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Time to celebrate and to worry

Fellowship Story Showcase

Time to celebrate and to worry

Picture of Steven Wilmsen

As part of a 2012 National Health Journalism Fellowship, Steve Wilmensen edited and managed the 68 BLOCKS: LIFE, DEATH, HOPE series for The Boston Globe. A team of reporters, photographers, videographers, and data visualization specialists, focused a year on the Bowdoin-Geneva area of Boston, which is often identified with violence. Other stories in the series include:

Searching for justice, finding no peace

Dreams cut short, dreams reborn

Facing the future, or the dream of one

Pushing back against the tide

Tony Van Der Meer lives along Hendry Street, which has regressed after a few years of seemingly better days. YOON S. BYUN/GLOBE STAFF
The Boston Globe
Tuesday, December 18, 2012

This project was reported and written by Andrew Ryan, Meghan E. Irons, Akilah Johnson, Maria Cramer, and Jenna Russell

IN HIS NEW house on Hendry Street, Tony Van Der Meer sits at his desk, his reading glasses on, staring at the screen of his laptop and lazily hunting the Internet for images of African culture. It’s his hobby and profession. A muggy June breeze wafts through an open window into his third-floor bedroom.

The freshly painted walls are bare; he moved in months before. But as summer starts, his shelves are already crammed with books and papers. He’s an African studies professor. Certain things he can do without, but he needs his books.

The street he lives on used to echo with more shots each summer than most in Boston. But an expensive and concerted rehab effort led by the city lured families and people who wanted to put down roots, prompting the mayor to declare a new era on the block. It was a kind of dream for Van Der Meer, a black man with tufts of gray in his beard who wanted to leave the South End to live among people who shared the heritage and struggle of the African Diaspora.

On his computer, he finds a YouTube video of a Nigerian wedding and calls out, “Come look at this.”

His brother and roommate is in the next room, getting dressed after a shower, and comes to stand in the doorway. What came next remains for him as vivid as a waking dream.

Suddenly: noise and confusion, a sharp explosion of noise, followed by another and another.

There is a beat while Van Der Meer’s brain struggles to process the sounds. Gunfire. He drops to the floor. So does his brother, diving like a base runner toward the bag. They count at least eight loud, well-articulated shots. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!

The shots are so close they sound like they are being fired in the living room. Van Der Meer motions to his brother, and they army-crawl on their bellies away from the open window. His brother reaches up to flick off the light. They hug the floor, counting minutes until they hear the whine of fast-running engines and see the blue flash of police lights.

Flavio Daveiga (right) waited to lead a group of city officials through Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood.

This is the kind of sound and light show Hendry used to be known for. It wasn’t supposed to be like this anymore.

But Hendry Street’s history is a parable of the difficulty of rooting out crime. In 2008, it was a lawless place. Almost half the houses — 10 of 20 apartment buildings — had been foreclosed on at least once. Many were abandoned, boarded up, and used as stash houses for drug gangs, brazen in their ruthlessness and power. Drugs were sold in the open. Other residents on the block lived in fear. During a melee one night a young man raised his fists toward a cop and taunted: “Take off your badge, b****.” For at least a quarter-century, it had one of the highest concentrations of summertime violence anywhere in Boston.

Then, in February 2008, the city embarked on an unprecedented experiment: It bought or seized a row of three-deckers, taking over a 150-foot stretch of the street, and turned them over to a developer for renovation. A nonprofit, Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corp., overhauled four additional buildings. It offered subsidies to buyers like Van Der Meer who agreed to live there. Owner occupancy became the new Hendry Street credo.

People moved in. Celebratory block parties were held and round-the-clock police surveillance was called off. At a ribbon cutting, Mayor Thomas M. Menino declared, “Families can once again call this place home.”

But this summer things are unraveling again. Drug traffic is back. Neighbors are being threatened, told not to go to the police. There has been occasional gunfire — a bullet pierced the dining room wall of a house across the street from Van Der Meer’s — and children have stopped playing basketball in the street.

