NEAL CONAN, HOST:
The mass murders in Newtown, Connecticut, captured the nation's attention and prompted a new conversation about gun rights and gun control. Alongside its coverage of Newtown, the Boston Globe published a series of stories that focused on the kind of gun violence that doesn't often make the headlines but adds up to many more lives lost; one and two and three lives at a time. Over the past 25 years, a neighborhood called Bowdoin-Geneva has been more dangerous than the city of Boston as a whole.
A team of Globe reporters spent almost a year there trying to understand perpetual cycles of violence and why efforts to turn the tide repeatedly fail. If you live in this area, call and tell us what we don't understand about your neighborhood. 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Akilah Johnson and Meghan Irons were lead reporters for the Boston Globe series "68 Blocks: Life, Death, Hope."
They lived in an apartment in Bowdoin-Geneva from May to September and worked with a team of photographers, data analysts and other reporters to tell the story of this neighborhood and its residents, and they join us now from the studio at the newspaper. And welcome to you both.
AKILAH JOHNSON: Thanks for having us.
MEGHAN IRONS: Hi. How are you?
CONAN: Good. Thanks. And, Meghan Irons, let's start with you. I know you spent most of your time with a family named Davis, a family that still mourns the loss of their son.
IRONS: Yes. I followed for a year the Davis family, Nathaniel Davis and Trina Davis and their children. One of them was killed horribly in 2010. He was riding a scooter, his brother's scooter, and he was yanked off and killed in what amounted to gang violence. And I met them this - in our series last year, and they were still grieving. The murder trial was starting that May, and their son, their other son who had watched his brother take his last breath was also going to be testifying but he was also in jail, another victim you would say of gun violence because after his brother died he felt he needed to arm himself because he was afraid.
CONAN: And the father, Big Nate as he's called, he is somebody who escaped that life and tried to raise a family that would avoid some of the problems that he had when he was a kid.
IRONS: Yes. And he and his wife, Trina, thought they were doing everything that they could to protect themselves from the violence that is so prevalent in their neighborhood. They were a family that had endured, as you said Nate had this, you know, hard background and changed his life, became a deacon. They felt they needed to get their kids in church. Trina, who came from - whose family is from Alabama, felt the best way to raise their family is good, you know, with good Southern tradition.
They all went to church together. They took trips together. They were a family that believed that if they did all the right things that it would all work out for them. But sometimes, especially when you live in a neighborhood that is prone to this sort of brazen and random violence, you can't escape the gun violence. It finds you.
CONAN: Akilah Johnson, there are other places in Boston that are at least as poverty stricken as Geneva-Bowdoin. There are other places that have the same kind of ethnic - why is this neighborhood in particular so vulnerable to gun violence?
JOHNSON: I mean that's a great question. It's the why that kind of drove the program, and it's the project. And it's the why that - we have lots of theories, and residents and, you know, community workers and youth workers have theories as to the why. But I don't necessarily know that we found hard and fast answers to the why, to be very honest. You know, there is an issue of complacency amongst some community organizations, you know, we found in our reporting and through going through the archives of previous stories, where once something works and you flood a community with resources and you flood it with attention and you flood it with a certain amount of physical activity and intensity, it's hard to kind of keep that same level and that same threshold of attention up. And so once things start to, you know, get better or improve or work to some extent, a certain amount of complacency sets in from what we found from previously. Then there's...
CONAN: There's a story - I just wanted to illustrate that there's a story you tell about one of your 68 blocks as a notorious place for abandoned houses and crack houses, that sort of thing. And there was enormous effort from the city and from private developers to bring it up, to improve it. And then by the time you are reporting there, it's fallen back into its old ways.
JOHNSON: Yeah. So one of the other reporters in the project spend a lot of time on Hendry Street, and it was an effort where the - that is a street where the city took an enormous effort and paid an enormous amount of attention to - as well some community organizations, you know, buying up houses that had been problem houses and rehabbing them and redeveloping them and getting rid of problem tenants and problem landlords. And things have gotten so much better. And then there was a bit of backsliding that happened.
