Owen Lewis used a donated rake, as Robert Walton wielded a donated weed trimmer.
The men worked together recently -- on their own time -- to tame overgrown weeds around the former Carver Community Center on Craig Street, in the city’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood.
Taking a break from their efforts, Lewis, 56, wondered aloud why kids from the struggling, violence-prone neighborhood aren’t encouraged and paid to help with such work, and why they don’t have a community center like Carver -- which closed three years ago -- to hang out in anymore.
“If they give a kid a job that needs a job, that helps,” Lewis said. “Then, they won’t be standing on the corner every day selling drugs.”
Arguments over drugs, over girls and other disputes, he said, can lead to violence. Lewis then turned to the building along the sidewalk he and Walton were working to clear.
“This place needs to be open,” he said. “The kids have to have a place to go. If they have no place to go, what are they going to do?”
Since the Sept. 15 murder of 17-year-old Medina Knowles on Schenectady Street, residents in Hamilton Hill are discussing with increased urgency the causes of, and solutions to, violence in Schenectady’s more troubled neighborhoods.
Gun violence, in particular, has been a persistent problem. There have been four homicides in the Hamilton Hill neighborhood so far this year, all of which involved guns.
Two were street shootings. One was a result of a home invasion on Paige Street. Knowles, who left behind a two-year-old child, was killed in her home at 524 Schenectady Street.
As of last week, the city has seen 32 confirmed shots-fired incidents in 2016, with 12 occurring in Hamilton Hill and Vale. Seven were in the neighboring Mont Pleasant neighborhood, while the other 13 occurred elsewhere in the city, according to police records.
Of the 32 incidents, four resulted in deaths and 11 resulted in injuries.
The 2016 shots-fired incidents compared with 46 over the same period last year, and with 28 in both 2013 and 2014, according to police numbers. That means 2016’s incidents are down from 2015 and up slightly from the prior years.
At the same time, the city has seen an increase in gun crime arrests and firearms recovered in 2016, compared with 2015.
Police made 24 arrests last year related to gun crimes and recovered 30 illegal firearms. So far this year, police have made 42 gun crime arrests and recovered the same amount of illegal firearms, according to data supplied by the Schenectady Police Dept.
Feeling loss, seeking answers
The killing of Knowles, who police said was shot to death by her 19-year-old boyfriend, brought more than 100 people to Schenectady Street for a "Light the Street" event the week after her death.
The name of the event, according to organizers, came out of the observation that none of the street lights along Schenectady Street were working.
Those gathered called on the city to fix the lights, but most -- including several parents of children slain by gun violence -- spoke about the lasting impact of gun violence on the community and the need for change.
Shawna DuBoise spoke of her son Jerome Cannon Jr., who was killed in September 2008 after a dice game dispute in which Cannon tried to stop the argument. His killer, after delays and a retrial, is to be sentenced Monday in local court.
“I love my son. He was my only son, and I miss him so, so much,” DuBoise said. “And I really would give anything to have him back right now. But I can’t. But you know what? At the end of the day, I know he’s here. He will always be here. And he will always be loved, and most of all, he will never ever be forgotten.”
But how does the community ensure victims like Cannon and Knowles are not forgotten? How can gun-related injuries and deaths be prevented?
Residents and city officials have ideas and possible solutions. Some are being tried.
Root of the problem
Pierre Thompson helped organize the "Light the Street" event. A resident of Mont Pleasant -- another neighborhood known for its heightened crime rate -- Thompson has done his part both through education and jobs.
He believes violent crimes -- and the illegal drug trade -- have roots in economics. Kids see things they want, don’t know how to get them and turn to crime to achieve their goals.
“They fantasize about being the next big local drug dealer, and that situation usually ends in two ways: prison or death,” Thompson said. “I don’t think that they actually see the story all the way through.”
Thompson started a group called the Young Urban Leaders Academy, which teaches kids about real estate and stock market investing.
He also runs his medical transportation service, A Nice Ride, out of a storefront he owns on Albany Street in Hamilton Hill. His service operates in multiple counties and employs people in the neighborhood.
“It’s not only going to be one thing,” Thompson said. “It’s going to be a multi-layered strategy. It has to be.”
Since the “Light the Street” rally, the street lights have been fixed, and Thompson said he is pleased with how quickly that happened. But he wants to keep the momentum going and ensure all burned-out streetlights are fixed in a timely manner, like the one on the corner of Strong Street and Summit Avenue that remains dark.
