Sitting on a bench inside the North Hartford community center, Kenneth Sanchez took a break from a spirited game of pingpong with his buddy Andre Davis. In his matter-of-fact manner, Kenny, 13, invoked the name of his late cousin, Harry, in explaining why the city's $17 million investment to build a new community center would be money well spent.
"He was walking home from school and there was a gang fight and he went to go see it — and got shot," Kenny said of Harry, 14, who lived in Syracuse, N.Y., and died last month.
Kenneth's calm demeanor in telling the story contrasted to his initial reaction when he learned of Harry's death.
"I punched a wall and I broke it," Kenneth said. "... He died watching a fight."
I asked Andre, 12, if he had any friends or relatives who had died of street violence. "My friend got shot," Andre said. "But that was, like, in '06. They were shooting on Weston Street and he got shot in the leg."
Many city kids can share a story of a peer dying — oft times as an innocent victim — through violence. The facades of cool in acknowledging the deaths are a front for suppressed fear and anger.
The city of Hartford is demolishing the almost half-century old, dilapidated Parker Memorial Center/Kelvin D. Anderson Gymnasium on Main Street. By 2010, a new, 36,000-square-foot community center will be constructed that will carry the same name. It'll be a place for young people to blow off steam safely. All the amenities will be new — gymnasium, swimming pool, weight room, classrooms, computer labs, game room.
Groundbreaking was Monday. In April, there will be yet another groundbreaking in North Hartford for a teen center. The YMCA is opening its $10 million, 41,000-square-foot building in the spring of 2009 on vacant Albany Avenue land.
There are all kinds of theories about how to reduce youth violence and street crime. But one thing everybody can agree upon is that there too many young people on the streets after school with nothing to do.
North Hartford has long been identified as an area in dire need of a community center. These groundbreakings are, well, groundbreaking — and a small measure to provide more positive diversions for city kids.
"We know that after school is the time that kids get into trouble," said Kevin Washington, the president/CEO of the YMCA of Greater Hartford. "We will have programs that will allow them to be in a safe place with nurturing adults to help them focus on reaching their potential through educational opportunity and support. We know that those things help youngsters bridge that gap from adolescent to adulthood."
Hartford Police Chief Daryl Roberts said young people crave attention and they'll gravitate to it, whether it be at a rec center or a gang meeting.
"The more opportunity you give young people to participate in something positive, the less opportunity they'll have of getting involved in something that's negative," Roberts said. "A lot of these kids are bored and they end up making stupid decisions."
City kids tend to be misunderstood because of the neighborhood violence. Folks assume that they're hard, tough, distant.
Really, it's just a survival tactic. They're just kids — rambunctious, funny, self-centered — who want to have a good time. Throw them into a safe environment where they are free to play and do their homework, without intimidation, and most will steer clear of mayhem.
Just like Kenneth and Andre.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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