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Looking for the roots of violence in a Boston neighborhood

Looking for the roots of violence in a Boston neighborhood

Picture of Steven Wilmsen

Urban violence in Boston has generally declined. But the neighborhood called Bowdoin-Geneva for decades has remained a troubled hot spot. Year in and year out, summer brings a rash of shootings – often with tragic results, both for the young men who tend to be the perpetrators of such crime and for the innocent who happen to in the wrong place at the wrong time. When members of a gang could not find their intended target two years ago, they dragged 14-year-old Nicholas Fomby-Davis from his scooter, held him down, and shot him dead.

The problem has baffled city leaders. For as long as violence has ravaged the neighborhood, mayors including the current one have tried to do something about it. They’ve swept up gang members in mass arrests, employed new police strategies, cracked down on gun sales, made efforts to improve services in the neighborhood. None has had lasting results. Meanwhile, problems commonly associated with gun violence, like poverty and drugs, do not loom nearly as large as they once did. And as violent crime has tended to decline in other parts of Boston that are of seemingly similar in character, it remained in Bowdoin-Geneva, scarring the psyches and physical health of the children and adults who live there. 

This year, after public outcry over the death of Fomby-Davis (the trial of his killer was this summer) and a string of others, Mayor Thomas M. Menino launched the city’s latest major effort to confront crime. As he does, we are embarking on an ambitious effort to examine the neighborhood and explore the question, why does violence in these 58 blocks persist?

The project has two broad reporting goals:

One is to observe in an intimate, immersive way the experience of living in Bowdoin-Geneva day to day. We wanted to do something uncommon for newspapers – be there long before the inevitable crime happened, gaining knowledge of the place, the people who inhabit it, and the forces that shape their lives. So we rented an apartment in the neighborhood and staffed it with a rotation of reporters, starting in the spring and continuing through the high-crime summer season. We want to emerge with a powerful human narrative that paints a revealing and unforgettable picture of life in a place where violence is a fact of life.

Another is to assemble a detailed and creative statistical portrait of the community, aiming for a unique understanding of its history, living conditions and the people who inhabit it. Some of the numbers that will make up this portrait include crime statistics extending back decades, census figures, quality of city services, health status and so on. But we are aiming for more creative variables, and a big part of our job has become pestering government agencies, the school district, hospitals and other private entities for access to data that has never been analyzed in this context.

A crucial element in this effort is a better understanding of why so many young people in the neighborhood -- even many with economic and academic opportunities -- end up drawn, or pushed, to violence. A Hunt grant is underwriting a survey of neighborhood youth aimed at gaining insight on that key point. It may prove a fulcrum of our work to understand in a meaningful way the common experience of growing up with violence and it's impact.


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How is your research coming on the 58 blocks in Boston's Bowdoin Geneva Ave neighborhood? Any thoughts on whether the City should limit existing school choice options for families (single moms and others) who reside in B-G to go to school elsewhere in the longstanding school assignment zone? Isn't it a bit odd that the public school officials who administratively assign students to schools under a "controlled choice plan" (which they control) are claiming that oh dear, too much choice for families who are largely poor and non-white to choose a school is the problem that needs to be fixed?

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