‘Killing each other’
Catoria Pittman, whose brother Alphonzo Pittman was shot and killed on Hulett Street in 2010, said at “Light the Street” that a lack of community programs is partially to blame for violence on the streets. She mentioned specifically the closure of Carver Community Center, which shut its doors in 2013 due to tax issues.
“What are our kids doing?” she said. “Killing each other.”
Thompson said since “Light the Street,” he’s been talking to kids in the neighborhood about what they would like to see in an after-school program.
“They’re getting so desensitized to things that I don’t think they really know,” said Thompson. “One thing that’s resonated a lot is that there’s nowhere for them to go. They don’t have a community center anymore.”
Thompson said he’s also trying to bring all of the disparate community groups together at the same table to talk about unifying their approach to programming in Hamilton Hill and surrounding neighborhoods.
“Some of these programs are a little out of touch, they’ve been there for 30 years, sometimes longer, and they just haven’t grown with the needs of the community,” he said.
Vale resident Merle Butler sees opportunities for children as key to preventing gun violence. Specifically, he believes opportunities to play -- in a tidy and cared-for neighborhood -- can shape a child’s choices.
A contractor, Butler built a tree house for children at the QUEST youth program on State Street. He also talked of helping cut grass in his neighborhood.
He knows how important intervention is, having spent two decades in prison in North Carolina for drugs. He’s been out for 13 years and has lived in Schenectady for two years.
He knows an overall quick fix doesn’t exist.
“You can’t put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” said Butler, who has written a book about his past and efforts to overcome it. “But you can start a little bit at a time and just start stitching it where it’s the worst, and before you know it, you can close that whole wound.”
The role of police
Local police and prosecutors say more structured solutions have helped.
The Schenectady Police Department, backed by state money through the Gun Involved Violence Elimination initiative, works to keep track of what is happening with statistical analysis of not only shooting incidents, but also traffic data. Both are indicators of possible trouble spots.
The department then deploys resources according to that data.
The department also uses its manpower and other resources to identify trends or groups that may be fueling violence, working with parolees and those on probation to help spread the word about the consequences of picking up a gun.
“We’ve been doing shooting investigations since we’ve been around,” Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford said last week. “Investigating these crimes once they’ve happened is nothing different. But what’s been different for the last three years is the focus on guns: where they’re coming from, how are they ending up in the hands of people in the city -- specifically a 19-year-old.”
That was a reference to Knowles’ killing. Her boyfriend, Raekwon Stover, has been charged in connection with her death. Where he and others charged with gun-related crimes obtained the weapons is always part of the police investigation, Clifford said.
The same day police arrested Stover, they charged two other men in connection with shooting incidents from earlier in September.
Nyqwuan T. Monroe, 18, was charged with attempted murder in connection with a Sept. 4 shooting off Guilderland Avenue in Bellevue, in which no one was hurt, and another three days later on Emmett Street in Hamilton Hill that injured a man in the leg.
The power principle
The appeal of guns is hard to counter. Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney suggested youths who feel powerless see them as a way to gain control.
In one of many efforts by the department to reach those at risk, Carney recalled speaking to a group of middle school students about guns. He asked if any had held one.
One boy, around the age of 10, said he had. Carney asked how it made him feel.
“His eyes lit up, and he said, ‘I felt powerful,’” Carney recalled.
Empowerment, alongside poverty, illegal drugs, a lack of adult supervision, shaky family structure and other elements can lead youths to seek out firearms, he said.
“All these factors combine with people who have limited vision about their own future, and they want guns,” Carney said.
Ounce of prevention
The police department is also focusing on crimes that might escalate into gun violence.
In accepting his appointment as chief last month, Clifford cited street-level drug dealing as a focus of the department’s efforts. He noted a marijuana sweep last week on Crane Street in Mont Pleasant that resulted in low-level charges for several people.
Street-level drug dealing brings the criminal element into neighborhoods and can cause battles over turf or other strife, he said.
Clifford is also encouraging his officers to get out of their patrol cars to meet and talk with residents, building that relationship and trust.
Shawn Nixon, a resident of Swan Street in Vale, would like to see that. The soon-to-be father of a third child, has had difficulties with drugs and alcohol himself, including incarceration, he said.
But he’s been clean for a year through treatment and now volunteers his time helping children.
