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Death and Life in Brownsville

By Sana Bég

MAY 9, 2013

I saw a memorial in the heart of Brownsville, Brooklyn, and felt as if I had been transported to a different time and place. Here, on a street corner in New York City’s most dangerous neighborhood, people chose to stop their daily routines and remember someone killed during hers. Purple balloons hung from a deli’s display window and a large framed picture of the murdered woman stood at a table next to pages of memories from her loved ones. Her orphaned children wore T-shirts emblazoned with her photograph. Others attending wore pins and ribbons, each a remembrance in some way. The crowd swelled to about 150 people and the memorial service began. Speakers talked about the woman’s life and what a wonderful mother she was. As they spoke, I found myself in another world where death was quick and random—Kashmir.

Two years before walking through the streets of Brownsville, I was in Kashmir, where in the summer of 2010, 117 boys were killed by the Indian military. This valley in the Himalayan mountains, a place of great physical beauty, has been locked in a seemingly endless war that has left 70,000 Kashmiris dead.

70,000.

In 2010, there were government-imposed curfews, a government ban on all media, random arrests and high emotions everywhere you looked. As news of each killing emerged, more people took to the streets to protest. But eventually, the protests ebbed. As they did, Kashmiris slipped into a life of resignation and with it, apathy, as if to say, what can be done? As the death toll rose, Kashmiris stopped collectively pausing to remember each individual that died. There were simply too many. It was simply too much.

But things were different in Brownsville, at least on this day. Over the course of two hours, police officers, clergymen and women, friends and family spoke of the murdered woman.

So much of Brownsville reminded me of Kashmir—the constant patrolling of security forces, the ever-present fear that life was fragile, and could end painfully in an instant. But that moment in time, of pausing to remember the dead—that felt different to me. And as I spent time in this Brooklyn neighborhood, I began to see that unlike the growing weary resignation that I had felt that summer in Kashmir, people in Brownsville coped with the random death around them not by turning inward—but by turning to each other.

She was everywhere you looked—on the living room walls, the kitchen fridge, the rooms where her children slept. She was on custom-made T-shirts and lapel pins her children still wore. She was in her fiancé’s poetry that sat framed in the narrow hallway, in hundreds of cards and notes from friends and strangers, some taped to the walls, others waiting to be put up. Zurana Horton is here, in this tiny Brownsville, Brooklyn apartment that seven of her 13 children called home. She was everywhere you looked, and yet, she is nowhere to be found.

“Your children are not supposed to go before you do,” said Denise Peace, as her eyes welled up with tears. “I couldn’t believe my baby was gone.”

Zurana Horton was 34 when she was shot dead in broad daylight. On the afternoon of Oct. 21, 2011, she was walking home after picking up one of her daughters from elementary school. As she, her daughter and other children passed a supermarket, gunfire cut through the air. People screamed and ran for cover. Horton stood in front of the children, shielding them. Twelve shots were fired. One hit a woman and another hit an 11-year-old girl. They would both survive. Another struck Horton in the chest, and seconds later, she fell over into a pool of her own blood.

This wasn’t the first time there was gunfire at the corner of Pitkin Avenue and Watkins Street. Just a week earlier, witnesses said there was an unexplained gunfire exchange that left a bullet hole in the supermarket window, but injured no one.

This wasn’t the first time Peace lost a child to gun violence, either.

Denise Peace, who is 56, was left to ponder the unfathomable loss of yet another one of her children to gunfire.

“The hardest thing for me this time,” she said, “was burying another child again.”

In 1991, she lost her 16-year-old son, Quan. He was shot in a robbery in Bushwick. Another son, Zacquran, was shot and killed in the same neighborhood in 2010.

“Immediately after Zurana passed away, I was really angry,” Peace said. “So angry that I got numb. I didn’t know how I felt. I didn’t know what I felt. All I knew was that I couldn’t break down. I had to be strong for my grandchildren.”

“Some of the children still don’t know what happened to their mother. When you ask the two babies who their mother is, they’ll point to me.”

The oldest of her children was 18, the youngest just a year old.

“She gave her life for those kids, and she would have done it all again because that’s just the kind of person she was,” said Horton’s ex-boyfriend, O’Niel Vaughn, 43, the father of eight of her children.
Horton was planning to marry her boyfriend on Valentine’s Day in 2012.

