By Kaara Baptiste
Gun crimes have had a tenacious hold on Coney Island in recent years. So much so that a local organization is taking the unique step of offering a support group for victims of gun violence in 2014.
Mathylde Frontus, founder of Urban Neighborhood Services, a multi-service nonprofit, said the support group, set to launch in January, would facilitate healing in the community that has seen a rise in gun violence this year.
“It’s sad that we need something like that,” said Frontus. “But it is much needed. People are walking around with [trauma], whether it’s from something recent or from 30 years ago.”
Gun crimes are increasing in Brooklyn’s 60th precinct, which covers Coney Island, Brighton Beach and Bensonhurst, even as other major crimes are down. According to NYPD data, there have been 22 shooting incidents this year, up 69.2% from 2012. There were 28 shooting victims in 2013, double the number from the same time last year.
These numbers are only a small portion of the citywide numbers—1,235 shooting victims and 1,049 incidents—which indicate a 20 percent decrease from 2012. But in a small community like Coney Island, those numbers mean a lot.
Frontus grew up in Coney Island and is familiar with its volatile past when the area was known for drugs, crime and violence. She said though not as bad as when she was growing up, gun crimes are a part of the neighborhood’s turbulent cycle of trouble.
“It’s a perennial problem,” she said. “It’s almost like this is the way it is; but it’s not the way it should be.”
Community leaders say reasons for the persistent violence go beyond gangs or drug deals gone awry. Personal vendettas run deep in this small community.
“That’s why [shootings] can be at 11 am or one in the afternoon,” Frontus said. “Because it’s so personal.”
Only two years ago, gun violence hit close to home when Amanda Santiago, the daughter of one of Frontus’ employees, was shot and wounded in a corner store, in front of her young daughter and nephew. The gunman was aiming for someone else.
The gun violence support group is an outgrowth of Frontus’ prior work with the Coney Island Anti-Violence Coalition, founded in 2009. When it disbanded in 2011, participating members committed to pursuing anti-violence work individually.
Keith Suber, a former gang member turned construction worker and contractor, pursues his anti-violence crusade working directly with young people through the Suber Foundation.
Suber, 47, started the eponymous nonprofit after his cousin was murdered here—the third family member he lost to gun violence between 2008 and 2010. The foundation trains at-risk youth for entry-level construction jobs.
Leveraging his street sensibility, he also partners with other local groups to meet young people where they are—street corners, the projects—and talk about their challenges.
“I decided as someone from the streets, trying to make a difference, that it was time to step in and bring a truce between warring factions,” he said.
Though community groups have partnered with the NYPD and local government in the past, it is unclear what the NYPD or local officials plan to do to address the rise of crime in the area. The last gun buyback program in Coney Island, hosted by the District Attorney’s office, was in August; but there is no word if incoming DA Ken Thompson will continue the program, which has collected more than 3,000 guns since 2008. The local precinct did not respond to inquiries for this article.
In the meantime, residents continue one-on-one outreach as their main line of defense. Next year, Suber plans to revive visits to local juvenile centers with a “Scared Straight” presentation warning youngsters of the danger of continuing on the wrong path.
Suber and his colleagues offer their own lives as examples of leaving behind gangs, crime, and jail for something better. The kids are usually inattentive at the beginning of their talks, he said; but by the end, the presenters have their full attention.
“When you see a guy lift up his shirt to show you his colostomy bag, or the scars from being shot or stabbed, it has a way of resonating with them,” Suber said. “We know how to communicate with them.”