Killing shakes neighborhood

May 2, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH


Gazette Photo by John Ruch
Several friends visit a memorial April 25 on the Southwest Corridor Park basketball court where Luis Troncoso was shot to death four days earlier. More than 100 friends and family members have visited the homemade shrine, which will come down this weekend.

Youths demand more help

A 20-year-old Dorchester man was shot to death April 21 on a Southwest Corridor Park basketball court, near the Stony Brook T Station and right next to the lawn where Spontaneous Celebrations will hold the annual Wake Up the Earth Festival tomorrow.

The broad-daylight killing of Luis “Mata” Troncoso hit home in more than geography. Troncoso’s sister Rosi is a co-founder of Spontaneous Celebration’s Beantown Society anti-violence program, whose main campaign is called “Don’t Wait Till We’re Dead.” Luis himself was in touch with the organization last year, seeking help getting off the streets, according to other youths.

The killing was part of an outburst of street violence during the warm weather of the city’s April school vacation week, including two shooting incidents in Jackson Square.

“This is how ugly it is in April,” said Jen Kiok, executive director of Spontaneous Celebrations. “The scary thing to think about is what it’s going to look like in July.”

Repeating the message of Beantown Society and other youth organizations in recent years, Kiok emphasized the need for more summer jobs funding, more funding for city “street workers” to counsel youths and reform of criminal background searches that keep some kids from getting jobs.

“It’s not a mystery what would change the youth violence in Boston,” Kiok said. “It’s really creating resources for those who are most affected.”

The suspect police are seeking in Troncoso’s death is young, too, described as an African-American male 18 to 20 years old.

State and local police have blanketed the area with ongoing patrols. Meanwhile, more than 100 friends and family members of Troncoso have turned the basketball court into a shrine with dozens of candles, graffiti messages and other tributes. The shrine will be removed this weekend and may be replaced by a permanent memorial.

“He was strong, loyal and accomplished,” one of Troncoso’s friends told the Gazette while quietly standing at the shrine alongside several others four days after the killing. He described Troncoso as someone whose concern for friends included making sure they didn’t go hungry: “When you eat, [then] he would eat.”

Observances at the shrine have received police attention. On April 23, three people were arrested for allegedly scuffling with police as a large crowd gathered there. But the friend who spoke to the Gazette downplayed any tensions. “The cops are generally respectful, and we thank them for that,” he said.

But the shrine has an ominous side, too. Some of the graffiti written on the surface of the basketball court includes profanity-laced vows of revenge. “We won’t sleep till we find you…,” one reads in part, pledging death to the killer and his family.

Such threats worry police, who describe much youth violence in Boston as a cycle of revenge.

“This is essentially 15 people who know each other, have a beef with each other,” local state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez said he was told by Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, who walked the Jackson Square business district April 22 in the wake of violence there.

Two men were wounded in the April 18 drive-by shooting at 280 Centre St. in Jackson Square. The shooting happened right after a police car passed by, according to local E-13 Police commander Capt. Christine Michalosky. “The police were so close [they] could smell the gunpowder,” she said at a community meeting this week.

On April 24, two teens—one a Jamaica Plain resident—were arrested for allegedly firing handguns in the Academy Homes complex at Columbus Avenue and Ritchie Street. They were arrested after being chased by police into nearby Marcella Park, reportedly causing children and parents to run for cover.

That incident may show the complexities of trying to end youth violence. The other teen arrested in Marcella Park, 19-year-old Hasaan Seales, appears to be the same young man who spoke last year at a press conference calling for continued state funding of youth anti-gang programs. A Boston Globe article at the time described how a City of Boston program funded by the state “helped him turn away from street life.”

“Nobody has all the answers. If they did, it would have been solved by now,” local City Councilor John Tobin told the Gazette, calling for ongoing discussion and collaboration. He organized an open meeting April 28 at Spontaneous Celebrations’ Danforth Street building that drew more than 80 people.

“We do have, structurally and fundamentally, a strong community,” Sánchez told the Gazette shortly before an April 25 kick-off for a Hyde Square Task Force (HSTF) program that has dozens of youths painting “peace doves” on sidewalks in violence-troubled neighborhoods.

“The purpose of this is to show there are youths working on peace on a daily basis,” said HSTF organizer Chrismaldi Vasquez as youths painted one of the white doves in front of the Curley K-8 School—just one of 600 that will go up around the city.

Spontaneous Celebrations and HSTF young people are well-organized and have well-honed advocacy agendas. But this week, some of them also spoke in rawer terms of life-and-death desperation.

“This [violence] needs to stop,” said Kendra Lara of United Youth and Youth Workers at the April 28 meeting. “This needs to stop now. We don’t know how else to show you. If 10 more of us have to die…,” she said, breaking into tears.

