As I work my way toward finding my spot in gang prevention, I study my village.
The Village of Hempstead in Central Nassau County, New York, is one of the minority-rich areas in Long Island's white-and-minority checkerboard. The integration of which civil rights activists dreamed never took strong root in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. My husband and I discovered this reality when we first looked at our house in 1993. We saw this house as a potentially perfect home for us. A contractor friend pronounced it structurally sound, with a young boiler. It has a sizeable fenced-in yard and enough bedrooms to accommodate a four-child family. It needed a lot of cosmetic repair, but my husband knows how to do all that. It had been in foreclosure for two years, and we got it relatively cheaply.
To our surprise, when our friends in our church heard of our choice of house, they congratulated us, not on getting a home, but on our courage. "We wouldn't live in Hempstead," they told us. "It's scary." Our church (which we no longer attend) was in a neighboring largely white community.
The fact is, we have always liked our neighborhood here in Hempstead. It's far quieter than any of the neighborhoods we inhabited in Brooklyn prior to buying the house.We wanted to live in a racially and ethnically mixed area because we never wanted our children to see any group of people as "them," so our children had the privilege of playing with a multicolored circle of neighborhood kids in our conveniently large yard. I was a stay-at-home mom, a home schooler and a freelance editor, which meant our kids and the neighbors who came had daily supervision as they shot hoops in our miniature basketball court, rode bikes and roller bladed on our quiet street, played volleyball when my husband stretched a net from our fence to our house, and ran around and around and around and around the house because our yard circles our edifice. I can still hear their giggles during games of Gray Ghost at dusk before their parents called them home; I can still smell the popcorn I would put out for snacks, and see the kids gulping the ice water from the cups I set on a backyard table.
Yet, in a way, as we raised our children (whom I home schooled), we used the community rather than participating in it. Oh, we loved our neighbors (still do) and paid our taxes (which have tripled since we moved in on May 8, 1993), but our major life connections were from outside of the village. We didn't join local organizations or attend Village of Hempstead events.
Recently, with our children grown and on their own, my curiosity about our village has deepened. I have begun to attend village board of trustee meetings and also the meetings of my local civic association. The nonimprovement of Hempstead's school district has sparked my research into this rather obscure but densely populated locality, because I'm interested to know why gangs proliferate, and unsuccessful schools are recruiting grounds for gangs.
As I gather knowledge and get to know my own village, I've realized that Hempstead is one of the most important places in Nassau County, and perhaps in the United States.
Who lives in Hempstead that could make it so important? Everybody: white, black, brown -- native Long Islanders (black and white), imports from elsewhere in the United States (like my husband and me and our kids), and immigrants from all over: southeast Asia, the Pacific, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Pakistan, the Middle East. We are the face of America's shifting demographics.
The wealth inequality that keeps making the news has noticeable impact here: on Long Island, according to its local news station, News 12, there are more zombie houses -- abandoned homes -- than anywhere in the United States. There are three such houses within a six-block walk on my side of our street. We are important because we are a terrarium of changing economic forces.
And I am determined that we should be important for another reason: finding solutions to our difficulties. I don't believe that we have to cave to the forces around us. I believe that we can do something to preserve our neighborhoods and our municipality. But I have to understand the problems first. That is the topic of my next blog.