A Walk Through Brownsville, Brooklyn
For a minute there it was pretty cool. My photographer Kyria and I had an exclusive Guardian-Angel escort to the train we’d use to take home to Astoria, a Manhattan-bound 3 at Rockaway Avenue in Brownsville, Brooklyn. An old black man wearing a U.S. Armed Forces veteran’s cap with lots of shimmering pins sitting in the station’s booth jovially waved all of us through the service entrance, allowing us to bypass the turnstiles, and a fare. Apparently, uniformed Guardian Angels don’t have to pay for the subway, nor do journalists accompanying them, even if said reporters are in street clothes, devoid of any conspicuous red coloring.
Kyria and I just wrapped up our first day of investigating the current state of the Angels, tagging alongside five of them to a stirring candlelight vigil for a one-year-old shooting victim, Antiq Hennis, in the Marcus Garvey Village. We were told by Guardian Angel “Raven” that the infamous and perpetually warring gangs, the Bloods and the Crips, each “ran” a neighboring block. (To the surprise of no one, forty-eight hours later, a suspect in the Hennis shooting was caught, admitting that his target was in fact young Hennis’ father, a reputed Crip and self-proclaimed “super gangbanger.”) As night fell upon us after the vigil, I didn’t fear the possibility of any violence though. The atmosphere on the corner of Bristol Street and Riverdale Avenue was, quite ironically, almost festive. There was music playing and food being grilled on the sidewalk right in front of the apartment of the dead boy’s young mother. It felt very much like an Irish wake, of which I’ve been a part of a few. I was convinced that everyone in the neighborhood had decided they’d all endured enough tragedy that week.
At about 8pm, we were on the Rockaway Avenue platform waiting for the 3; by 8:20, no train had arrived. Guardian Angel “G-Man” was told via walkie-talkie that it wouldn’t be showing up any time soon due to some typical, MTA-sanctioned reason. So the new plan, one that immediately caused me great anxiety, was to walk eight blocks northeast, through the Brownsville Housing Projects, to catch the L train at Sutter Avenue.
I can’t pinpoint one precise reason why I had such trepidation, especially since nobody I was with seemed overly concerned. Was this racism? If so, where did it come from? The mainstream media? (They weren’t influencing me to feel anything else, like a desire to see a blockbuster movie.) My upbringing? (Queens is the most ethnically diverse area in the world.) Or worse, was it just inside me, poking its ugly head out and having a tête-à-tête with my conscious mind?
We abandoned the 3 train’s platform, left the station, and walked downstairs to street level. EQ, my primary Guardian Angel guide that week, stopped a tall, Hispanic man in his twenties on the sidewalk. “Join the Guardian Angels, free martial arts, free self-defense,” EQ said quickly. The stranger seemed intrigued and the two spoke for a couple of minutes. And overhead, a Manhattan-bound 3 train made its way into the station, then left without me, nor Kyria and her camera equipment, on board.
It was dark and quiet, not a lot of people were on the streets that Wednesday evening as we marched on. I tried to absorb the silence and have it calm me down a bit, thinking if no one was around, there was nothing bad that could happen. It didn’t work.
After traveling north on Rockaway Avenue for two decidedly long blocks, we made a right on Blake Avenue, into the projects. Most of the locals we did encounter, smiled at the Guardian Angels welcomingly. A woman from a high, indeterminable apartment window even shouted, “We love you Guardian Angels.” There were a few young men though who, at different points in the journey, walked past us and either snickered or gave us very hard looks. Two guys sitting in their car suddenly hopped out and called EQ and co. over, but only innocently asked if they could take a picture with the Angels, who obliged.
Kyria continued on with her flash photography too as we continued walking, illuminating our presence even more. I felt compelled maybe a dozen times to tell her to stop. I didn’t want to be responsible for her stuff getting stolen, or worse…
The presence of the Guardian Angels tempered my nervousness slightly. But we’d just come from a vigil for a shooting victim, and though these trained Angels have been patrolling for as long as the last twenty-seven years, as in the case of EQ, I wasn’t sure what any of them could do if guns were employed by prospective thieves.
Then, I thought to myself: “This is what journalists do to get the story. They take risks.” Kyria seemed up for it—they were her flashes going off—so I guessed I should’ve been too.
We walked two, again, elongated blocks worth of Blake Avenue, lined with public housing projects that are homes to most of Brownsville’s low-income population. We made a left at Junius Street, walked down a silent, industrialized path, made a right at Sutter Avenue, and finally a left at Van Sinderen Avenue underneath the elevated tracks of our L-train-line destination.
It was roughly 9pm and we’d walked just under a mile since our ill-advised dismissal of the 3 train at Rockaway Avenue about thirty minutes earlier. And, really, nothing at all happened to any of us. In fact, retrospectively, whatever did go down was quite pleasant.
It bugged me big time on that train ride home to Astoria though, as it still does today, that I felt so scared traveling through the “bad neighborhood.” I’m not sure if it was just because I was in an area so highly populated by minorities—becoming a minority myself for a few minutes—or because Brownsville does have a legitimately, frighteningly large problem with violent crime. Plus, I had my photographer and her equipment to worry about. Would I have felt this way if there were nothing but white gangs around?
Maybe I’m writing this just to work through those feelings, but I hope they don’t happen again.