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Growing Up on the Home Turf of Murder, Inc. : THE VILLE: Cops and Kids in Urban America, By Greg Donaldson (Ticknor & Fields: $22.95; 401 pp.)

January 16, 1994|Randolph Bates | Bates' recent nonfiction book is "Rings: On the Life and Family of a Southern Fighter" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a white writer's 10-year witness of the experience of a black family from a New Orleans housing project

The Brownsville and East New York neighborhoods of Brooklyn exact an experience that remains foreign to much of the public. This is true despite the national media attention attracted by fatal shootings by teen-agers of teen-agers and a teacher at Brownsville's main high school. It's true even though facets of Brownsville (and comparable neighborhoods) are so influential among the young that advantaged kids from the suburbs to the heartland affect its quick-triggered talk and loose gangsta attire--baggy fabric that in Brownsville often conceals firearms or shoplifted clothes.

The proliferating children-with-guns culture of Brownsville is one of our corrosive open secrets; it's mythicized and marketed, but it isn't widely understood. Greg Donaldson, a teaching veteran of Brooklyn's roughest schools, has written articles about the area and ridden at all hours with its police. In "The Ville: Cops and Kids in Urban America," he takes us on an eloquent journey throughout Brownsville and makes us begin to understand.

The antagonist in these pages is "a system that is content to allow levels of joblessness, despair, and violence . . . that are destroying a generation of African Americans." Occupied with this "loss of young lives," Donaldson documents the social forces that transformed Brownsville from the ambitious Jewish community it was in the first half of the century. But even in the 1920s and '30s, Brownsville was dangerous, home turf of Murder Inc. and an area that Jews labored to leave. Along with gerrymandering, deindustrialization and the mushrooming of housing projects, designed in the '40s and '50s "for the working poor . . . (but) filled up with the unemployed," Brownsville suffered, in the '60s, "the scourge of heroin" and "the living dead who scratched like chickens" through the burn-out surrounding its projects.

Donaldson explains that for kids who "grew up in a festering world of syringes, dope buys, strangers, and stupefied parents, the second wave was AIDS. . . . The third wave, crack, blew the doors down. Into the chaos rolled cars loaded with weapons purchased from gun stores in Virginia, brown boxes packed with guns delivered by mail order." Now, in "the fresh hell of the gun," 50,000 people inhabit the projects of Brownsville and East New York. As many as 90% of the youth there are jobless, their dreams grounded in the two square miles that also are home to the highest concentrations of methadone clinics, homeless shelters and homicides in New York City.

Although Donaldson is learned about these conditions, he doesn't seek to inform primarily in the ways of standard scholarship. Instead, working "on that excruciating line between officers of the law and young men of the streets," he sets out to dispel "cardboard images" on both sides of the line and to humanize public perceptions of these kids' and cops' personal struggles and warfare with each other. He successfully realizes these large-hearted hopes by portraying an unspecified recent year--summer 1991 to summer 1992--in the lives of an array of Brownsville's cops, crack dealers, working mothers and grandmothers, teachers and many of its very young males who succumb to the acute pressure to carry guns to protect themselves and command respect.

The competition of recurring narratives in Donaldson's account defies expectations of simple dramatic tension. That is as it should be. The loose-threaded tapestry of the narration aptly reflects the blurred scramble for recognition in the Ville itself. There is a central pair of stories, though--about two young men who do not meet.

Sharron Corley is a high school student and a member of the LoLifes, a gang identified by its passion for "boosting" and wearing Polo fashions. Gary Lemite is a young Housing cop and one of the few blacks on duty in these projects; he is eager to do the job and advance himself and his family. Sharron, like his girlfriends and other peers, has been thoroughly seduced by the "mad American marketing machine that trumpets, 'Get things, get money and don't settle for second best' (and) makes ambition a religion"--especially for those such as Sharron who have no "access to the legitimate hierarchy." Donaldson's depiction of Sharron yields a close look at this dreary seduction.

But though Sharron has his vapid traits and fantasies of spotlighted acclaim, he is no mere bubble-head. It is engrossing to follow him as--brave and afraid--he cultivates the image of one who "gets paid" (has authority) and tries to steer a correct course through the lethal nuances of the streets, in schools and on Riker's Island.

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