A few weeks ago my agency hosted a forum focused on violence in the community hoping that a few concerned community members would feel compelled to answer our call. The topic of the meeting was not new, and many of the speakers had publically discussed the topic before. But until the problem is solved, people will gather. They will gather to lament the sons and daughters they have lost to gun violence, to hear directly from power brokers on their efforts and to develop strategies that will get guns off the streets.
The event was standing room only -- crowded with policy makers, community members and the press. Attendees came to hear Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Chancellor Dennis Walcott and New York City Housing Authority Chairman John Rhea talk about the efforts their respective departments are championing. And attendees came to share their stories and to call for action. They came because the fight to save our children, to make our neighborhoods safe, and to restore a feeling of community is very personal.
You see, I don't commute to my office in Harlem from far away. I walk a few blocks from my house to the Harlem brownstone that the Urban League calls home. I moved to the block I live on over a decade ago. When I moved in, half of the brownstones were under siege by the DA's office for drug activity. My block, like so many others, lies somewhere between the old and new Harlem. On one end of the block is a bowling alley funded in part through loans from the Empowerment Zone. Every weekend hundreds of teens spill out of the bowling alley and into the streets with nothing to do. Long gone are the days of midnight hoops that were popular in the 90s.
I often peek my head out the front door when the noise gets too loud, wanting to make sure the girls and boys are truly "just playing" and not about to become victims. I know this is an old fashioned practice. New Harlemites are supposed to call the cops and long-timers call the grandmothers -- but I live between the new and old Harlem. On the other end of my block is Harlem's newest and hippest restaurant, which hosts celebrities, athletes and even the president of the United States. I live between new and old Harlem.
One Saturday evening, I went to bed before I could stick my head out to see if the youths outside were just playing. Tragically, they were not. One bullet was lodged in a teen on the sidewalk, and another in the front window of the home I share with my sister. The next morning as I washed the blood from the sidewalk, I understood that my sister and I live between new and old Harlem. Somewhere between the new and old Harlem, young people have to have positive activities to engage in and jobs for the summer. Somewhere between the new and old Harlem, children need to walk to school knowing they are safe, and walk the halls from class to class without fear. Between new and old Harlem, new Harlemites in condos and co-ops must engage in the lives of youths in public housing and private pain.
This fall the New York Urban League will re-create the Youth Councils that have helped in the development of some of today's community and political leaders. We will draw young people from around Harlem's many blocks to learn more about their cultural heritage, to interact with the political leaders that we gathered for our Harlem Dialogues and come up with solutions with the support of caring and active adults. These meetings will begin at the epitome of the partnership of new and old Harlem -- the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. A historic institution now led by a new Harlemite is an ideal environment to come together for positive change. Between new and old Harlem, we must create the public drive to invest in Black and Brown children the way we invest in prisons and profits on Wall Street.