‘A different world’

Open violence always draws some official attention. But many of JP’s youths live under a steady, silent tension, moving across a map of dangerous territories invisible to many adults.

“You’re always second-guessing,” Victor Martinez, a 17-year-old Hyde Square resident and HSTF volunteer, told the Gazette when asked about daily life. “You don’t like to be around by yourself.”

Asked if gangs are the source of fear, Martinez said it is actually a more casual type of turf conflict.

“A lot of it is streets now. You’re supposed to represent streets”—meaning the street you happen to live on, he said. A simple neighborhood walk can turn into confrontation.

When the Gazette noted that most adults can walk a few blocks of JP without any awareness of streets or turf, Martinez said, “It is like living in a different world.”

“I’ve always ‘got my head up’”—paying attention—he said, giving the English version of the Spanish phrase of warning his father always repeats to him when he goes out.

When Michalosky at the April 28 meeting described Troncoso’s shooting as “a gang problem,” audience member Amaurys Abreu shouted out, “What gang?” She quickly backpedaled, saying, “I’m not saying a gang did it.”

Abreu warned against stereotyping troubled kids as gangsters. JP does have at least one major organized street gang, according to police. On the other hand, Boston also has about 16,000 people ages 16-25 who simply have no jobs and have dropped out or been expelled from school, Tobin noted, citing fellow City Councilor Chuck Turner’s data.

Killing reaction

Troncoso was not the first young man gunned down in JP in recent years, and certainly not the youngest. But his death has drawn an unusually strong neighborhood response.

The shooting came on the summer-like afternoon of day of the Boston Marathon—Patriot’s Day—in a busy, popular park. Several residents described the contrast as “surreal.”

Other residents at the April 28 meeting described it as all too familiar—except this time, it happened “on the other side of the tracks,” near nice houses on Boylston Street instead of in Egleston Square, where other recent killings have drawn less attention.

For some, it is also personal. Beantown Society members repeated their pleas for government support this week not only because that’s their annual plan, but also because, they said, it applies directly to Troncoso.

Beantown Society’s Gerdon Encarnacion said at the April 28 meeting that Troncoso, a father of two, was struggling to find a job because he had a criminal record.

“Last September, he came to us and said, ‘I have a family. I want to help my family…’ He tried a million times to get a job,” Encarnacion said. Troncoso had a job interview scheduled for the day after he died, he said.

“He came to us, saying, ‘I’m sick of running the streets,’” Encarnacion said, asking for youth resources “so no more people like Luis, like my friends who have passed away, die in vain.”

[For a guide to local youth programs and services, see the JP Resources Guide at the Gazette web site, www.JamaicaPlainGazette.com.]

Tobin and other officials, including fellow Councilors Michael Flaherty and Steve Murphy, avoided making any direct pledges about the always controversial city budget at the April 28 meeting. Tobin offered other youth-oriented proposals, such as partnering local colleges with Boston Public Schools, which earned him an accusation of dodging the question.

Overall, Tobin presented the open meeting—co-sponsored by Sánchez and state Rep. Liz Malia—as a solution. Even that was controversial. HSTF youths sent Tobin a letter suggesting that such an open-agenda meeting near the site of the killing was unhelpful and possibly dangerous. If it had not rained on April 28, the meeting was scheduled to be held outdoors near the basketball court. The HSTF youths boycotted the meeting and reportedly are planning their own.

“We’ve got to show leadership,” Tobin told the Gazette in response. “I’m trying to include everybody and invite everybody.”

A highly diverse group—including many youths—did attend, and had a variety of responses. There were calls for unity and attempts to point fingers—and sometimes both.

Some people simply expressed a desire to help and uncertainty about how to do so.

“I see all of you as my family here in JP,” said local resident Joseph Porcelli, head of the influential Neighbors for Neighbors organization and the Boston Police crime watch coordinator, at the April 28 meeting, with tears in his eyes. “A lot of times, I don’t know how to approach you. I don’t know what to say,” he told youths in the audience.

As ethnic and class tensions began to flare in the audience, resident Hope Haff suggested using JP’s diversity as a strength.

“One thing about gentrification and one thing about us white grandmothers is we can make a big difference,” she said, putting out a message to JP’s “gentry”: “Please support these kids with your political power.”

In the shorter term, Spontaneous Celebrations is seeking another sort of help: donations to cover the $7,000 cost of Troncoso’s funeral, which has put his family’s house on the line, according to Beantown Society director Seth Kirshenbaum. Donations can be made to Noemi Pineda, c/o Spontaneous Celebrations, 45 Danforth St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130.

While expressing gratitude for funds already raised at the April 28 meeting, Kirshenbaum also noted the missed opportunities.

“We can come together sooner to invest in the life,” he said, “not in the death.”

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