Tenants Look To Take Back Crime Ridden/Drug Riddled Neighborhood With Assistance Of County And State
When one hears the words "Terrace Avenue" in the Village of Hempstead in the news, its typically about drug related activity, or the violent attack of neighbor against neighbor.
With a history of failing schools, gang and sundry street violence, and the notorious open-air sale of drugs, Hempstead has been on a steady downward spiral, its days as the hub of Nassau County giving way to a host of socio-economic woes.
Now, the residents of Terrace Avenue -- long known as the epicenter of drugs and violence in the village -- backed by the Nassau County District Attorney's office, County Exec Tom Suozzi, Hempstead Mayor Wayne Hall, and myriad community leaders and organizations, are intent on taking back not only Terrace Avenue, but the village that encompasses it.
A plan is now in place, based on a North Carolina model, offering a better deal to those known to deal in drugs -- often the underpinning of violence along the Avenue: Turn away from the illegal drug trade and avoid arrest and prosecution, and take advantage of job training, employment placement or a GED program.
Whether this stick and carrot approach will meet with success remains to be seen. It appears to have made a world of difference in places like High Point, NC, where drugs and violence had taken over the town's west end.
Certainly, this proactive plan, combined with other anti-crime initiatives, such as the DA's Gunstoppers program, is worth a try.
The benefits of taking back Terrace Avenue, ridding the community of drugs and drug related crime, enure not only to Hempstead Village and neighboring communities, but to all of Nassau County, and to society as a whole.
After all, replacing drugs and crime with education and opportunity elevates every one of us, and not only saves untold lives -- of both victims and perpetrators -- but hundreds of thousands in tax dollars otherwise earmarked for prosecution, incarceration, and attempting to stymie a community's economic decline simply by throwing money at the problem.
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Terrace Ave. residents have long lived with crime
BY NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON AND MICHAEL FRAZIER
Every time Harold Humdy Sr. leaves his Hempstead apartment complex for work or for a trip to the store, he walks past the spot where his only son and namesake was gunned down.
Known as "Hen-Rock" around the neighborhood, Harold Humdy Jr., 23, was a convicted drug dealer known to treat kids on Terrace Avenue to ice cream on hot summer days. In April 2004, he was shot once in the back during an afternoon robbery as he stood on the corner."I was sleeping and dreamed my son had been shot," Humdy, 59, said. "When I awoke, someone told me he was. I thought I was still dreaming."
Humdy's pain, and his memory of loss, is a shared one, as violence is a part of the collective fabric of Terrace Avenue.
"You can't live on Terrace and say you haven't been affected by violence," said Barry Johnson, 21, who lives at 100 Terrace Ave. "My father was shot [and killed] in the building when I was 2. I saw my friend get killed. Living on Terrace, you feel like you've lived a long time."
They've lived a long time with violent crime, an inevitable byproduct of the crack trade that exploded in the 1980s. Earlier this month, Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice offered the Terrace Bedell Initiative to eradicate the drug market for good. The program, which offers nonviolent drug dealers a one-time pass if they go straight, has had an immediate effect and residents almost invariably support it, along with other initiatives that have improved the area and lowered some crimes in recent years. Still, neighbors used to short-term fixes are wary of saying their problems are solved. Residents - who in years past nicknamed the block, between Jackson and Bedell streets, "Terror Avenue" - speak of the past with exasperated weariness and the future with guarded hope.
"So much has happened. ... We had three people that were buried right next to each other, like they died one right after the other," said Inez Dingle, president of the Progressive Tenants Association. "But a lot of that stuff, I try not to even think back to; I blocked it out. It was happening so fast. ... I think the people are tired of the conditions and all the lives that have been messed up."
On that one block in the past five years, five people have been killed on Terrace Avenue, according to Village of Hempstead statistics. Over the same period on that same block, there were 55 robberies and 88 assaults. Since 2005, most major crimes are down, though the street, just blocks from the Hempstead train station and downtown, has accounted for almost half the village's murders in some years and 15 percent of assaults in others. The heart of the quarter-mile stretch is the six-story Jackson Terrace apartment complex, where Johnson, Humdy and some 1,500 other working-class residents, mostly women and children, live in subsidized apartments. The 417-unit complex, with its green awnings and windows that overlook smaller apartment buildings near vacant lots, is just off a commercial strip, about a block from an African-American history museum.
When it opened in 1972, it was called The El Dorado. Then, 100 Terrace Ave. was a prestigious address. Now, with its open air drug market, shootings and history of brazen homicides, it is an address synonymous with crime. Metal signs urging residents to "Help Fight the War Against Drugs" dot lampposts.
