Rain began to drown out the pastor’s booming pleas. A thick gray cloud sent fat raindrops onto a tired crowd gathered outside of the Hamilton Hill Arts Center. Men scurried to wrap up power cords. The people who hadn’t yet left were yanking up hoods, snapping open umbrellas and pulling their children close.
Two sisters looked on, nodding their heads without thought to every “Amen” and wondering when the neighborhood they grew up in became something else.
“Back when, you could talk about it, fight about it and be over with it,” said Teena Coney-Pickett.
Her sister, Mary Coney-Jones, held a laminated picture of her cousin, Charles Bowman, attached to a lanyard around her neck.
“Now,” she interjected, “they shoot first and ask questions later.”
The Coney sisters found themselves at the end of yet another rally, another call for change. On Saturday, more than 50 community members showed up to a “Stop the Violence” rally on Schenectady Street sponsored by Pastor Horace Sanders Jr. of the Mount Olivet Baptist Church as a direct response to the recent spate of violence around the city.
The Coney sisters lost their cousin the afternoon of Oct. 5. Charles Bowman was shot multiple times on this very street and died from his wounds in the hospital later that day. A 28-year-old city man, Terell Bethea, has since been charged with his killing. The handgun he is believed to have used was reported stolen in Vermont six years ago.
Bowman’s killing, as everyone in the community is well aware, was not an isolated incident of violence. Fatal shootings and stabbings have occurred in Hamilton Hill for a long time.
“Some people are starting to feel, ‘Why bother? Why do we need to come out if it’s not going to stop? Nothing’s going to change,’” said Coney-Jones, 52.
“There was just another shooting on Kelton,” she added, furrowing her brow as if trying to keep track of too much at once. “Was it Friday? It wasn’t too long ago. Either way, it doesn’t matter that we just buried one person; now we’re seeing it all over again.”
In that incident, Unique B. King, 20, was trying to fend off two men who broke into his home at 43 Kelton Ave. on Wednesday night when he was shot in the stomach. He was treated for injuries that police described as non-life-threatening and lived. Police are still looking for the men who broke into his home.
The older residents who grew up in the neighborhood say it wasn’t always this way, and they’re trying to spread their hope for a return to peace to the younger generations. All they want is for their children to grow up. It’s not too much to ask, they say.
“He grew up on this street,” said Coney-Pickett, 45, who also grew up in the neighborhood but now lives in Colonie. “His mom lived down the street for years.”
The family never feared that Bowman, 43, would be the victim of a fatal shooting in his own community. He was a giver, they say, reliable and respected, a wonderful father and a good cousin.
“These guns are too easy to get,” said Coney-Jones, shaking her head. “The gun that shot him was stolen from Vermont. They’re just bringing in guns and anybody can get ahold of them. People don’t try to settle arguments or solve their problems. They feel that shooting solves their problems. It wasn’t like that when we grew up here.”
Evil flourishes when good men do nothing, Councilwoman Marion Porterfield reminded the crowd standing in front of her. She grew up in Hamilton Hill, and that helps her hope that this place can be safe again.
“As I stand here today, my heart is very heavy because I’ve stood in this place too many times over the years in our community,” she said. “Things have got to get better. We have got to do more.”
Before Mayor Gary McCarthy took the microphone, he caught sight of a young woman’s sign that was simple and straightforward: “Keep Our Hood Good,” it read.
“Would anybody disagree with that?” he asked.
The crowd shook their heads. A few shouted “nope.”
“But how do we make that happen? We’ve got all the people here together. We’ve got energy. We’ve got excitement. We’ve got a vision,” he said. “But when we leave here today, we’ve got to reach out and pass that message on to our friends, our neighbors and other family members that we will not accept the level of violence that has existed in the past. We’ve got to set a standard here that makes us all proud.”
The sky was cloudy, and only a few sprinkles had fallen up to this point. Just before a torrential downpour hit, a group of a dozen or so young children scurried to the front of the crowd. In white shirts and white gloves, they danced to a booming gospel number that praised a powerful God. The youngest of the bunch stood no taller than her mother’s waist.
For a few minutes, the crowd stood softly smiling, as their hopes for the future tried their best to remember the dance moves.