Everyone you meet in Brownsville seems to have a story, or rather a variation on the same story—being part of a gang, or knowing someone, always younger than 25, who was, or is. Brownsville is the murder capital of New York City and has been for years. It has the highest concentration of low-income public housing in the United States, and is that rare Brooklyn neighborhood untouched by gentrification. There are spots in Brownsville where it is impossible to see anything but the looming projects of the New York City Housing Authority. Brownsville is a labyrinth of these housing projects, which are home to some 21,000 people. In a sense, it has always been so for Brownsville, which decades ago was a predominantly Jewish, working-class neighborhood that was also home to the notorious Jewish crime syndicate, Murder, Inc. Such was Brownsville’s unsavory reputation that its residents would claim they lived in adjoining East New York, which today is no safer.

Decades later, Brownsville experienced a shift in population, as white people moved out and black people moved in. In 1968, the rising racial tensions between the black residents and white teachers boiled over into a contentious teachers strike. Today, Brownsville feels like the Brooklyn that time forgot. Even once dangerous Bushwick is having a renaissance—a place of gun violence, joblessness, entrenched poverty, made all the worse, and more deadly by turf-fueled gang violence originating from inside 18 large public housing complexes, built side-by-side through the middle of the neighborhood.

The man recently convicted of killing Zurana Horton was part of a loosely knit gang. At the time of the shooting, Andrew Lopez was 18 years old. He had not been aiming at Horton—she happened to be standing in the way as he stood on a rooftop and tried to shoot at a rival gang member.

Lopez’s Young Guns gang and its rival 8 Block are part of a new generation of gangs in Brownsville, two of the 300 across the city that the NYPD keeps tabs on. Some of the gang members are as young as 10. Police say they are violent, unpredictable, emotionally driven, and armed. The Young Guns and 8 Block live in and around two housing projects, Glenmore Plaza and the Howard Houses. Their grip on the neighborhood is so powerfully menacing that people are too scared to call the police, and feel themselves in danger whenever they step outside.

“It used to be that I never wanted to go out at night because it was too dangerous,” said a woman who chose to remain anonymous. “But Zurana was killed in the afternoon, in broad daylight. There is no safe time here anymore. There is no peace of mind anymore.”

For every hour that passed in Brownsville in 2012, a crime was committed, according to the Brownsville Police Department’s annual crime report. And since January of 2013, there have been three murders, 14 rapes, 120 robberies and 174 assaults in this particular neighborhood. In just the past few weeks, a woman was stabbed in the early morning hours, a man was shot inside the supermarket he worked at, and another was found dead outside a church on a Sunday morning with three gunshot wounds to his back and one on his shoulder. In 2011, Brownsville’s 73rd police district reported the highest murder rate in the city. Brownsville also has significantly higher dropout rates and incidents of violence in its schools, in addition to low test scores and high truancy rates.

In a place so consumed by violence and the harsh realities that come with it, the people of Brownsville look to one another—for safety, for strength in numbers—in good ways, and sometimes in bad.

The young boys that join Brownsville gangs often say they do so for protection.

“I didn’t exactly have the best childhood,” said one former gang member. “And some of my friends came from abusive homes. A lot of us had no choice but to join one gang or another.”

Said another, “They’re my brothers. They’ve got my back. I know they will look out for me.”

The mothers of the slain children look out for one another, too, even as they resume the myriad tasks of parenting—this time for the grandchildren left behind.

The grandmothers gather at a small playground tucked between the projects. The children play on swing sets and slides, and their grandmothers keep an eye out.

“If we don’t watch over them, they will end up in the same places as those that killed their parents—in jail, or in one of the gangs here,” said Inez Rodriguez, a grandmother. “And the way this neighborhood has been over these few years, I know I wouldn’t trust anyone else with these young minds anyway.”

To live in Brownsville often means having to defy—and in some ways redefine—traditional definitions of family, of social life, of what it means to be part of a community. The 2010 U.S. Census reported that the number of grandparents who are primary caregivers to grandchildren has risen 12.8% since 2000, from about 2.4 million to more than 2.7 million. Between 1990 and 2000, census figures indicate the number of U.S. children being raised by grandparents rose 30%.

In Brownsville, there are so many women caring for their grandchildren that they have a support group. In 2010, the NYPD and Brooklyn clergy came together to create Grandmothers Love Over Violence. The grandmothers share stories, compare legal and parenting advice, cry on a friendly shoulder, pray and simply let off steam. The program makes it easier for grandmothers to learn how to work with their grandchildren, and makes it comfortable for them to relate to police officers and get help.

“We’ve become a group like no other,” said Rodriguez. “It is one thing to know you will never see your children again. It’s another to be reminded of that every day, every time you stare into the eyes of the young kids they’ve left behind.”

“It’s been my place of comfort,” said Denise Peace. “Because of them, I know I’m not alone in this.”

