Nazirah Baskerville had lost a cousin and a best friend to violence in Atlantic City by age 16.
Shaddiy Dixon, her 20-year-old cousin, was shot dead the night of his parole at a block party off Adriatic Avenue in 2009. Three years later and a few blocks away, Derreck Mack was killed by police near Stanley Holmes Village just a week before Christmas.
To police, Mack was a known drug dealer who pulled a gun as they gave chase. But to Nazirah Baskerville, he was a best friend who encouraged her to pursue a life beyond the streets.
“He was more like a role model, (and) he told me to stay out of trouble, to stay in school,” said Nazirah, who was already familiar with wrenching loss.
Nazirah’s experiences are hardly uncommon in a city that has averaged about 13 homicides per year in recent years, including 18 in 2012.
Loss is as much a part of teenage life here as dating, friendships and report cards. At a time already rife with insecurity, they see contradictions everywhere.
Blocks from the projects, they see the extravagant wealth on display at the city’s casinos. They see drug dealers driving flashy cars while their families struggle to make ends meet. They see homicides go unsolved without understanding the lengthy process required to make arrests.
“It's not a typical teenage life,” said Tracy Parker, who leads the Atlantic City Boys & Girls Club's teen program. “They're dealing with so many more obstacles than teenagers had to deal with years ago.”
Data collected by the state show that the local crime rate increases sharply among violators between the ages of 21 and 24. Marissa Levy, an associate criminology professor at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, said criminal behavior starts as early as elementary school and rises throughout adolescence. Young people often graduate from juvenile sentencing to adult prison.
Mack, for example, was on probation at the time of the shooting for an illegal gun possession when he was 16. Dixon was shot dead at a block party the night of his parole following 17 months of incarceration for a drug offense at age 18.
Not only are young people committing more crime, they also fall victim to it with greater frequency.
More than half of the 26 homicide victims in Atlantic City and Pleasantville last year were younger than 30. The youngest victim of gun violence, Todd Mitchell, was just 13 when the eighth-grader was shot in front of a home on Pleasantville's Woodland Avenue.
“We need to start thinking about intervention, and probably even earlier, because it takes time to get kids on a better path,” said Levy, who's part of a recent task force to address violent crime in Atlantic City and neighboring Pleasantville.
Rashad Floyd grew up in Stanley Holmes Village. His father was 'in the life,' spending parts of Floyd's life behind bars.
“Most of my friends pointed to my father and said 'he's the man',” Floyd, now 31, remembers. “But (my father) said, 'This ain't cool. Cool is being free. Cool is being able to take care of your family'.”
Several of those childhood friends have followed that path. One of them, Uthman Griffin, was shot to death in front of Schoolhouse Apartments on Arctic Avenue. A pile of weather-beaten stuffed bears and deflated balloons mark the place where Griffin fell. No arrests have been made.
“I don't want to see where he was laid to rest,” said Floyd, as he traced the route his friend took that night in 2012. “That's not a good feeling to me. A good feeling to me is where we used to joke at, where we laughed, where we tried to talk to girls, where we used to go to the corner store — and that was in Stanley Holmes Village.”
But reminders are everywhere: Some of those killed, such as Joyce McKinnon, become street names. Makeshift memorials fade in the sun. In living rooms, families hang portraits of children lost.
“This is how you become famous,” Floyd said. “But you're dead—nothing good can happen to you now.”
While crime, and violence, were part of Floyd’s childhood here, the sense of community was strong: “Everyone knew each other — this was my whole life right here,” he said, walking through the brick housing units. Even those in the life respected certain boundaries, such as shielding children from their acts.
Floyd, now himself a father, holds down a casino job as he tries to launch a rap career under the moniker RushLife. It's hard work and local radio stations aren't interested in local rappers with a message of peace.
“Put the gun down, you ain't got to shoot that man,” Floyd raps in “Think About It,” dedicated to Griffin.
Parker, 24, walked the same streets and made the same mistakes as the teens she mentors at the Boys & Girls Club. Growing up here means wrestling with conflicting loyalties and mixed messages about violence, she said.
“The cops don't do their job,” says one of the 45 teens in Parker's after-school program.
Asked if they would tip police off to an incident in their neighborhood, most shake their heads, “no.”
“If you don't put yourself in bad situations, you don't have to worry,” says another.
But the teens said they wouldn't avoid a family member whom they know is involved in drugs. Their sense of the world is based largely on what they see, Parker said, and that can only tell part of the story.
“When you have so many people around noticing all the bad, that's the only thing you're seeing and hearing,” Parker said. “They can rarely open up a paper and read something positive happening in Atlantic City, so their thought is my friends keep dying, my family's dying — it's just death.”
Parker works to help her teens make better choices. If she can show them opportunities outside the city, maybe she can help them escape the pull of drugs and violence.
“The world's so much bigger than what you're able to see,” she said. “Mom may not have a car, so if we can get in a van and take you to Stockton, that's a big experience.”
More than a school
Atlantic City's New York Avenue School has become an oasis amid one of the city's toughest neighborhoods.
When Principal James Knox, an 18-year veteran of the district, arrived here six years ago, the school was "total mayhem." Lines stretched down the hall from the vice principal's office. Vandalism was a fact of life.
