The Gentrifier’s Dilemma, Part XXIX: Mugging Edition

July 1st, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  13 Comments

A project to avoid—perhaps.

A project to avoid—perhaps.

Just came back from my usual thrice-a-week run, from my apartment up to Prospect Park, around the loop, and back. Weather was cool, I made decent time, and I felt great—until I got back. That’s because, as I walked through the housing project across the street from my apartment, I was, well, I guess you’d say accosted by one of the teenagers hanging out in front of the projects. He motioned for me to take off my headphones, and when I did, he said, quietly, “Give me all you got in your pockets.”

He had two friends with him, both of them leaning against the railings on the sides of the path.

“I got nothing in my pockets,” I said, continuing to walk. Which was true. I don’t carry much when I run.

“What about that?” he said, gesturing at the iPod Nano strapped to my arm. “You’re gonna get beat up, right now.”

“You’re joking,” I said, and walked past him, putting my hand on his shoulder as I did.

He didn’t do anything. His friends made sounds like they were amused at his chutzpah. I took a few more steps and called over my shoulder, “You’re funny, man!”

Two minutes later, I was through my gate, and shaking a little. I mean, this wasn’t my first mugging (attempted or actual, though this was my first in NYC), and wasn’t that different from the other times (I usually don’t have anything worth taking). And, fine, I know it’s the projects, and I don’t even mind kids messing around a little. They’re teenagers—they’re going to be jerks.

But there’s another thing: These projects are getting worse. Last weekend, there were three or four gunshot incidents, and a few weeks before that a 16-year-old girl was shot to death right on my block. So: How seriously am I supposed to take this shit today? Do I call the cops on these kids, or will that start the kind of war I don’t want to deal with? (I run through there frequently, and hell, I live across the street from this fucking place!) But the fact is, I don’t want to have to put up with this attitude, and no one else should have to, either.

As I run through the possibilities in my mind, I think of how the Brownstoner commenter crowd would react. “Fuck you, gentrifier, you moved to Brooklyn” is what they’d probably say, and I understand that. It wasn’t like I expected garlands of flowers to be spilling from the towers. But I live here, I’ve got a kid here, and there’s at least a dozen more very young kids on my block alone. I don’t want to have to tell Sasha (when she’s older) not even to walk through the projects to get from one place to another. And I don’t want to move—I love my block, with its trees and families and peaceful atmosphere only occasionally disrupted by violence. But I don’t want to get robbed, don’t want to get shot, and don’t want to feel like an asshole. So: What the fuck do I do?


  1. Carly says:

    July 1st, 2010at 10:58 am(#)

    Shootings always go up over summer. Not to be unfeeling but a lame mugging attempt is not a reason to up and move to . . . where? You handled well, by the way. I think getting to know your (sane, peaceful) neighbors is the best crime prevention strategy. And maybe it’s not a bad idea to not jog through the projects with electronics in view. It’s not irrational-gentrifier’s-fear, just a street-smart choice. Most women urban runners know never to run alone with earphones, for instance: you can’t hear who may be coming up behind you.

  2. Matt says:

    July 1st, 2010at 11:32 am(#)

    Oh, I’m not contemplating a move … yet. But it does make me wonder, for the nth time, about the prospects for this neighborhood. Will things ever get, if not good, than at least stable?

    As for running through the projects, I don’t know if I should stop. I’ve been doing this for three years already, with no problems. And they’re RIGHT THERE. Literally across the street. It seems so insane to go out of my way—and down into the less-populated, more industrial zone of Gowanus—to avoid them. Hm, I’ll have to think about this.

  3. Joshua says:

    July 1st, 2010at 11:42 am(#)

    Honestly, my thoughts go like this, if you belong to an area then you do and those projects or the people that live in them will not look in your general direction. You become a piece of the framework and everythings runs smoothly. My bet is that you kinda stick out just like your saying in your gentrifier ways. I say blend but call the dogs out on the bastards. You may end up winning on both sides.

  4. Matt says:

    July 1st, 2010at 11:55 am(#)

    Good point, Joshua. The thing is, I don’t think I stick out—at least not any more than the literally thousands of other non-project-dwellers in the neighborhood. I’ve been walking through this project (and the other one at the other end of the block) for years now, both day and night, with no problems. That’s what’s so frustrating: Why now? What’s changed? Is it some symptom of the greater economic malaise? Or something else? The cops I’ve talked to say they’re not even sure who’s warring with whom in this most recent round.

  5. Jon-Paul Villegas says:

    July 1st, 2010at 12:08 pm(#)

    Sigh… It sounds like I have almost the exact same running route as you. It’s super-scary when stuff like that happens–and it does seem like there’s been more of it recently–maybe just summer vacation stuff or maybe actual bad economy stuff.

    And yeah, it seems like you handled it really well–though touching someone even in a friendly way can give someone provocation to hit you or worse if that’s their game–glad you pulled it off. Honestly, though, I never run through the projects–let alone walk through them wearing running gear. Regardless of your actual skin color (Mid 30’s Mexican fellow), dressing like a runner tends to cast a fairly bourgeois tint to your skin that unfortunately reads “target” to some. It kind of sucks to have to admit that walking through a certain part of a neighborhood might not be the greatest idea under certain circumstances, but these are choices that we are constantly making living in a city like Brooklyn, where racial and socioeconomic realities can be frustratingly nuanced and occasionally counterintuitive.

