In Boston, a 'postal' message on the need to fight crime

There have been 22 homicides in Boston this year, the highest rate since 1997. Many occurred near housing projects.

They were about to walk up the path to their stoops in the Bromley-Heath housing project when the car came into view. It was too dark to see clearly, too late to talk safely - and they knew it when the beige sedan floated past.

Walter Barrows heard three shots before he hit the ground, then six more, all furiously fast. "I've never felt bullets fly across my hair," he says shakily a week later, standing steps from the scene of the shooting. "I'll never forget that sound."

Napolean Maiben isn't here to tell his story. He hit the ground and never got up. Today, all of the Bromley-Heath project is in mourning, wondering why a hard-working father who steered clear of drugs and gangs became a victim of escalating street warfare.

What caused a wider stir here in Boston, however, wasn't the shooting or the residents' grief but a decision by the Post Office to halt delivery to the 550 homes in Bromley-Heath - citing concerns about the mail carriers' personal safety. That decision, while it proved only temporary, helped prompt stepped-up police presence in the complex.

The stir, more broadly, called attention to a longstanding but often overlooked problem of safety for public-housing residents nationwide. At a time when the trend is toward smaller and more diffuse public housing, and after an era of falling violent crime, the feelings of isolation and disempowerment that grip families in America's large blocs of low-income housing rarely come into view.

"The projects represent our willingness to segregate Americans based on race, ethnicity, and social class," says Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Conflict and Violence at Northeastern University in Boston. "People in middle-class circumstances turn away from the problems of inner-city crime. 'It's not affecting me. I'm not a drug addict, or a person of color, or poor, [so] I'm not at risk.' "

Bromley-Heath is one of the oldest public housing complexes in the US. The Heath side was built in the early 1940s - residents call it "the old side" - and Bromley was added in the '50s. The crime rate ebbed and flowed over the years, but since the 1980s crack epidemic faded, residents say life is fairly peaceful.

Until recently, that is.

"It used to be, I look after you and you look after me," says Shirley Thompson, who has lived at Bromley-Heath since 1969. "Now it's worse than ever. You've got kids coming in, four and five in a group, and they're just rowdy.... I mean, they're shooting each other."

Mr. Thompson understands why the mail carriers are wary of staying on their route as shootings become more common - "I'm nervous, too," he says. But "I can't afford to move, so I just have to ride it out."

The halt in mail delivery at Bromley-Heath - which resumed after a day of public outcry - came just after Boston police commissioner Katherine O'Toole announced a plan to pull together police officers, religious leaders, and youth groups to tackle rising crime. There have been 22 homicides in Boston this year - the highest to date since 1997 - many of them in or near public housing.

At the root of Bromley-Heath's recent shootings, Dr. Levin imagines, is a combination of convicts exiting prison and disaffected teenagers joining gangs in the absence of jobs and community support.

Joyce Ward, a resident here since 1967, can't imagine how she'd get by if the man who delivers meals-on-wheels chose not to return. "It's quieted down now, because there are cops everywhere. But it's getting to be like OK Corral around here.... Kids these days just have so much anger."

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