Fourteen between two kids sitting on a stoop on Garden Street and the end of the driveway their mother warns them not to go past.
Twelve between a group of boys cracking jokes on Edgewood Street and the uncle who seems to magically materialize the moment a stranger approaches. Oh, the boys talk a big game about going wherever they want; they're grown, they insist. But the uncle sets things straight: See that pole down there, he says, the one about 60 steps away. Yeah, that's about as far as any of these knuckleheads can go without good reason, and permission.
It may not seem like a lot to those boys, but it's more than the 38 steps — 34 if you cut through the concrete blocks meant to keep traffic out of the littered empty lot — between the front door of 10-year-old Rosie Resto's Bedford Street apartment and the trampoline where she and her 7-year-old friend Precious have spent their summer days.
Makes for a small world, I tell Rosie's mother, Iris Resto.
Yeah, she admits, but a safe one.
It's a pathetic cycle we've found ourselves in. The more violence in the city, the smaller the world becomes for so many. The smaller the world, the harder some fight to hold on to what little they have.
There's no forgiving the morons who hold neighborhoods hostage with drugs and guns and misplaced allegiances, but when you see just how confining an existence so many in this city have, you can begin to understand why some kids might be willing to give up their lives for a piece of pavement that doesn't even belong to them.
Why the idea of some outsider walking on their block is a threat to the only world they know, why way too many girls I talked to these past couple of days think that becoming one of these loser's baby's mama is some sort of honor.
The groups behind so much of the North End violence — Wes Hell, The Ave — may sound tough, but they're nothing more than glorified street signs.
For a while, I asked kids and their parents I came across how far outside of Connecticut they'd ever traveled. After most told me they'd never left the state, I asked how far outside Hartford.
Waterbury, New London; Ocean Beach was a big destination. East Hartford, one little girl proudly answered.
"That's where my father lives," she said.
Tiara Smith, who was spending the day on her grandmother's Vine Street porch, ticked off all she'd done this summer.
Swimming. Where? I ask.
Camping. Where? I ask again.
Oh, and she also went to a bunch of birthday parties.
Let me guess where, I say before we answer together: Keney Park.
Makes me think that more useful than a curfew or funding yet another neighborhood program where kids can play ball at their local rec center would be to rent a fleet of buses to get these kids out of here. Seriously, show them that there are more important things to belong to than some pathetic posse, more important causes than some stupid neighborhood alliance, more meaningful ways to make a mark on the world than to die young.
Get these kids out of these 18 claustrophobic square miles, and let them see the world that could belong to them.
But they have to see it first.
Back on Bedford, I ask Iris if she ever takes the kids out of the city. She'd love to, she says. But she doesn't have a license, or access to a car. Right now, she's working on moving to a nearby house with a yard.
"I'd like to give them more space," she says.
As I stand with Rosie and Precious near the trampoline, where now the neighborhood boys are taking their turn at reaching for the sky, I ask the girls if they could go anywhere they wanted, where would it be?
The park, Rosie quickly answers.
That could be fun, I say, but what about if you could go anywhere you wanted in the world. The whole wide world, I press, when they go silent.
The girls look at each other, then at me.
After a few more silent moments, Precious finally perks up.
Disney World, she says, her toothy grin punctuating the satisfaction with her answer. "That would be fun, I bet."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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