Police Officer Marlon Bottoms, a 12-year veteran of the Village of Hempstead Police Department, patrolled Terrace Avenue and is part of a recent effort to clean it up for good. He remembered the last moments of a dealer caught by the violence.
"Instead of him running from me, he needed me. I held his hand. He was gasping for air," he said. "Drug dealers don't see this side - what it is to be a victim. They're putting drugs in someone's system, selling it to kids and doing something that affects the whole community."
Jackson Terrace, an E-shaped building that fills the block, has three sections, 18 stairwells and covers 400,000 square feet. The Bedell Street side is closest to the center of drug activity. Rampant drug activity was once routine inside.
"I remember you couldn't go out without seeing people laying in doorways, just cracked out," said Danielle Lombardo, 23. "The drugs, the violence, the gunshots, the crackheads, I've seen it my entire life." Lombardo listed four people she knew who were killed near 100 Terrace Ave., including Humdy Jr.
"They called me when I was on my way to the mall," she said. "They said, 'Hen-Rock just got shot and he's lying on the floor. We think he's dead.'"
"It was so scary, I wouldn't even go there to cop drugs," said Gina Grafton, a self-described former crack addict who now lives at 100 Terrace Ave. "If I had to end up going there, I just wouldn't get high that night."
Tenants' den mother
Inside, low ceilings, narrow hallways and off-white walls give the complex a barren, stripped-down feel, even though it is at full occupancy.
Dingle, a registered nurse who acts as a den mother to tenants, has lived at 100 Terrace Ave. for almost three decades. She said her home has climbed peaks and plumbed valleys. For years, the complex was poorly managed and fed-up residents formed the Progressive Tenants Association in the mid-1980s to push for changes, Dingle said. Heat and hot water worked off and on, there were no doorknobs, locks or insulation. And crack was king.
"There was a lot of drug dealing going on, there were frequent fires, the elevators were broken," said Peter Florey, the new owner, who began working in management at 100 Terrace Ave. in 1990. "It was in pretty bad shape and it had been written off by the community."
With $500,000 in federal grants, stronger doors, 30 cameras and a full-time security staff were put in place from 1999 to 2003. The property eventually changed hands and the steady complaints of tenants, who had taken to patrolling the building with baseball bats and screwdrivers, led to major changes.
Florey took over in December 2006 and invested $8 million. Cameras now number 220 and recessed lighting has been replaced with fluorescent lights in every hallway. There are new bathrooms, kitchens and floors.
Others have pitched in to help the community. Over the years, charities and churches have donated food and clothing, and organized after-school activities. With a grant from the state's parks department, the village upgraded playground equipment at a nearby park last year. An in-house after-school tutoring program for elementary students began in the fall. And during the last three years, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been poured into the area to increase police patrols in the evenings and in the summer. But the drug trade - and its associated crime - has proved to be stubborn. It simply moved from the hallways to the street out front.
"My daughter has called me to the window plenty of times when they are out there smoking crack," said Grafton, a housekeeper, as she looked out her window. "But we pretty much stay away from the window because bullets fly, they fly low, they fly high."
Numb to the gunfire
Several residents said gunshots come as often as every other day, so often that some are numb to it, yet they know what to do when the bullets fly.
"I run into the middle of the apartment towards the door and away from the windows," said Malik, Grafton's 11-year-old son. "Sometimes my sister runs to the window, but I pull her back."
Yet - even amid the intractable drug problem traced to a few, but affecting everyone who lives on Terrace Avenue - tenants kept pushing for something new, Dingle said.
So, finally, at a community meeting on Dec. 27, Dingle had a message for the tenants she has led and suffered with over these last years.
"Yesterday is gone. We can't relive it. Let's start with today and move forward," she said then.
"Come Jan. 8, we are going to shut this entire area up."
The way forward is a two-pronged, full-court-press approach to the problem modeled on an earlier project developed by a professor now at Manhattan's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It was based on a yearlong investigation into drug activity in the area. Community leaders, Mayor Wayne Hall, the Nassau district attorney's office, County Executive Thomas Suozzi, preachers and social service organizations teamed up to offer a deal to suspected drug dealers - go straight, with considerable help, or go to jail.
And Village of Hempstead police posted round-the-clock patrols, financed by Rice's office with seized funds. "The game doesn't stop unless you get caught or end up dead," said Maurice Gilreath, a convicted drug dealer who accepted Rice's deal. "I would be doing what I was doing before if I didn't have the program."
When Gilreath, along with 12 other suspected drug offenders, walked into a packed community meeting Jan. 8, so familiar were their faces and activities that tenants called them by name as they viewed footage of undercover drug buys.
