Harding relates this tale to show how easily kids like Chris get defined by their address — and become involved in larger feuds or alliances. What Harding didn't know, as he interviewed Chris in the fall of 2003, was how consequential that seemingly minor exchange, and the decision to be with or against Lucerne Street, may have been, looking at it in retrospect. By 2005, the Lucerne Street Doggz had become one of the most violent gangs in the city — police attributed nearly 100 shootings over the next three years to Lucerne gang activity.
Little wonder, then, that Chris wanted the protection of his neighbors — even if that seemed, from the outside, to be drawing him into the very conflicts he was hoping to avoid. Chris even told Harding that, although his family planned to spend the summer with relatives in the South, he wanted to stay in Boston to show his loyalty to Franklin Hills, in case some violence should spring up with another neighborhood.
It is only a small minority of these boys who are responsible for the vast majority of the violence. But their impact is enormous.
The youth in Harding's book can describe precise delineations of where they are safe, and where they will only travel in groups for protection. They describe fights they have gotten into to develop a reputation for toughness, so they will not be picked on. They rearrange their travel — particularly to and from school — to avoid possible confrontations. They know which older men from their neighborhood — often in their early 20s — to turn to for advice, or to help intervene with a developing beef.
All of this draws them closer to trouble, and to suspension from school or arrest — making their chances of conventional success much harder.
"It can seem, to an outsider, like this nonsensical, Wild West kind of atmosphere," says Harding. "But there really is a kind of rational social organization to these conflicts."
None of this shows up in conversations with the boys from Lower Mills, who, Harding argues, are better able to devote their time and focus to school.
The parents of the Lower Mills boys are likewise able to spend their time and energy on their children doing well in school, and avoiding teen pregnancy and STDs, Harding writes — while the parents in the projects must worry more about the neighborhood drugs and violence.
And all of this, according to Harding, redefines the very definition of success for the boys — for the kids themselves, and for the parents and others who worry about them. Simply "staying out of trouble" in life qualifies as victory.
Breaking the cycle
To break the cycle in these neighborhoods would require getting rid of the violence. But that's a nearly impossible task. Boston police have had success in the past few years with their hot-zone strategy, resulting in large-scale arrests of Lucerne Street, Warren Gardens, and Heath Street gangs, for example. But those victories have been short-lived — because the same neighborhood dynamics continue to churn, as police move on to the next hot zone. "A couple of years later," says Harding, "there's a whole new set of kids out there."