Hot City: Growing Up With Crime

Aug 1, 2013

When temperatures rise in the summer months, crime goes up, and young people are often the victims. They’re also increasingly a factor in crime. As part of our series Hot City: Crime in Providence, Rhode Island Public Radio’s Elisabeth Harrison visited the North End and Smith Hill, two areas with the highest crime rate last July, to find out what it’s like to grow up in a place where summer can be dangerous. 

Children play jump rope at General Street Park, near the site of a triple homicide.
Credit Elisabeth Harrison / RIPR

Just inside the gates of the Chad Brown housing project, a dozen kids play tag around a bright blue and red playground. It’s hot, close to 90 degrees, but none of them seem to notice. In the shade of a tree next to the playground, Belkys Then cradles a tiny, one-month-old baby and watches her eight-year-old son run around.

“Right now I don’t have any concerns, we don’t have any problems,” she said.  “I’ve got two years here, I’ve got 8 years boy, and we don’t have any problem, but in the future for teenagers, it’s not good.”

She’s right to be concerned. Last July, this area had more crimes than anywhere else in Providence, including 20 violent crimes, and teenagers who grew up around here say they’ve seen anything and everything. Take Billy Rouen, an 18-year-old.

“That’s true. Really true,” he said, nodding. “Fights, shootouts, drivebys. All that stuff.”

Rouen remembers the first time he witnessed a drive-by shooting. It was on Elmwood Street, and he was only four or five years old.

“I was just standing there. I didn’t know what to do. I just went home and told my mom. She told me to stay inside.”

Rouen is tall, but slight and soft-spoken. He has a large tattoo peeking out from underneath a white v-neck t-shirt, that says, “only God can judge me.” Despite the tough tattoo, Rouen says he never felt drawn to gangs or crime. In fact, with everything he’s seen on the streets, it was just the opposite.

“I was always like out doing stuff, not trying to get in trouble because I didn’t know if something bad would happen,” he said. “I always kept that in mind, like, stay away from trouble, if possible.”

To stay out of trouble Rouen often plays basketball at the Madeline Rogers recreation center. On a recent evening dozens of kids played basketball or went for a swim in the center’s pool. Outside, Tou Pathoummahong from the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence greeted kids as they arrived. Pathoummahong helped set up the rec night seven years ago.

“So we don’t force people to do yoga, we don’t force people to throw a dodge ball at each other,” he explained. “We just say hey, whatever you guys want to do let us know and we will make it happen for you guys. If they don’t want to do nothing and just roam around and be peaceful then that’s fine with us to.”

Staff at the rec night can help teenagers find a job or a GED program, or return to high school. Pathoummahong will even arrange to take a kid to a court date or mediate a dispute, and he knows the risk failure. He used to be one of these kids. He ended up in a gang, running the streets as he calls it, and later doing prison time. If he had his way, these kids would be in school all year long, or at least getting summer jobs.

“We just didn’t have opportunities when I was young so we just caused havoc in the community,” he said. “That’s what happens at the end of the day.”

A little way north of the rec center, children cool off in a water park, one of several around the city. This one, on General Street is just steps from the site of a triple homicide that went down almost exactly a year ago.

As she watches her grandchildren run in and out of the sprinklers, Angel Sweeney says she doesn’t worry about their safety.

“From my perspective, I think it’s gotten better,” she observed. “Used to be a time when all you ever heard was bad, bad, bad, bad, but I think its gotten better.”

Sweeney lives nearby, and she brings kids from a summer day camp to play at this park. She tells a little girl to put away a plastic squirt gun. She doesn’t allow guns of any kind, even if they’re bright pink toys.

“I think if its not handled right then children might glorify what they seen,” Sweeney said. “And you can’t say that’s gonna lead them to do bad, but children might get excited by that, and they might tend to go towards that. That’s why it’s’ important that parents talk to them.”

What worries Sweeney is how young people internalize the violence they see around them, sometimes in their own homes, and then there’s the question of how their experiences might affect them when the summer ends, and they go back to school.