  6. Matt O'Neill says:

    July 1st, 2010at 1:52 pm(#)

    Wow. I’m really impressed with the rational, sensible, and dare I say empathetic responses here. Maybe there’s hope for this Internet yet.

    Matt, there are so many complex social and economic issues wrapped up here that I don’t think there’s really an answer. It sounds like a big housing estate/project and not one of the smaller ones made up of two story connected houses. I lived across the street from one of the smaller kinds of housing in Trenton and got the same kind of crap at first. However, after a while, I got to know some of the kids and parents. At least to say hi to. Sometimes I’d chat with some of the older kids or younger patents (I was 21 at the time). Eventually, when the few bad eggs would give me a hard time or step up to me, their friends or others around would just tell them to shut up or say, “leave him alone, he’s all right.” That always felt nice.

    But in a bigger estate like this one, that’s probably not as realistic. Maybe the message is the same, though: don’t treat them all as the other, say hello to folks that don’t mug you, or at least smile, and become part of the background. Maybe you’ll make a surprise ally.

    The bit about the shootings/gunfire is scary, though. I’d definitely give up my iPod or whatvever the second I thought I might get hurt over it. I’d definitely NOT have laid hands on the kid.

    All the best, buddy!

  7. Matt says:

    July 1st, 2010at 2:17 pm(#)

    What’s kind of fascinating is how different this housing project is from the one down the street, at the other end of my block. That one is much more open and friendly, with the towers arrayed around an open central area where there are always lots of people hanging out: from parents and kids to the inevitable jerky teenagers. (All teens are jerks, of course.) Clearly, that project has some issues, too—drugs, for one—but it’s way more friendly to the random neighborhood people passing through than the one where today’s incident took place. That project just doesn’t have the same “people hanging out” feeling. It’s windswept and cold, and you rarely see kids in its playgrounds.

    I’d really like to know what makes the two so different from each other. Is it purely architecture? Is there some history here I don’t know? Are there different tiers of public housing, one worse (or better) than the other?

  8. Tim says:

    July 1st, 2010at 3:33 pm(#)

    Obviously I don’t live in NY and there are politics and history I don’t know about.

    But, you could see if there are organizations like a neighborhood watch you could get involved in. I think a lot of us forget that the majority of people who live in subsidized housing want desperately for their families to be safe, and they’ll work to be safe, but crime has a way of beating you down. And the work’s never done.

    We really worked hard to get rid of crime in my neighborhood and were pretty successful, but as we pushed out prostitution and burglary we now see most of the crime in our neighborhood is domestic violence. So it can be dispiriting.

    I encourage you to get involved and be part of the change. But you definitely can’t do it alone, calling the cops alone. The whole neighborhood needs to be involved.

  9. Jeff says:

    July 1st, 2010at 6:30 pm(#)

    Matt — damn, sketchy incident. Have to be honest that we just bought our first house and it specifically was a trade for us to get a smaller home and pay a bit more than currently staying in our current neighborood which can change dramatically street-to-street in it’s safeness vibe. Currently, house down the corner from us that we pass always is sort of a halfway home for guys just getting out of probation or jail or something. Always about 5 or 6 young black men hanging out on the porch. Now, it’s not the projects by any means, but it is parolees. I always just give them the head nod, say “what’s up”, helped one guy push his car one time when he was having problem. And that seemed to create a level of respect that keeps everyhting ok. Of course, guys in their 20s are slightly (only slighty) more mature than jerky teenagers…

  10. karen says:

    July 2nd, 2010at 8:34 pm(#)


    There is a new housing project being shoved into my neighbourhood that will likely be a bit scary: at-risk and street involved youth housed with homeless and addicted adults, run by a First Nations organisation that has been in operation with street-involved and at-risk youth for at least the past 20 years. The area has certainly had some gentrification since we came on the scene in 1993, but most who’ve bought into the area (unlike some neighbourhoods) did so with eyes wide open. Our biggest wishes are two: that the facility, which appears risky to us, be managed well and the people being housed be supervised; and that it not totally kill our views of the North Shore mountains.

    In the fall, I plan to volunteer at the existing centre so that I know my neighbours and their plans, rather than join the neighbourhood association that is well-meaning but has their own motives and diversity.

    I think the way you handled the boys was intelligent, and not unlike what you might have done in your travels. People are too afraid of the other (I’m thinking now of the perhaps unnecessary and excessive riot police at the G20 summit in TO) and unwilling to stretch themselves to (a) share a little and (b) reach out and touch their neighbours.

  11. stormsweeper says:

    July 6th, 2010at 1:45 pm(#)

    My money is on jerky teenagers, having been something of a pioneer in moving to Washington Heights back in 1999. I had a lot of those encounters. It was funny years on, though, as new jerky teenagers would pull stuff, and their buddies would be like “Dude, he live in my building, leave him alone.”


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