A lot of his work has been focused on making the school more than just another building in a crime-ridden neighborhood, said Knox, 50, who also grew up at Carver Hall Apartments and now-razed Bacharach Village.
Knox has worked hard to make the school more than another building in the neighborhood around Stanley Holmes Village.
“There's a difference between the building across the street and the school, the place of hope, the place that feeds me, that loves me, the place I go that I can't wait to get there,” he said.
Before the school could turn around its academic deficiencies — according to the state Department of Education, New York Avenue significantly lags others in the state — Knox had to address larger socioeconomic issues.
The school's neighborhood is one of the poorest in a city that last December saw nearly 25 percent unemployment. Nearly 96 percent of students are enrolled in free- and reduced-cost lunch programs. “Everything I think about has to be co-joined with economics,” Knox said.
The school partnered with AtlantiCare Behavioral Health to bring educational and social service programs to the school. Its Parent Resource Center offers parents a variety of parenting and job training programs. In March, it launched a pilot program that feeds students dinner, in addition to breakfast and lunch. Students have activities scheduled from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., even on Saturdays, keeping them in school and off the streets.
“I'm trying to figure out how we get Sunday school,” said Knox with a laugh. “That means we have seven days of school and we can feed them seven days a week.”
Of course, New York Avenue still has troubles. It currently outperforms just 9 percent of schools statewide in academic achievement. But, among schools with similar demographics, its performance puts it in the 59th percentile.
Knox has taken criticism from his own staff for not doing more to remove problem students from classrooms and for reaching out too much to parents, but he places much of the responsibility for orderly classrooms on teachers. He said he expects them to know all their students and parents.
“Some of our teachers don't have relationships,” he said. “They want to come in, do what they have to do and they want to go home. If you want that factory mentality — guess what? — it's going to beat you up, because it's not a factory.”
Knox believes no student is unreachable.
“I have to work as if my efforts will produce something great one day, even if I'm not around to see it,” he said.
There's no easy way to quantify the impact of people such as Knox and Parker, or the police or community groups.
Can a few hours of basketball and video games each day at the Boys & Girls Club keep a child from a bullet's path? Will the college banners hanging in the hallways of Knox's school lead a student to Princeton instead of a street gang?
“Given all the complex things that play into a person's life, it's difficult to say what it will take to get any individual child off that path,” said Levy, the Stockton professor.
Answering that question is one of the goals — along with building community partnerships and developing better policing strategies — of the Atlantic City-Pleasantville Municipal Planning Board, which is coordinating anti-violence efforts launched this summer.
Levy said what's obvious, in study upon study, is that whom a child is exposed to at an early age has a direct correlation with where they go in life. Social bonds with friends and family, she said, play an outsized role in whether an individual will end up mired in criminal activity.
Once someone starts down that path, it becomes more difficult to leave it, she said. Starting as early as 10 years old, and sometimes younger, the crime rates increase dramatically until they peak in the early 20s.
“Not everyone who has a dad who's a drug dealer becomes a drug dealer,” Levy said. “If they have opportunities outside that, they can overcome the cards they were dealt as a child.”
Marvin Burroughs, mentoring director for Atlantic City's school district, is part of an existing program targeting pre-teen boys.
The 56-year-old city resident goes into 5th- through 8th-grade classes to give the young men a male role model. That's particularly important for boys who may not have a responsible older male in their household and have to walk past decay and violence every day on their way to school.
“We have to get them to understand they can be in that, but don't have to be a part of it,” he said.
Burroughs also hosts an after-school program in which the students review their school day and work out how to solve their problems without lashing out physically or verbally.
“If we make contact with them in the fifth grade . . . by the time they get to eighth grade, they'll have a different way of thinking,” he said. “When they get to the high school, they'll be ready.”
Next year, Burroughs plans to begin another program to get young people to improve their environment outside the school.
“There's so much craziness going on, but that doesn't mean a light doesn't shine in the dark,” he said.
Parker's teens are hesitant to talk about the world they see around them. They speak of friends and relatives involved in “bad things,” but only in vague terms. Part of that is fear, lest their words be used against them, and part of that is a resignation that the problem is so much bigger than them, she said.
Many hold themselves apart from the negative influences around them. The violence won't affect them unless they put themselves in its path. In a teenager's world, there are no innocent bystanders.
“None of those kids thought they were being influenced by anything going on in Atlantic City,” Parker said. “But Atlantic City's only so big — four miles long. Everyone knows everything, so you're going to feel it.”
Nazirah, too, tries to make herself more than her surroundings. She sees people doing bad things for “quick money,” but that isn't part of her life.
“I feel the emotion once it happens,” she says of her cousin’s and friend's killings. “Later on, I just think how to improve so that doesn't happen to me.”
She plans to attend medical school for obstetrics and gynecology. That's the dream she hopes will get her out of Atlantic City, although it will always be her home.
Her brown eyes light up as she describes that future and what she's doing to get there. Nazirah smiles broadly and her jangly earrings swing to and fro when she pitches a car wash for the Keystone Club, a youth volunteer organization she was elected president of this year.
“It's Mercedes, vans, everything you have, we wash,” she says, pointing to the camera for an impromptu public service announcement.
In a more serious moment, Nazirah says she keeps herself busy trying to improve the thing she has control over: her future.
“I never worry what they do outside on the street as long as there was no danger to me,” she says. “I felt like I was OK.”
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