"That's 100 Terrace, you can tell by the cabinets."
On a recent evening, three police cars were on the block, and the only activity Grafton could see from her window was a police officer with a flashlight checking an alleyway.
"These corners belong to the kids and we've got to get those corners back so they can play basketball, hopscotch and jump rope - the things they enjoy," said Bottoms. "If you don't clean up the corners, kids are going to use them to sell drugs."
Teddy Johnson, 47, is raising his son at 100 Terrace Ave., where he has lived for three decades. He talked about the shootings, the fights and the drug-dealing he has seen over the years and wanting something different for his family.
As his son, Keiwan, 14, jumped off the school bus, Johnson looked around at the empty corners, taking in what he saw and wondering about what lies ahead.
"It's quiet right now, but how long?"
VOICES OF TERRACE AVENUE
The police officer, Marlon Bottoms
(Referring to the victim of a drive-by shooting)
"Instead of him running from me, he needed me. I held his hand. He was gasping for air. ... Drug dealers don't see this side - what it is to be a victim."
The tenant leader, Inez DinglePresident, Progressive Tenants Association
"The entire block was prestige, not just this building. But then it started to deteriorate and I had a struggle with the owners to make it better. There was an open-air drug market, all types of cars coming in and out, so much has happened over the years."
The resident, Barry Johnson, 21
"You can't live on Terrace and say you haven't been affected by violence. My father was shot [and killed] in the building in the basement when I was 2. I saw my friend get killed ... we were outside and it was during the day and the dude saw him on the block and ran up on him. I saw it when he dropped. I was young, in the sixth or seventh grade. I was hurt, that was like my brother. That broke me down."
The convicted drug dealer, Maurice Gilreath, 26,
"I've been in the game since I was a little kid, I've seen it since I was a little kid. It's always been around me. I never thought that I would do it but I ran into hard times and in hard times you have to adapt to what you know. ... The game doesn't stop unless you get caught or end up dead. I would be doing what I was doing before, if I didn't have the program."
Nassau County prosecutors had identified Terrace Avenue and Bedell Street in Hempstead Village as the county's worst open-air drug market. In 2007, police conducted a long-term investigation there. After making arrests, drug trafficking continued. Prosecutors concluded the traditional "buy-and-bust" tactics weren't working.
Looking for a solution, police considered alternatives to making arrests, like shutting down streets to disrupt the drug market.After a tenants' meeting at 100 Terrace Ave., police and prosecutors reached out to John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
There they found professor David Kennedy, who steered police through an award-winning initiative that had given a second chance to drug dealing suspects in High Point, N.C., in 2004.
In Hempstead, more meetings, involving Assistant District Attorney Meg Reiss and Hempstead Police Chief Joseph Wing, were held with 15 community members to gauge feedback.
After a positive reception, larger community meetings were held. With community support, the initiative proceeded, with the Jan. 8 meeting where District Attorney Kathleen Rice unveiled the initiative to the public.
Using videotape and surveillance photos, police gathered evidence against 39 people identified as dealers or participants in the narcotics market in the Terrace and Bedell neighborhood.They prepared arrest warrants. Seventeen were chosen for possible participation in the initiative. They had prior records for narcotics violations. Those with a violent history weren't selected.
Instead of serving the 17 warrants immediately, police sent the suspects letters stating, "After we conducted an extensive drug investigation on Terrace Avenue and Bedell Street, you have been positively identified as selling drugs on the street."
The letters, which are delivered by police, offer a deal: Turn away from the illegal drug trade and avoid arrest and prosecution, and take advantage of job training, employment placement or a GED program.
Thirteen of the 17 offered a second chance were accepted into the program.
Rice's critics questioned why a mostly African-American neighborhood was chosen for an unprecedented initiative in Nassau County. One accused Rice of "putting a black face" on the problem of drug dealing. Critics also wondered how the participants who avoided arrest were selected. In response, Rice said the neighborhood was chosen because of its long history - decades - of being the busiest open-air drug market in Nassau County. Race, Rice said, had nothing to do with the selection.
Rice also said there are ongoing drug investigations all over Nassau County, including neighborhoods with white residents.With community support, Rice said, prosecutors looked for a new way to tackle an old problem that traditional police tactics failed to solve.- KEITH HERBERT
CRIME ALONG THE AVENUE
SOURCE: Nassau County police; Village of Hempstead
Drug Arrests'05 '07
Hempstead 408 411 Terrace Ave. / Bedell St. 68 83
Hempstead 211 121 Terrace Ave. / Bedell St. 21 9
Hempstead 168 175 Terrace Ave. / Bedell St. 27 14
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