According to sources on the street, the Corbet crew started with Tony Johnson and some members of his family, descendants of a 1950s Southern shoot-'em-up posse called the Hillbilly Johnson Boys that migrated north to Boston. They settled in the Corbet Street-West Seldon Street area on the Dorchester-Mattapan line, and by 1984 the Johnson boys were building a wicked local rep. They hung on Corbet Street, selling reefers and whumping outsiders who crossed their turf uninvited. As other locals joined up with the Johnsons, the burgeoning posse began extending its turf down Blue Hill Avenue, into Mattapan Square. Its activities, meanwhile, also expanded, moving into armed robbery, assault and battery, and murder. By February 1987 Boston School Police had a dossier on Corbet that listed 105 members, including Corbet Juniors and Corbet Girls.

It was in the last half of the 1980s that other Boston boys began to mimic Corbet, forming their own hardcore, criminal cliques, taking their names from the streets where they hung: Castlegate, Humboldt, Intervale, Franklin Hill, to name a few. The way street sources and cops tell it, Tony Johnson, Corbet's head honcho, wanted to make peace with all those fresh, young posses, unite them into one force, take over the business, and send the traveling salesmen back home. He never lived to see it completed. On a hot summer night in June 1988, when Tony was moving his Audi to make room for his Volvo in the alley next to his house, an unknown assailant put a bullet through his face.

With the would-be kingpin blown clear off his throne, Boston's gang scene lost what little stability it had. So it exploded. In the year and a half since Johnson's death, dozens of gangs sprang up. Today in some neighborhoods, according to one cop, "there's nearly one of every damn corner."

Because of their numbers, gangs have become, for many of Boston's disenfranchised and disaffected kids, a way of life. Even if they would rather not be dragged into the mix of guns and drugs and violence, many of the youths can't afford not to posse up, if for no other reason than protection. "It's really hard for a lot of kids to go out and go to places they want to go," says Lynn Jackson, program supervisor at the Orchard Park (OP) Youth Outreach Program. "Say they wanted to walk from here up to Franklin Park, and go up Humboldt Avenue [home to one of the city's more notorious gangs] to get there. These kids have to fear for their lives."

Some of that fear goes away, the kids say, if they know they have a gang backing them up. So maybe one of those frightened teens from OP will hang with the Trailblazers, that project's homebody hustlers. From there, it's a downward spiral. "Once they become down with a gang," says one gang member matter-of-factly, "they gonna be a bad guy, one way or another."

A gang may start out in a defensive posture. But a real gang needs guns, mainly because every other gang has them. To pay for the pieces, it'll need to up its firepower just to protect the crack commodity. As the gangs begin to clone themselves, the evolutionary process becomes obvious. According to one cop, there's a young new crew on St. James Street, calling itself Notre Dame. They're beefing with blades, not guns. And they don't deal drugs. "Not yet," says the cop. "Now, as these kids get older, I would almost guarantee that they're going to have to get into the drugs and the guns. . . . It's like watching Corbet all over again."

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