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"
It got me thinking. Gang members call their neighborhood the 'hood.'
It's "neighborhood" without the "neighbor." How
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:
|substandard schools (no matter how hard the teachers
|few faith institutions (several had moved to
where congregants with money moved);|
|a 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;|
|struggling social- and health-related
|little local government involvement (the
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
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
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.