After the shootout that night, the Dorchester Bay nonprofit that had redone houses on the street called City Hall. The message was passed up the chain, summarized in an e-mail. The message was succinct: “Things are still bad.”

THERESA JOHNSON is in her element at Marshall Elementary, a school whose reputation is burdened by the violence that tattoos the neighborhood. She’s worked here as secretary for 11 years and can’t imagine working anywhere else. She loves the children, loves her co-workers, loves her boss. Here, she feeds off the energy of more than 700 small hugs while cutting up with co-workers.

Even as the school empties on a mid-June afternoon, her desk remains the nexus of activity. Principal Teresa Harvey-Jackson stands there, rattling off end-of-the-year tasks for Theresa and a co-worker. One is to make sure everything is ready for tomorrow’s annual student masquerade ball. The principal levels a look at the co-worker, who immediately starts trying to sweet talk his way out of a lecture about not being late like last year.

“You need to let him know that you are not a chick in the street and that slick s*** won’t work on you,” Theresa teases her boss as the guy looks on sheepishly.

“Oh. I’m about to go up one side of his head and back down,” the principal responds, the room erupting in laughter.

Police investigators worked at the scene of the shooting on Aug. 17. A man was shot multiple times at Winter and Adams Street in Allen Park in Bowdoin-Geneva.

This place caters to Theresa’s nurturing spirit and dry wit. People orbit around her, be it a little girl hoping she can mend a broken belt or a custodian looking for change. And as with most schools, Marshall, a sprawling campus for prekindergarten through fifth grade on Westville Street, is a microcosm of the community, where there’s a fine line between the inspirational and the institutional. Dr. Seuss quotes painted on the walls assure children: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” But the blue time-out room resembles solitary confinement with no windows, no table, no chair.

As Theresa slips outside to indulge in her end-of-the-day routine, her boss barks: “I want to know how you can afford to smoke.”

“I can’t!”

On the loading dock, overlooking Westville, a street strewn with trash that stays that way until neighbors sweep it away, Theresa lights her cigarette, inhales, and tries to figure out what to cook for dinner. “That’s what a mother does, she cooks.”

Right now, though, she’s out of ideas and Tricia, her granddaughter’s mother, is here to pick her up.

Tricia’s not really with Theresa’s son Sean anymore, but you wouldn’t know it. She’s the mother of his child, Trinity, and like a member of his family, shopping with Jalanae, chitchatting with Easy, running errands with Theresa. She even shares an apartment with Ceecee, Theresa’s oldest daughter.

These days, Theresa is dependent on others to get around, her gold Chrysler sitting on four flats in the driveway, and today Tricia is her ride to the store, to get the fixings for dinner, and then home.

Every day, Theresa makes decision after decision after decision, each influenced by her upbringing. Decision: Spend her tax return money to finally bail Sean out of jail instead of fixing her car? Decision: Let Easy sleep in the third bedroom, or rent it out?

Theresa tried to raise her kids the way she was raised: strict and sheltered. Her parents have lived in the same house on Oakley Street since she was 15. It is the house her father died in four years ago. It is the house her mother likely will never leave.

There were eight of them, so the house was crowded, but orderly. “Oh, my God, our house was so boring,” she laments. “We couldn’t go over nobody’s house. We couldn’t eat at nobody’s house. The street lights come on, you better be on them stairs.”

The more her mother pushed — graduate high school, go to college, stay away from bad boys — the more Theresa rebelled. And the longer she stayed with men she should have left.

Her decision to marry at age 22 was an act of rebellion. It led to three of the most turbulent years of her life. It also resulted in three of her greatest joys — Sean, Easy, and Ceecee.

Theresa got married for all the wrong reasons. She married because she was pregnant. She married to spite his mistress. She married in spite of the abuse. “I knew I didn’t love him.”

They’d only dated a few weeks when Theresa learned he had a girlfriend, and tried to leave. He threw her against a car. He choked her. “I was like, ‘This dude loves me.’ ” If he didn’t, she thought, he wouldn’t care if I left.