Every month, the grandmothers walk through the doors of Mt. Sion Baptist Church on a busy corner near a loud highway overpass. Some lean on walkers and canes, some are in wheelchairs. Some have toddlers in their arms. These are the moments for the women to think about themselves, and one another; their grandchildren and great grandchildren are in daycare, at school, or being cared for by babysitters or relatives.

“I thought I was done taking care of babies, and now I have this little princess,” said Daphne Georgalas as she held her infant granddaughter in her lap. “If this happened to me years ago, I don’t think I would’ve been able to handle it. But now I know God is watching over us, and he’s helping me watch over her. On my worst days, or when my shoulders ache from the exhaustion of taking care of the kids, I just pause and think about that. Take a deep breath and carry on.”

“I believe I’m stronger today because I know what my purpose is in life now,” said another grandmother choosing to remain anonymous. Like other grandmothers here, she explained that her faith helps her get through every day.

“It’s hard, but it does feel good to know I belong to a strong community.”

A short walk away from the church, a group of teenage boys exchange greetings and fist bumps. They are part of a gang, but one that is relatively new, and they’re still deciding what to call themselves. Gangs in Brownsville aren’t the way they were back in the 80s and early 90s—massive, corporate-style drug organizations were driven out years ago from the streets of Brooklyn by aggressive policing and the prospect of finding jobs. Left behind is a fractured drug market filled with unstructured and crowded clusters of close-knit, hard-to-identify gangs. They’re still gangs, but the label is often more stylistic than organizational. Instead of a couple of big gangs, there are dozens of small ones, often made up of cousins and next-door neighbors. And for many, joining one of these gangs is like a social acceptance shortcut—it provides boys who are young and unsure of themselves a prepackaged identity, and built-in friendships.

“It made me feel important, made me feel I was somebody,” recalls Greg Lamar, a former gang member. “There was nothing else to do here, there still isn’t. I was young, restless, bored. Joining a gang seemed like a quick fix for everything that wasn’t working for me.”

There are others paths. Sonny Townsend is one of a growing number of people in Brownsville who has picked up a video camera instead of a gun. “I belong here,” he said. “No matter what goes down in the ‘Ville, it’s my ‘Ville.” Townsend will walk through the projects with his friend Money, and interview residents on camera about their hopes and fears for Brownsville. And often, they get people to open up in ways no journalist has been able to. On his YouTube channel, Townsend has about 70 videos—some are part of a series he calls the “Walk thru Brownsville projects,” which include the interviews as well as footage of them walking through the projects and explaining what life was like before.

Townsend says this is his way of “showing Brownsville from the inside.” It is something he chose to do because of his own frustration with life, and frustration with the way the media covers Brownsville.
“Journalists come here only when someone gets shot,” he said. “Well what about what happens before that and after that?”

“Some people, they’re afraid of change,” Townsend said. “They don’t want to change their hoods, don’t want to change their lifestyles, even if it benefits them and their children. They will complain about what they see, but they fear change.”

For some, however, the violence is overwhelming; they are ready to move out.

“The projects are just like one big prison in my view,” said Darryl Odom, 49.

Odom knows what real prison is like—he served 13 years for armed robbery until his release in 2010.

“When I got out, I wanted to be a new man, a better man. But no one knows how tough that is, especially when all that’s around you is pulling you in the wrong direction.”

Odom is currently unemployed, and said he is increasingly frustrated with life in Brownsville. At the end of the month, he is packing his bags and getting on a bus “to anywhere but here.”

Danielle Johns is only 10, but she speaks as though she’s much older.

“What goes on in Brownsville? Looting, shooting, raping, and killing. There’s nothing else here,” she said. “My Mom says we’re leaving this place and moving to North Carolina.”

“You can get a gun like a box of diapers around here,” said Josephine Spearman, 60, whose 31-year-old son Maurice was shot dead in 2010. “Like a box of diapers. Think about that. Nothing makes sense here.”

“There are too many kids raising kids. When I was growing up, if the neighbor saw we was up to something, she’d whoop my ass. It ain’t nothing like it used to be,” said a woman who asked to be identified only as Doll.

“All our men are locked up or dead. There is no future. Nobody cares anymore. There is no love.”

As she sits in her apartment living room waiting on her grandchildren to come home from school, Denise Peace wipes off the dust from a photo of her daughter Zurana Horton.

“I’ve thought about leaving this place, lots of times,” she said. “But if women like me move away, what’s going to happen to Brownsville? What’s going to happen to all the other children who can’t leave? This place is in desperate need of attention, in desperate need of love. We can’t look away anymore.”

Contact the Author: www.sanabeg.com | Twitter @SanaABeg


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