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Youth react to violence - El Puente program members dish on nabe pressures

For teenagers growing up on the south side of Williamsburg, the pressures of a steadily expanding real estate market in Brooklyn have exacerbated gang-related violence in their neighborhoods over the past year.

“Young people feel like they don’t have access to this neighborhood,” Will Orellana, director of the El Puente Leadership program, said during a discussion with several teenagers in his program. “There’s less and less space to hang out. The waterfront is being developed and it’s not for us. No one has ever had a meeting with this community about having development in your backyard.”

After the death of popular Williamsburg resident Richard Duran, dozens of youth leaders involved with El Puente (186 North 6th Street) and St. Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church (71 South 3rd Street) organized elements of a youth rally three weeks ago. Thousands of neighborhood residents, including hundreds of teenagers turned out for support. While some of the organizers believed that the rally would jumpstart new efforts of outreach to young people being recruited by gangs, others believed the violence would continue.

“I don’t think it’s going to make a difference at the end of the day,” said Ellis Collado, a high school senior and an intern with Councilmember Diana Reyna. “There are so many different mentalities in the community. The violence will keep on coming and the police will try to help but they’re not helping.”

Rose Rivera, a high school senior and also an intern with Reyna, believes that some of the immediate problems that led to the recent surge in violence stems from police not communicating with young people.

“We have some of the most disrespectful young people in this generation,” Rivera said. “Little ones are already disrespectful.”

Many of the teenagers interviewed for this article spoke of the stress that their families and friends’ families have faced due to the influx of newer, wealthier residents into Williamsburg over the past decade. They decried the lack of affordable housing that new condo developments provided and chastised landlords of buildings in the south side for raising rents higher than the ability of families to pay them.

Many of their families have since moved out of state to New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania and Connecticut in search of jobs and affordable rents. Others have stayed in New York City, taking on additional employment to afford the rent increases. The emotional stress of displacement or added work can create tension in a family, which can lead to a situation that is unstable.

“That’s their families getting kicked out, so some young people are going to be on the streets,” said Eduardo Iglesias, a high school senior and Summer Youth Coordinator with El Puente. “Where else can they go? You see a lot of people around and some of your friends are in gangs, and you think, I want to be in a gang.”

Orellana, the director of the El Puente Leadership program, believes that reaching out to young people who may be vulnerable to gang recruitment is critical in the coming weeks and months as the school year is set to resume. He believes that by convincing young people that the qualities they look for in a gang, such as safety, love, acceptance, respect and structure, are available at El Puente, he is engaging in a type of gang prevention.

The teenagers also noted that gang activity could eventually be diffused through long-term means such as creating more affordable housing in Williamsburg, planning more parks and green space for recreational activity and launching youth employment programs to provide an additional income source for families and keep teenagers occupied.

“I love [Reyna’s] office,” said Collado, who stressed the need for youth employment programs. “For the first time I wasn’t treated like a kid and I feel I can make a difference.”

For more information about El Puente, visit www.elpuente.us.

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