They lived pillar to post, moving from house to house, never having enough money and spending what cash there was on drugs. “And the whole time, my mother never turned her back.”

It taught her a lesson: Always support your children. She prays her daughters don’t think like she did, believing love must hurt to be real.

Even after leaving her husband, she kept moving and still does. Instead of renewing an apartment lease, she usually leaves.

At home, with her lasagna in the oven, and her family all around, Theresa can’t help but smile. Easy is cooped up in the back room, avoiding his sisters. Tricia and Ceecee, who unexpectedly got the day off work, talking in the living room. And Trinity is running amok, annoying Jalanae.

“This is the life,” Theresa says to herself, alone at the kitchen table.

The only one missing is Sean.

THEY JAM INTO a tiny conference room in Dorchester Bay’s warren of cluttered offices above a shoe store on Columbia Road. Neighborhood workers, community organizers, some uniformed cops. Father Richard “Doc” Conway of St. Peter Church is there. So is Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis. Air conditioners in the windows struggle wanly against the heat. The trouble on Hendry Street sparked worries. Early that morning police had rushed back to Hendry after another report of shooting. Officers found no evidence, but it underscored the urgency. Davis wants to know what’s going on.

Residents talk about what they say they’ve seen — drug deals, arguments, syringes left on the ground.

Theresa Johnson, secretary at Marshall Elementary, got a hug from first grader Shaundene Funches at the end of 2011-12 school year. She feeds off that kind of energy from students.

They talk about the threats. It’s been made quite clear to everyone on the street that going to the police will have dire consequences. On a recent day, a young family came with a U-Haul, ready to move in to a freshly redone apartment. Before they even unpacked, they were threatened, and they simply left, never to return. The source of the trouble, the residents say, is the big yellow house at the end of the street. They call it the cancer house.

A stream of people come and go at all hours, the neighbors say. Some tenants in the three apartments have lengthy criminal records that include carjacking, possession of a sawed-off shotgun, and selling crack on Hendry Street. They have stopped paying rent. The owner, who left the country for his native Rwanda, is behind more than $150,000 on the mortgage and is facing foreclosure. At one point, water to the building had been shut off because the unpaid bill climbed into the thousands.

All the neighbors know is that the problems that had subsided are back.

“We don’t want the cancer to spread again,” one of the residents, Henrique Fernandes, says later. “You have to remove the cancer completely. Otherwise it will come back.”

Someone says that on the morning after the shootout, a dead pit bull was discovered in a dumpster next door, rolled up in carpet.

It’s the first Davis has heard of it.

The following day, June 30, a police cruiser parks at the end of Hendry Street near the big yellow house, and stays.

THE FOURTH OF JULY. If there’s a day police worry about trouble and mobilize to stop it, it’s this one. In their plan this year, they see the first part of the summer as critical. They believe that if they can stop violence now, there will be fewer retaliatory shootings in the second half. But Independence Day has been deadly in the past. It is a day when gangs like to strike.

Some people leave for the holiday. The Davises went to Nantasket. Jhana Senxian headed to New York. Tal departed the neighborhood for a cookout elsewhere, wearing a shirt he emblazoned with a silkscreened photograph he took of the cousin who was shot dead last July 4. Some leave just to get out of the city. But many who depart say it is to escape fear; the sound of firecrackers can be hard to distinguish from gunfire.

Jhana Senxian likes thinking big about the Coleman Street garden, which she is working to revive.

By dusk, cruisers are parked on medians and sidewalks, their blue lights strafing the pavement. The neighborhood is a din of music and laughter and firework crackle. Children ride bikes squealing and holding sparklers aloft. Some people with stockpiles sell Roman candles and tissue-wrapped bundles of firecrackers. The sky is a dazzle of sparkling light, and in the streets, smoke from charcoal grills and bottle rockets drifts like crepe paper ribbons. In this neighborhood, some say, the Fourth of July is bigger than Christmas. Few see any point of going to the world-renowned display on the Esplanade; it is better here.

