In particular, Harding saw that these kids (now in their late teens and early 20s) are forced into a fierce loyalty to their micro-neighborhood, often a housing development or a single street. And if you’re stuck in the middle of a conflict with people who have demonstrated a perfect willingness to put bullets into other people, you’re going to want friends to help you when you need it. Everybody’s fight becomes your fight.

This is the way life is for several-hundred young men who live in the South End neighborhood Harding studied: the quarter-mile-by-half-mile stretch between Tremont and Washington Streets, and between West Newton Street and Melnea Cass Boulevard.

In just the past six months, 23 people have been shot on this patch of land not much bigger than Boston Common and the Public Garden combined. Within this tiny area, the battle lines are drawn between the housing developments Lenox/Camden, “1850 Washington” (a/k/a Grant Manor), West Newton Street, Cathedral, West Concord, and Mandela Homes.

In a recent federal-court decision, Judge Nancy Gertner compared Boston’s “gang” conflicts with the ethnic divisions in New York when she was growing up there in the 1950s. The comparison is apt, although ethnicity plays less a role among Boston’s street youth than loyalty to one’s street or housing project. And just as an Italian American at that time couldn’t simply opt out and expect to feel safe in other neighborhoods, residents of the South End’s Lenox Street development, for example, are part of the conflict with 1850 Washington — whether they want to be or not.

By no means are all, or even most, of the neighborhood’s residents violent. But the presence of the few creates a culture that affects and sucks in many more. And the same thing is happening, with similar escalations of gun violence, in Grove Hall, on Franklin Hill, on Dudley Street, near Egleston Square, on Hamilton Street, around Walk Hill Street and Blue Hill Avenue, and elsewhere.

Two strategies, no solutions
Back in mid November, two months into this six-month surge of violence, the BPD identified the South End as one of three hot spots. It promised to flood the neighborhood with officers and resources. Despite its efforts, by the end of December five more people had been shot — one fatally — within one block of Lenox Street. Since the new year, another 16 in the area have taken bullets, including five at West Newton Street.

The department has since expanded the effort to 10 hot spots where the bulk of the shootings take place. But territorial alliances are now deeply ingrained, and there’s no way to predict when a minor beef will flare up into a round of retaliatory shootings. There was only one shooting victim near Uphams Corner late last year, but there have already been nine in 2006. Last fall saw seven victims on or near a small stretch of Harvard Street north of Harambee (formerly Franklin) Park, and this year, a little south of the park, there have been six shootings around a similar stretch of Willowwood.

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