And so while we were there this summer, it was an effort to climb back up that hill and right some of those wrongs that had started to take hold again. And actually after the series ran and was published, just within the past maybe week or so there was an announcement by federal authorities that there had been this huge raid on several gangs in Dorchester, one of them being some folks that lived on Hendry Street that had been causing quite a bit of problems for resident there, as the series had deemed one house in particular the Cancer House, and they were able to shut that down, get rid of the problem tenants.
And with them, you know, they were running drug operations, gun operations, from that house. And so it's not that we propagated that. But that just kind of shows that cycle, that ebb and flow of attention and lack thereof, and how things can flare up and fall back as a city and neighborhoods try and combat this problem.
CONAN: And Meghan Irons, tell us about some of these gangs, the kids who are - members say these aren't gangs. These are my friends, my ciphers.
IRONS: That's right. You know, it's very hard for people to pick out who is a gang member and who isn't a gang member. Some of the signs are very obvious (unintelligible) you might have a group of kids living on a particular street who claim that street, represent the name, wear a certain color, take on a certain, you know, sports - the jerseys and hats from certain sports teams. But sometimes - the street gangs in Boston are just your son having to make a decision on his way from home to school whether or not he's going to fight through the already established gang members who are on the street, who are trying to rob him, who are asking him where are you from, not necessarily meaning where do you live, but what street you represent, what street gang do you represent?
And that boy, you know, maybe at age 13 or 12, begins to decide how is he going to protect himself from home to school. And what we found in some of the young men that we spoke with, they've had to make these decisions to fight with their fists at first and then to arm themselves with knives at first - second, and then to perhaps get a gun, because they feel no one else is going to protect them. They're not protected, they feel, by their parents, who don't understand the world they live in. And then are protected by the authorities, who don't get them. And so they feel like whatever beefs, whatever disputes that they are having, they have to settle it themselves. It's a decision - excuse me - that they make on their way to age 18. And by that time it's too late. You know, they're either dead or in prison.
CONAN: Akilah Johnson, you spent time with another family named - no relation - Johnson. And there were two boys in that family who had made those decisions.
JOHNSON: Yes. And you know, like Meghan said, it's one of those situations where you have a family and you have parents who feel like they're doing all the right things. You know, Theresa Johnson is a single mother and she's a school secretary and she did everything she could to kind of make sure her kids stayed on a straight and narrow. She - to some extent she raised on the same way she was raised, you know, strict. There were punishments for back talk and bad grades. Homework was a necessity. She tried to get them involved in after-school programs and, you know, activities to occupy their time, yet and still her sons chose to - as one of them told me - she has two sons in the street life.
And not only are they in the street life, but they happen to represent rival hoods, as they call them here. You know, the streets - gangs here are often represent - are represented by streets, and the streets - the young folks on the street call hoods, not like your whole neighborhood, but your street is a hood. And so they're from rival hoods. And one represents a housing - a public housing complex where they never lived. He used to play basketball nearby and kind of knew a guy and then just started to hanging out over there, and another one started representing a street that at one point in time they live on.
So it kind of goes to this concept like Meghan mentioned, of, you know, where you're from, where you represent is not necessarily a place where you live, but it's a group of people and a group of individuals with whom you identify.
CONAN: And then their mother has to make choices: Will she allow guns in the house? Will she allow drugs in the house? Will she allow ultimately her sons in the house?
JOHNSON: Exactly. So it's this kind of constant - it's a constant questioning of just how much will I accept and how much is enough. And so, you know, she's - Theresa has one hard and fast rule and that's she'll never turn her back on her children. Her children kind of are the motivating factor in her life. She's got four: two boys and two girls. And to her this is something that a mother never does. A mother never turns her back on her children, but a mother also doesn't love blindly, to some extent.
And so guns are not an option. You can't bring guns in the house. Drugs? Drugs are also not an option. You can't bring drugs in the house. However, there's a bit of don't ask, don't tell because of these hard and fast rules that she has. On some level if her sons acknowledge and confess to some of these things and that puts her in a position where she's going to have to - she has to begin to question her own kind of hard and fast philosophies as a mother.
