At the heart of the city's gun violence epidemic is a roughly nine-block area that is home to about 700 people.

Buffalo's Danger Zone

Jacqueline Wells’ grandson was wounded in a drive-by shooting on Buffalo’s Goodyear Avenue a few days after Christmas in 2013.

One of three bullets fired from inside a black Chevrolet Impala struck then-25-year-old Tieshawn Greene in the buttocks.

Gun violence is nothing new for Greene’s family.

Three of Greene’s uncles have died in shootings in Buffalo over the last 21 years. They were 33, 29 and 36 years old.

“We know that death is part of life,” Wells said. “You got to die, but not that way.”

Jacqueline Wells has lost two sons to gun violence. William was killed in 2002; Mark was killed in 2006. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

At the epicenter of Buffalo’s gun violence is a neighborhood that straddles part of Genesee Street, east of Moselle Street. About 700 people live there.

Of the 287 neighborhoods known as census “block groups” in Buffalo, this one has had the most shootings over the last six years, according to a Buffalo News analysis of city police data.

In this roughly nine-block area, 47 people were shot in 80 incidents from 2011 through 2016, according to Buffalo Police. Someone was hurt or killed in 45 of those incidents.

This danger zone sits just west of Bailey Avenue, and is officially designated by the U.S. Census Bureau as block group No. 360290036003.

It includes Goodyear Avenue, where Greene was shot.

It also includes Burgard Place, where Mike King was hit four times, in the back and arm, by gunshots in 2003.

King described life in the neighborhood like living “in a war zone.”

Others stress this East Side neighborhood is filled with good people, despite the public perception.

“Everyone is not going to shoot you,” Takesha Leonard, a nurse practitioner at a health clinic on Genesee Street said of the residents there. “But if all you watch is that television, I would never walk foot in here.”

The entire East Side accounts for about three-quarters of all shootings in Buffalo during the last six years but only a third of the city’s population, according to an analysis of the Police Department shooting data.

The Buffalo News analyzed data from 2,859 Buffalo shootings over six years. Some facts from the Buffalo Police data:
  • 23 percent hike in shootings in 2016, compared to the five-year average from 2011 through 2015.
  • 1,286 people shot from 2011 through 2016, including 221 people killed.
  • 18 percent hike in the number of people shot in 2016 compared with the five-year average from 2011 through 2015.
Note: A shooting is defined as an incident in which a person fires a gun and a person, building or vehicle is hit, or there is other evidence of gunfire. Suicides are not included in the data
Source: Buffalo News analysis of Buffalo Police Department data

Buffalo’s East Side has been marred by disproportionate violence for decades. It’s where gang activity is concentrated, according to police. It’s also where many people live in poverty, amid poor schools and few businesses.

“Five or 10 years ago, the rule of thumb was every family either had a shooting in it or knew somebody” whose family did, said Gary Steeves, pastor at Resurrection Lutheran Church and Resurrection Life Ministries at Genesee and Doat streets. “Now … it’s more that every family’s had more than one, or knows somebody with more than one.”

Over the last six years, nearly 1,300 people have been shot on Buffalo’s streets.

Citywide, shootings were up 23 percent last year, compared to the average from 2011 through 2015, according to police data.

But there are some Buffalo neighborhoods where the risk of being shot is greater than in others.

Three of seven sons shot

Rhonda Lee walks down Bissell Street, where she has lived for over 25 years, on May 3, 2017. Three of her sons have been victims of gun violence. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Rhonda Lee, 58, has lived on Bissell Avenue for 24 years and in the nine-block neighborhood that’s had the most shootings for nearly 50. She raised nine children. Over the years, three of her seven sons have been shot.

Lee’s 22-year-old cousin, Xavier Wimes, was shot and killed Jan. 1, the first homicide in Buffalo this year. No arrest has been made.

Lee’s home has been struck by gunfire several times, including in May 2013 when bullets from a shooting across the street narrowly missed her daughter, who was sitting on the porch.

Some people in her neighborhood have set up security cameras outside their homes.

“We try to watch out for each other over here,” she said, sitting inside her dining room, not far from the spot where one of her sons once lay bleeding from a gunshot wound to the leg. “It’s sad that we have to live like that.”

The neighborhood looks similar to the rest of the East Side. Amid well-kept homes and gardens, there’s also empty lots, abandoned homes and vacant storefronts. From street to street, the landscape changes from densely populated blocks to stretches of open space.

