Death of a hoop dream

By MIKE MILIARD  |  August 28, 2008

“I always tie economics to the situation,” says Springfield City Council President Bud L. Williams. “In the ’80s, we had a lot of jobs in the city. MCDI [Massachusetts Career Development Institute], a concentrated employment-training program for young folks. Manufacturers were here. Westinghouse. Bosch. Plastic packaging. There was an environment of more opportunity.”

And while he’s sure to clarify that “I don’t equate being poor to violence,” Williams does think “the opportunities have gotten progressively worse. Young folks are dropping out of school more, and there is a culture [of hopelessness] that exists.”

There’s also, says Hornsby Sr., as he drives me around the city’s downtown, a faint but pervasive feeling that Springfield, tucked away in the Pioneer Valley, is often ignored and forgotten about by the Bay State’s large, wealthy capital.

But when Hornsby Sr., who grew up in Alabama, moved here in the ’80s, things were different. There was civic pride. “People took care of their properties,” he says ruefully. “Now, you see people don’t care where they live. There’s a lack of interest in what’s going on in their city. Nobody wants to get involved. Springfield used to be the City of Homes. Now it’s a city of crime.”

Pulling into the city’s blighted, dangerous Mason Square neighborhood, many buildings are boarded up, and the pavement is strewn with litter. The sidewalks of State Street are all but empty, except for a guy on a bike, nursing a tall boy in a paper bag. “This is trouble zone,” says Hornsby Sr. “If anything is gonna happen, it’s gonna be from this block to about eight blocks down.”

The Bergen Circle Posse. The Sycamore Street Posse. The Eastern Avenue Posse. S.W.A.T. (Soldiers With A Talent). Springfield’s gangs may be small compared with the Bloods and the Crips, but they can be just as senselessly violent.

They also often explicitly identify themselves with the red or blue of their West Coast counterparts — although those affiliations can be protean. As Springfield Police Sergeant John Delaney told Springfield blog The Local Buzz (masslive.com/localbuzz), “They change gangs like they’re changing their socks.”

Kieson S. Cuffee, 17, who was arrested on May 19 and charged with Hornsby Jr.’s murder, is reportedly a member of the Eastern Avenue Posse; a self-portrait from his Photobucket page shows his face shaded by a Yankees cap and half-concealed by a Crip-blue bandana. (A second teen, Daniel G. Williams III, 18, also reportedly an Eastern Avenue member, was arrested in connection with Hornsby Jr.’s death in early June.)

“This area we’re in, there’s gunshots here every night,” says Hornsby Sr. “If you come here after nine o’clock, you’re crazy.” Just a couple blocks away, the lawns are green and the large Victorian homes are ornate, if a bit faded. But many of them are for sale: “The crime is driving people out.”

Hornsby Sr., who lives just off of State Street, isn’t going anywhere. Instead, he’s redoubled his pledge to make his city better. “I could move right now if I wanted to, but I like where I live,” he says. “I just don’t like what’s going on. They say, ‘If you live in the ghetto, you don’t have a chance.’ They tell me to move out of the ghetto. Guess what? I live in the ghetto. I love the ghetto. I’m not running from the hood.”

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