Police patrols roam, and as the night wears on without any shooting, there is a sense of relief. Here and there, cops give gentle warnings to get fireworks out of main roads or away from children, but largely they let the celebrations go on. Shortly before midnight, at a big white house near Bowdoin Street at the southern edge of the neighborhood, a man is using the side street next to his paved backyard as a staging area for a fireworks show. He puts it on every year. Neighbors look forward to it for months. Jerk chicken and curried goat are cooking. Music is playing. Crowds are gathered around the house and in the street, and children have been herded onto the porch. They crane their necks each time the man lights another rocket from his stack, shouting with approval at the showers of brilliant explosions above the rooftops.

The man has a finale planned, his best ever, and as he begins to set it off, there are extra pops amid the fireworks.

It takes a moment before anyone realizes the pops were gunshots. But two young men are down in the street, one shot in the shoulder, the other in the leg. People shout, scatter. A woman grabs a child and runs. No one seems to know where the shots came from.

Up on Bowdoin Street, there is a burst of sudden action. Officers standing outside their cruisers jump in and race toward the house. A string of unmarked cars, lights blazing, goes whirring by. On the police radio: “Bullets at Holiday and Bowdoin.” In a moment, they arrive at the scene, flooding the street with light.

Days later, the man who put on the fireworks show talks dejectedly of the shooting that night. It was an affront, he says, to bring fear and violence to a celebration that he puts on to create happiness. He says he won’t do it again. Next year, he says, he will go home to Jamaica for the Fourth.

‘HELLO?!” Susan Young, the neighborhood worker from the Bowdoin Street Health Center, is on Tal’s front porch, leaning in the open front door. She bellows his name. It’s 10 in the morning. She’s heard from police that the beat-up Civic he recently bought has been shot at. Tal had said he sold the car to a friend, a friend who lives on a street counted as the Norton Street gang turf. The cops ran the plates. The search showed the car was still registered to Tal, they told Susan.

“You’re so loud,” he says.

In Bowdoin-Geneva, some say, the Fourth of July is bigger then Christmas. Many like the local fireworks better than those on the Esplanade. But it’s also a day that gangs like to strike.

In Bowdoin-Geneva, some say, the Fourth of July is bigger then Christmas. Many like the local fireworks better than those on the Esplanade. But it’s also a day that gangs like to strike.

Susan asks to come inside and elbows past him into his parents’ immaculate parlor of neatly arranged furniture. A portrait of Tal’s unsmiling grandparents hangs on the wall, and there’s a gold-framed print of a Victorian woman with her arms around a young, blond girl who looks back adoringly. On the coffee table, a pristine white doily. Tal’s parents, like many in this neighborhood, emigrated from Cape Verde. They don’t have a lot; they raised five children on his father’s wages from a chocolate factory job. But they value a neat home.

Tal drops into a chair and puts his head in his hands, rubbing away sleep. She asks if he has made any progress toward his GED.

“I want a job,” he says.

“You need a GED.”

“But I need a job.” He’d gone to the job center. He put in a round of applications at Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, Home Depot, but he says he never heard back. A gig cleaning children’s bouncy houses at a party rental store didn’t pay well enough and the hours were slim, so he quit.

Yesterday he slept all day. “Right about to go back to sleep now,” he says, closing his eyes and leaning his head back.

“I’m tired,” he says. “I need a blunt.”

“How do you expect to find a job if you’re not trying?”

“I can’t. I don’t have the money to get to places or the car to get to places. So I can’t do nothing.”

She asks what happened to his car. “The police tell me they ran the license plates and that it’s still registered to you.”

“They’re lying.”

Susan asks if he has any paperwork to prove it. He gets up and walks out of the room. “Get the paperwork,” she calls after him. “Shut me up.”

He comes back and shows her documentation.

“So what you got to say now?” he says, grinning. “Ain’t you got something to say?”

