that neighborhood violence holds key answers that help explain about one-fifth of such neighborhoods' higher teenage-pregnancy rates, and almost half of their higher high-school dropout rates.

The "home turf" has been defined for these kids — in many cases, before they were even born. Living in Franklin Hills makes boys part of the rivalry with Franklin Field, with no more choice in the matter, to their mind, than Irish residents once were at odds with Brahmins.

Even when feuds are not active, it is considered only a matter of time.

A stark example can be seen through one story from Harding's book — and what has happened since his research.

One of Harding's Franklin Hills interviewees, Chris (Harding changed their names to protect their identities), tells of an encounter with a group of kids from nearby Lucerne Street, at the Chez Vous roller rink and dance club. Those kids were "talking mad trash" about a girl from Franklin Hills, so Chris and 20 others from that development confronted them.

As Chris tells it, the Lucerne Street kids backed down: "They were scared, they left. They want to collaborate with us, but they punks so we won't collaborate with them."

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