For those who live amid violence in Boston’s inner city neighborhoods, gunfire is not an uncommon sound. The inexperienced ear might mistake the sound for fireworks, but those who know it, when they hear it, might hit the ground.
That’s what happened one autumn night in 2009 in the Dorchester home of Kim Odom, a local pastor. She and her daughter fell to the floor at the sound of gunshots outside. They crawled towards the living room, moving away from the windows. When the silence returned, they saw a basketball rolling down the street. The sight reminded them that Odom’s son had been outside playing basketball.
Rushing outside they found Steven lying face down just a few feet from their home. He was 13.
Stories like this are painfully and disproportionately common in Boston’s inner city neighborhoods where the majority of residents are black and poverty rates are higher than elsewhere in the city. The Docket has heard accounts of a woman watching the report of a homicide on the nightly news who later found out that it was her son that was killed, and another woman who watched from her porch as paramedics loaded a body into an ambulance, who she discovered was her nephew. Mothers bury sons and then nephews; some families lose an entire generation. Analicia Perry was 20 when she was killed in 2006. She was gunned down while paying respects to her brother Robert, murdered in that exact spot four years earlier.
An analysis by The Docket of Boston Police Department data listing every homicide victim from 2000 through 2016 shows a pattern of violence concentrated in Boston’s inner city neighborhoods of Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury. Nearly half of all homicides in Boston took place here, home to third of Boston’s residents. And while some other neighborhoods can go an entire year without suffering a homicide, these three neighborhoods have consistently endured numbers in the double digits each year for the last fifteen years.
Like many urban areas, Boston was plagued with a spike in violence during the early 1990s. Since then homicides have drastically decreased. And unlike Chicago, or even cities of a comparable size to Boston like Milwaukee, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., Boston did not experienced a spike in violent crime in 2015.
But taken on a neighborhood level, the picture looks quite different.
According to FBI Uniform Crime Statistics, the murder rate in the city dropped from a high of 24.9 in 1990 to 5.7 in 2015, the most recent year for which the FBI has released data. But the concentration of homicides Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan creates an alternate reality for people living in of those neighborhoods.
Boston's neighborhoods have no official boundaries, but a report from January by the Boston Planning and Development Agency uses a combination of census tracts, zip codes and zoning districts as a basis for demographic analysis by neighborhood. Using the populations from this report, The Docket found that Roxbury and Mattapan are particularly burdened with violence for their population size. While Boston’s 2016 homicide rate was 7.2 per 100,000 people (based on data from the Boston Police Department), the homicide rate in Roxbury was at least 19.1. In Mattapan, it was 45.3. Taken together, they had a homicide rate of 26.0, over four times the rate of all other Boston neighborhoods combined.
The number of homicide victims remains low compared to previous years, but the true effect of the violence ripples through the communities it touches.
“It's not the people who are involved in the violence that are necessarily being victimized, it's their families and friends, who are afraid when their son leaves the house or when their brother leaves the house,” said Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice. “That's the kind of trauma that very few people look at.”
Even when shootings don’t result in deaths, which McDevitt said is more common now thanks to the developments in trauma medicine, close calls can change the entire trajectory of people’s lives.
“A 15-year-old son who’s going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, that changes how you’re thinking about your future and your family and everything,” McDevitt said.
McDevitt said that, in reality, a small number of people are responsible for most of the violence. He recalled a bus wrap advertisement that declared that all those involved in gang violence in a neighborhood could fit on a bus. Still, he said, those who are at risk of being injured in the violence are most often the black or Latino youth. From 2000 through 2016, 73 percent of Boston’s homicide victims were between the ages of 14 and 34. Of those in that age group, 82 percent were black or Latino.
“The story you can tell in Boston, is that homicides are highly concentrated, not only geographically — it’s focussed on young African American and Latino males,” he said. “If you happen to be a parent living in those areas with a 16-year-old boy, you’re in a really, really difficult place,” said McDevitt.
These demographics are inextricable from place. The violence of Boston, with its history of segregation, takes place in neighborhoods that have known divestment and redlining, places where blocks were razed to build highways. People in these neighborhoods often face far more systemic challenges than those in other, wealthier Boston neighborhoods.
On a windy April day, about two dozen people, many of them black women, gathered in the lobby of Boston Police’s Roxbury station. They came to commemorate loved ones lost, specifically those whose murders remain unsolved.
“We look at the numbers. One less than last year. Those numbers are important and it’s great when we are reducing homicide ... but for each victim there are ten immediate family members that are impacted,” said Tina Chéry, as she spoke to the crowd. Chéry’s 15-year-old son was killed in 1993 when he was caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting. She now runs the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, which helps families navigate the trauma of homicide and loss.
“Prior to 1993 when Louis was killed, we really didn’t talk about the impact that homicide has on individuals, families and communities ... Even today, we still talk about the shooter, we still talk about the victim and we still talk about the homicide,” Chéry told The Docket. She said that some relatives of homicide victims prefer to be called victims themselves, or co-victims, to reflect the true loss they feel. But for her and her organization, she finds survivor to be the stronger word.
“I have survived the fact that my child was murdered. So I see myself as a survivor of a murdered victim. It’s not who I am, yet it’s a part of me. That’s the shift that we want to bring to the forefront,” she said.
Hear more about Chéry’s experience and organization in this podcast produced by The Docket co-founder Brilee Weaver.
Learn more about the reality of loss in this Docket-orgininal minidoc by Priyanka Ketkar.
Brilee Weaver contributed reporting.