Susan knows the paperwork doesn’t settle the danger. Even if the car now belongs to his friend, someone might have thought they were shooting at Tal. And if the bullets were meant for the friend, it might mean a gang feud is brewing that could draw Tal in. Either way means trouble.

“Did you know your friend’s car got shot at?” she says.

“I don’t care,” Tal says. “It’s not me that got shot.” And, yes, he had heard. The “po-po” told him.

It’s so hard to know what any of this means, or if he really is as removed from the shooting as he is implying. The only thing she can do is to keep the pressure on him, keep tugging him away from the life she fears will eventually kill him.

“What I need you to do is take a shower and meet me at the office in an hour.”

“I’m going to smoke my reefer,” he says.

“If you smoke reefer, I can’t help you,” and she reminds him that if he wants a job he will have to pass drug tests.

“I got away with it once, I’ll get away with it again.”

She tilts her head back in exasperation and talks to herself. “This kid doesn’t get it!” she says.

“Don’t call me a kid,” he says. “I’m a grown-ass man.”

“Oh, my God,” she whispers and stares for a while. “I can only do what I can do for you. It’s your job to do the rest.”

“I got you, Susan,” he says.

Walking back to her van, Susan thinks about Tal. He seems to want to work, straighten himself out, and leave the neighborhood. He calls her most every night, wailing on the phone, “I need a job.” He calls Doc Conway, too. But somehow, he always winds up back in the same place.

JHANA SENXIAN is in her kitchen leading a brainstorming session. An anthropologist who traveled the world before settling on Coleman Street, she has a new idea for the community garden down the block — her biggest idea yet. A whiteboard is propped up on the counter over the sink, and she stands beside it. It is late on a Friday, but she shows no sign of stopping.

Two volunteers sit at her kitchen table, gamely following along. Thunder rumbles outside. The sound of a party warming up on Clarkson Street drifts across the overgrown back alley.

“What are we getting at?” she asks.

Jhana’s backyard is overflowing with plants. Her appeal to farmers, sent in hopes of sparking donations to the garden, has triggered an avalanche of seedlings.

Volunteers from the neighborhood teamed up to collect the donations, driving to retrieve them from farms all over the state and carrying carloads through her kitchen to the backyard. Thousands of tiny eggplants and peppers and tomatoes cover almost every inch of the fenced enclosure. All destined for the garden on her street, the garden Ella Pierce had nurtured until she couldn’t anymore, the garden Jhana wants to use to make the neighborhood beautiful.

She had felt giddy with this first success, but overwhelmed. What to do with so much stuff? That’s when she had come up with her even bigger plan.

“We’re going to make the first street farm in Boston. It’s gonna blow ’em away.”

They will collect clean waste wood, bring in volunteers, and build raised containers all along the sidewalks of Coleman Street. Neighbors will weed and water the plants, and later on, share in the harvest.

A street farm would bring neighbors together and draw positive attention to the street. It goes way beyond her original idea, to grow flowers in the garden and transplant them to the sidewalks. It needs a catchy name, something to capture its spirit, she explains to the people to her kitchen.

Jhana picks up a red marker as raindrops start to patter on the porch.

“It’s about the bounty of the garden spilling over,” she says.

She scribbles down ideas, some her own, some offered by others. Incredible Edible Coleman. Savory Streetscaping.

Waves of sirens pass not far away. The meeting ends without resolution.

Jhana likes thinking big. But doubt is already seeping in. What if the street farm is too much to try, too soon?

New ideas are risky, even modest ones, she knows. Months ago, she asked the city to put trash cans on her street, where litter has long been a problem. Impossible, the city said. Who would empty them?

And who will tend her street farm? She isn’t sure. Some neighbors have welcomed her efforts; others are lukewarm. Cynicism runs deep here, the consequence of countless failed attempts to make things better.

“I used to clean the street, too,” one woman tells her. “No one would help. You’ll get tired.”