So it's a tough place to be and, you know, just kind of that concept of, will I love you to death? And by the end of the summer, she had made up her mind that no, she won't love her sons to death, and she had ultimately given them an ultimatum, especially her oldest son, who is awaiting trial on gun charges. And you know, she told Sean, it's me or the streets.
CONAN: Meghan Irons and...
IRONS: I just want to...
CONAN: ...Akilah Johnson are two of the lead reporters for the Boston Globe series "68 Blocks: Life, Death, Hope." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Meghan, I cut you off, I apologize.
IRONS: It's OK. It's all right. I was going to say just, you know, I was going to make the point that I think what the series shows is the different worlds, how different the worlds are for the kids who exist in these neighborhoods and the parents having to raise them. It's like they're operating on very different - in a very different universe.
CONAN: And we should not go away with the impression that everybody there is involved in gangs and this is - there are wonderful people, you write about. There's an institution that's attempted to be revived, a community garden. Even that provides tension, but it also does a lot of good.
JOHNSON: Well, exactly. I think that was, you know, that's one of the things we wanted to show, and that's one of the things - you know, hindsight is 20/20 - that we maybe want to show more of, is that there are a lot of people in the neighborhood who are living their lives, who are doing - who are raising families, who are going to work, who aren't involved in gangs or drug activity. And so the garden and Jhana's efforts to revive that garden represent that.
And then you've got, you know, the community workers who are trying to organize and bring together neighbors so that they can support one another. It's kind of - I've likened it to when you drop a pebble on a pond and you've got the ripple effects, it's where are you in the relation to the pebble as it falls in the pond in terms of how your life is touched by violence on some level. But no, by no stretch of the imagination is everyone in this neighborhood somehow affiliated or related to a gang or gang violence or guns or gun violence. It's just - it's a kind of relational thing.
IRONS: And we were able to achieve that with Susan Young and Doc Conway. I just want to mention the other reporters on our team - Maria Cramer and Jenna Russell and Andrew Young, who...
IRONS: Andrew Ryan, sorry.
IRONS: And we were able to show that, you know, there's a culture that needs to change. You know, how deep that goes, I don't know. But there are people who are working tirelessly to ensuring that this community remains safe, that young men who are involved in gangs are given opportunities so they can get off gangs, that families are sending their children to school and college and that this is a viable and thriving community but for the fact that there are streets that plague this neighborhood and kill so many kids and destroy the reputation of this neighborhood.
What we hoped in the series, in the journey that, you know, through the summer and through the lives of the people, is to show that there needs could be persistent and consistent efforts in addressing some of these plaguing problems.
CONAN: And one of the things the series does illustrate, we saw the wrenching effect, that awful, horrible scene in the community in Newtown after Sandy Hook Elementary. But we saw in your series how these effects pile up one by one by one, these individual killings, and they can tear a community to pieces, especially as these gangs engage in tit-for-tat murders.
IRONS: Yeah. I mean I thought the Globe, you know - you know, newspapers are constantly under pressure these days, you know, short staff, shrinking resources, readership going online. For the Globe to devote such resources, you know, and manpower to this amazing series is commendable to me. But I also thought the way they played the series. We were planning this series all year. We had no idea that Newtown was even happening. And they played both stories on the front page of the Globe that Sunday.
And, you know, during the election, there was absolutely no mention of gun violence in inner cities by the two major parties (unintelligible) candidates. But as you said, Neal, you know, guns in both cases caused such devastation, you know, whether it is in a predominantly white suburban community as Newtown, and whether it is in a predominantly black (unintelligible) and Latin community as Bowdoin-Geneva, the devastation cuts across all social, economic barriers and is catastrophic.
CONAN: You can see pictures of some of the people we talked about today - Big Nate, Theresa Johnson, Doc Conway - at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. You can also find a link to fully explore the "68 Block" series. Akilah Johnson and Meghan Irons, the lead reporters on the series, joined us from a studio at the Boston Globe. Thanks so much for your time today.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
IRONS: Thank you.
CONAN: Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin is here with his take on the inauguration and the work ahead on the Hill. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.