“They’re here, but they’re not here interacting,” Nixon said of police officers. “They’re not here to also show the positivity of the neighborhood.”
That interaction, he said, would help send a message that police are there if residents need them, not just to investigate crimes.
City police Lt. Brian Bienduga, who attended “Light the Street” with several other officers, said the police department always tries to get involved when tragedy strikes the community.
“This is definitely something that hits the community hard, when you lose somebody who’s so young. And any violence in the community, we have to be part of the solution to that,” said Bienduga of Knowles’ murder. “They have to know us. We have to know them, and we have to support each other in this.
“I’m here to support these people; these people would support me.”
Eye for an eye
Latonja Landy lost her son George Lloyd III to gun violence nearly four years ago, in October 2012. The killer, upset over a lost fist fight, staked out an after-hours club before ambushing and killing Lloyd when he exited.
Landy, who still lives in the neighborhood where her son was killed, sees retaliation as fueling escalated violence.
“We’ve got to teach that retaliation hurts the neighborhood, hurts the community, hurts your kids, my kids,” Landy said. “I don’t know the future of my grandchildren because of the violence.
“I want them to know, ‘Look grandson, please don’t put that gun in your hand. I don’t care how much they threaten you.’”
Carney credited police statistical and investigative methods with identifying a new local gang that was behind a spate of gun violence this past spring.
Carney said the gang called itself the Ku Gang, after Kusaan Tolliver, who was shot to death on Schenectady Street in July 2015. Tolliver, nicknamed “Kussy,” was 18 at the time of his death and was shot by a 21-year-old man in retaliation for an earlier altercation, prosecutors have said.
After identifying and targeting the gang’s criminal activities using the statistical and investigative methods, police saw gun activity fall drastically in June and July. There were no shots-fired incidents in June and two in July, while each of the first five months of the year averaged just over four shots-fired incidents.
The theme of retaliation continued in court this past week, as one of LaSean Gause’s accused killers stood trial.
Prosecutors in that case, who already convicted one man in Gause’s June 2015 killing, said Gause’s death was caused by a man who brooded for days over a lost fist fight. He ultimately retaliated by opening fire, along with a second individual, on an Albany Street storefront.
Gause -- an uninvolved bystander -- died in the gunfire.
In cases of lesser violence, someone has to be the bigger man and walk away before things escalate, Landy said.
“Because somebody ain’t going to have a son tonight, a father tonight, a nephew, a niece,” she said. “And that hurts, let me tell you. Because that was my only child -- my only son.”
‘It just builds up’
Community activist Kanema Haynes rented the light tower for the "Light the Street" event. She said she sees many aspects of life in Hamilton Hill -- and in surrounding neighborhoods -- that contribute to the cycle of violence.
Poverty, struggling families, a lack of outlets for talking about and expressing concerns over what’s going on and everyday struggles all play a role, she said.
“It just builds up, and these kids resort to violence because there’s no out,” Haynes said. “It’s always coming in, and there’s not enough going out.”
Paige Street resident Angelica Morris, who also serves as an executive director of the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission, listed a host of underlying issues as needing to be addressed, including domestic violence, mental illness and drug abuse.
Abandoned city-owned properties must also be addressed, perhaps by demolishing those that are too far gone and getting homeowners into the ones that aren’t.
“We have to get to the root of why gun violence is going on,” said Morris, a 16-year resident of Paige Street. “These are the issues that the community needs to come together and have some constructive conversations -- find constructive solutions to -- complex and systematic issues.
“Until we do that, we’ll continue to spin our wheels.”
More than 50 vacant houses in the city are the subject of the "Breathing Lights" temporary art project that started Friday, with the aim of bringing awareness to the issue. The city and project officials are also working in coming months on reclamation clinics to help residents revitalize some of the houses.
The city has been using grant money to tear down buildings that are too far gone for rehabilitation.
As far as working with police to solve crimes, Morris said residents do that, too. She cited the February 2015 shooting death of Carlos Figueroa that happened in front of her house.
Prosecutors have cited at least one uninvolved witness who came forward to give key testimony in that case.
“We all need to take responsibility to make our neighborhoods, wherever we live, a better place,” Morris said. “And how you do that is you talk to your neighbors on a regular basis.
“You engage your neighbors and make sure everyone is involved, to work with police and community leaders and elected officials.
“That’s what we do.”