A few days after that meeting in the kitchen, Jhana learns from city officials that she cannot build containers on the sidewalks; it could impede handicapped accessibility. There will be no street farm, no shared landscape of herbs and vegetables. She will stick with her original idea, to plant flowers along the sidewalks.

On a soft, shimmery June evening when the air feels warm as bathtub water, Jhana happens past the garden on her way home. Stepping through the gate, she sees that it has finally come alive with people planting. She doesn’t know all their names — not yet — but their presence lights a spark of possibility and purpose in a space that weeks ago was silent, dormant.

One plot belongs to a British professor, an expert in Chinese herbs who grows remedies for ear aches and insomnia. In the next plot, a Bangladeshi family will plant pumpkins. Another gardener dreams of eating fried green tomatoes in August, like she did growing up in Alabama.

Jhana has befriended the garden’s closest neighbor. Floyd, who lives in the house next door, is gregarious and energetic; everybody knows him, and he knows everyone’s business.

Jhana can be shy about knocking on doors. Floyd is the social force she needs to reach her neighbors.

There are children in the garden, too, drawn inside the gate by the freedom they find there. Kaori Tate, 10, shares a plot with two friends, sisters whose grandfather lives across the street. Kaori has long legs and an infectious smile; she loves to run, and she wants to be a track star.

Jhana sees something special in the girl — an interest in the world; a streak of determination she knows well. Maybe they can work together in the garden.

One person she has not seen here yet is Ella Pierce, the garden’s frail and aging matriarch, whom she used to wave to from the sidewalk when she walked by in past summers. Ella has not yet summoned the strength to make it to the garden. She is still confined to her apartment, but tells herself there is still time to make it there this summer.

A cool breeze stirs the treetops. A faraway ice cream truck jangles. Surveying the garden in the fading light, Jhana’s eyes fall on the peach tree by the gate. She frowns at the way it leans backward into the fence.

She has never noticed its crooked trunk before.

As a girl growing up in Dorchester, Jhana never knew her neighborhood was “bad.” She saw well-kept homes, caring people, a beautiful park. Until the day she watched a TV documentary, and remarked to her mother that the ghetto must be awful.

“You live in the ghetto,” her mother told her.

The words stung. She protested. But after that, she understood that outsiders saw her neighborhood differently.

Now her eyes have opened once again. She walks closer, peering at the peach tree, its bent trunk.

“Who let it grow like that?” she asks.

A week later, on a Sunday morning when the air in the garden feels clean and new, Jhana perches on a low wall wearing garden gloves, leans out over the warm, waiting earth, and plants vegetables for the first time in her life. She likes turning the soil over, bringing up the fresh black dirt just below the surface. She likes picturing the food that will grow there, the bounty to be shared.

THE CARDBOARD SIGN taped to the light post on Hendry Street seems to be another threat. It’s just that this one came after police were assigned to watch over the place.

Officers have been stationed on the street for weeks now and spent most of every day parked in easy sight of the big yellow house where all the trouble seems to come from.

They had been a big comfort at first. The watchful eyes of police officers would surely deter any problems. But residents began to notice that officers did not get out of their cars and spent a good deal of time reading or on the phone.

Now, the sign has appeared, crudely scrawled in red, clearly directed at whoever went to police — a depiction of a rodent and the words, “Rats belong in the whole [sic] they came from.”

DOC CONWAY is driving the blue van fast and manic, like he always does. He steers it into the street alongside the Cape Verdean Adult Day Health Center for his 11 o’clock Mass with the seniors but then realizes he’s forgotten the homily. He screeches back out into the street, taking a hard turn that skitters some water bottles and the Oxford New Portuguese dictionary across the van floor, and races back to the church. He sighs. Too much to think about, he says.

Already today he’s delivered his usual 8 a.m. Mass; dropped off bags of food for the nearby Missionaries of Charity nuns to distribute to needy families; and attended to half a dozen issues waiting for him at the parish office: someone’s immigration trouble, a summer camp slot for the sister of a 15-year-old who killed himself.

