Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News

Chapter 8:
Neighborhoods and Communities

Field Note: A gang unit member and I were driving through a gang-dominated neighborhood. It's such a shame. The housing is so nice and well designed. But what's going on inside the homes is tragic ... and dangerous.

Communities are a collection of neighborhoods. That way of viewing a community helped me understand some of what I was seeing in terms of gangs. Entire communities do not have gangs. Gangs are in them, but it would be more accurate to say that, for the most part, gang members live and operate in one or more specific neighborhoods in a community. They barely exist in other neighborhoods.

I mentioned this distinction to a probation and parole officer who had a gang member caseload. She said "That's not true. There are gangs everywhere in this city." I then asked "What would a map of the city look like if you were to stick a red pin in it at the place of residence of every documented gang member in town?" "There'd be pins everywhere!" she said. "Would most of them be in any certain part of town?" I asked. "Well, yes" she said with some hesitation. "Most of them would be on the northeast side of town."

Hans Werdmolder (1997) is a Dutch social scientist. In his study of gangs in the Netherlands he noted the significance of the neighborhood to its residents and to the formation of gangs.

In my view, the neighbourhood determines to a large extent the kind of accommodation the family will move into, what school a youth will attend and which friends he will meet. In other words, the neighbourhood strongly influences the process of integration and youth gang formation. (Werdmolder, 1997, p. 8)

The distinction between a neighborhood and a community is critical when thinking about gangs. If a community has limited resources for dealing with gangs and gang members, why spread precious resources across the entire community when the situation that needs correcting lies mostly in one or two (or however many) neighborhoods? The people in those neighborhoods are in desperate need of help.

Field Note: I visited Project Neighborhood in Kansas City. The sign for the project's office displayed the word "Neighborhood" as Neighborhood. It got me thinking. Gang members call their neighborhood the 'hood.' It's "neighborhood" without the "neighbor." How appropriate.

The implications of the distinction between neighborhood and community are important for many reasons, one of them is related to research on gangs. Why don't certain neighborhoods have much in the way of gang members and gang activity? Isn't that an important question? Wouldn't the answer give us some insight as to why certain neighborhoods do have gangs?

I think what we are seeing is that the social institutions in some neighborhoods are healthier than those in other neighborhoods. What I learned was that gangs are seldom found in neighborhoods where the social institutions with which we are concerned exist and are in good working order. If the family, schools, faith community, social services, health care and business communities, justice system, and local government are strong, gang activity is at a minimum. On the other hand, in neighborhoods or very small communities where these social institutions were absent or weak, there was a greater likelihood of finding gang activity.  Look at your own community, is that what's happening?

Field Note: I've heard a lot of people say "We just have a few gang members in town," as if that means there isn't a problem. That's like saying "We just have a few termites in the house" and not doing anything about the termites. Left alone, they destroy the house.

As I moved from community to community, I found gang members most often lived in neighborhoods characterized by: 

bulletsubstandard schools (no matter how hard the teachers work);

bulletfew faith institutions (several had moved to where congregants with money moved);

bulleta dilapidated business district where liquor stores and adult video shops now dominate as other businesses move to where the money is or simply close up shop due to vandalism, thefts, and a dwindling customer base;

bulletstruggling social- and health-related services; and

bulletlittle local government involvement (the neighborhoods are neglected and have become disenfranchised).

There's an important message in all of this - we should focus our attention and efforts on the neighborhoods described above and provide whatever assistance is needed in order to strengthen their weakened social institutions. I firmly believe healthy families are at risk when the other social institutions in their midst weaken. 

If the family were seen as the seat on a three-legged stool and the three legs were each a different social institution (i.e., schools, the business community, and faith institutions), if any one of the legs fails, the family is disrupted. Weaken all three legs and the family is likely to collapse. I think that's what happened in gang-dominated neighborhoods and what led to their being dominated by gangs. Gangs become the legs for the neighborhood's children.

In Closing

Communities have a vested interest in maintaining denial. To accept that there is a problem is an admission that "something is wrong." But a community which accepts it has a gang presence in one or more of its neighborhoods need not see itself as somehow ill. Some neighborhoods are healthy, others are not. It's up to the entire community to repair or rebuild social institutions in the neighborhoods where they are weak. We become our greatest enemy when we fail to recognize this. And gangs prosper when we fail.

We will explore some of the steps neighborhoods and communities may take to reduce gang activity when we explore solutions to gang activity and youth violence later in Into the Abyss. For now, I'd like to share what I learned about schools and how they are responding to the gang situation. 


Additional Resources: Some communities, like Los Angeles, can map the location of various gangs within a given neighborhood

2002 Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.