In the van, he carries a small black suitcase with holy water and communion wafers in Tupperware. He has a roster of sick people to see.

He’d hoped to get away for a couple days. It’s been a grueling few weeks. He learned a long time ago to build levees between himself and the river of suffering that can flow around a priest, especially in neighborhoods like this.

He has a small condo in Weymouth where he escapes to listen to Puccini. He plays golf on the Cape. But there’s been a shooting in the South End. He’s heard one of the victims lives in Bowdoin-Geneva. It seems unlikely now that he’ll be leaving.

He says the Mass at the senior center, stops at Dunkin’ Donuts for his usual lunch of iced coffee, and heads back to the parish office to meet Susan Young.

She’s waiting for him when he gets there, and they start dialing phone numbers to see what they can learn about the shootings.

He likes Susan. Her irreverence goes well with his wryness. They have a way of laughing through things. Susan reaches a police captain she thinks can help.

“My favorite captain,” she purrs into the phone. “You didn’t know you were my favorite captain?”

Doc rolls his eyes, takes the phone from her. “You recognize bulls*** when you hear it, don’t you?”

She gasps and insists he say six Hail Marys. He grins.

But they get what they need — names of the dead victims, addresses of the families’ homes — and they walk out together to get in the van once again and go pay their visit.

When the day is finally over Doc is exhausted. He will have a meal and remind himself to get on the stationary bike in his room at the rectory.

He’s seen people on the edge of death today, so frail they couldn’t swallow. He’s seen a mother ruined by grief over a dead son. He knows not to let too much in. He’s made that mistake before at other parishes. There’d been a time years ago in Lowell when it became too much. One day, he found himself unable to climb a flight of stairs. He was not sick, the doctor said. He was exhausted, physically and emotionally. The doctor told him to stay in bed for a week.

“You learn to be there but not in it,” Doc says.

Still, there are times when he can’t help it. Certain people he finds himself rooting for, despite everything. He thinks of Tal. He drives Doc crazy, with his recalcitrance and unwillingness to stick with things. But there’s something good in him, something smart and genuine. “The kid has a brain,” he says. “To see that wasted . . . ”

Tal has told him and Susan about an idea he has, to organize a block party. “Norton Street Peace Cookout,” he’s calling it. He wants to show people he’s “not a menace to society.”

The police aren’t crazy about it. A party hosted in the open by a known target of violence sounds like nothing but trouble. But they’ve all talked it over and decided to let him do it. They have tried everything else. Maybe this will show him what he is capable of.

IN THE TWO WEEKS following the Fourth of July shooting, there are at least two more. Some say there are more than that. No one has died. But among residents who keep track, there have been anxious whispers about what is in store for the rest of the summer.

City officials make an effort to be visible. Mayor Menino comes to a youth center at the Holland Elementary to cut the ribbon on a new climbing wall. A week later, officials stage a community meeting in the gymnasium at another youth center, where tense residents say they have counted at least 20 shootings in the neighborhood so far in the summer. Police at the meeting tell them that’s overblown, that there have been no more than 10. But many are unsatisfied. They say not all shootings get reported, and that gunfire without victims is much more frequent.

Amid the worry, some residents say they try to recall that things have gotten better in the neighborhood since the 1970s, when property values plummeted and arson was rampant. Now there is a modern health center, programs for youth. Bowdoin Street is a livelier commercial place, with a Walgreens and restaurants. Civic groups are more active.

Still, shootings are on everyone’s mind. On a stormy Tuesday afternoon near the end of July, police hold a cadet graduation ceremony in the gymnasium of the Catholic Charities teen center, across Bowdoin Street from the church.

Bagpipes play, and in the stifling heat, the commissioner addresses the class: “This is one of the toughest sections of the city of Boston, right now,” he says. “If you measure it in terms of gunfire, this is a very busy place.”

Reporters and photographers involved in this project can be reached at

This story was originally posted by the Boston Globe on December 18, 2012