A few roadside memorials for victims of violence dot the streets, including a pink toy bear clinging to a tree on Moselle Street, near Box Avenue.

There also are houses with signs in the front yard supporting anti-violence groups. There’s an attorney’s office, an Islamic center and a cellphone store on Genesee, and a pizzeria and a church on East Ferry Street – just as in other neighborhoods.

But in front of some corner stores, people gather, even on cold nights. Some residents say they are afraid to go outside at night.

This neighborhood is poorer than the rest of Buffalo, overall. Nearly half the population of the census tract – a slightly larger area that includes this nine-block neighborhood – lives with an income below the poverty level. Citywide, a little less than a third of the population had an income below the poverty level, according to 2015 Census estimates.

The median household income for the larger census tract was estimated at $20,957 for 2015. The citywide median income was $31,918.

There is a greater percentage of owner-occupied homes than in the city as a whole, but roughly double the percentage of vacant housing units, according to 2010 census data.

Nearly 9 in 10 residents of this census block identified as African-American in the 2010 census, compared to about 4 in 10 across the entire city.

When the bullets fly, the wounded or killed are usually African-American.

Teddy bears cling to a tree as part of a street memorial to a a victim of gun violence on Moselle Street on May 3, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Beyond the census stats

Mike King, who was shot when he was young, spends time working with teens at the CRUCIAL Center on Moselle Street on May 4, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Leonard, the nurse practitioner at the Jericho Road Community Health Center, knows a great deal about the neighborhood’s residents, beyond the broad picture painted by census figures.

Leonard meets and talks with them on a daily basis at the clinic. She said she believes there’s more to Buffalo’s East Side than conveyed in media reports.

A native of the South Bronx, Leonard admits the neighborhood surrounding the clinic is “tough.” There haven’t been any break-ins at the clinic in the seven years she’s worked there, but drive-by shootings occur from time to time in the neighborhood, she said.

The clinic sees up to 75 patients a day, with some individuals coming in not for medical care, but “just to talk” about problems they are having, Leonard said. A major need of the people is job training. They also have to overcome the stigma of being from the East Side, she said.

Mildred Smith walks down Montana Avenue on her way home Jan. 31, 2017. She moved back to the neighborhood 16 years ago. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

While the neighborhood struggles with poverty and violence, there are people there doing good things, said Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk, who represents the area. Franczyk pointed to efforts by Harmac Medical Products, which has partnered with Habitat for Humanity and others to build new houses and apartments, a community garden, soccer pitches, greenhouses and a cafe near Harmac’s Bailey Avenue plant. The city has funded sidewalk improvements in the neighborhood and some businesses have expressed interest in some properties.

“There are some rays of hope,” Franczyk said.

Neighborhoods in the city experience different levels of violence, including shootings, and there can be a wide variance even within a few blocks in the same part of a city, said James J. Sobol, associate professor of criminal justice and department chair at SUNY Buffalo State.

“The risk of being shot isn’t equal for all people in Buffalo,” Sobol said.

Individuals who are involved with a gang, who carry guns or who have previous arrests related to shootings are typically at a greater risk of being shot than those who don’t, Sobol said.

But just because one neighborhood may have more shootings than others does not necessarily reflect on the residents of that particular neighborhood. People who live elsewhere are often the shooters, he said.

The East Side accounted for about three-quarters of all shootings over six years, but only about a third of Buffalo’s population.
  • 63 of the 287 census “block groups” in Buffalo had no shootings over the last five years. The safe zones include a corridor between Elmwood Avenue and Delaware Avenue, from North Street to Kenmore Avenue; neighborhoods directly north and east of Delaware Park; and the city’s southeast corner.
  • A nine-block area near Genesee and Doat streets saw the most shootings from 2011 through 2016.
A steady stream of customers flows in and out of the Super Price Choppers grocery store on Genesee and Goodyear on May 5, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The Super Price Choppers grocery store on Genesee and Goodyear is busy morning and night. The store opened in 2008 in a spot that used to be a convenience store. It has expanded under the operation of A.K. Kaid, who now runs the family business. The store has a wider grocery selection than many other convenience stores in East Side neighborhoods.

“We’re a growing company,” said Kaid, who said his business doesn’t have problems with crime. The store calls police no more than twice a year, he said.

It would have been understandable if Kaid’s family business left the neighborhood. Kaid’s grandfather, Karim Kaid, was fatally shot March 27, 1997, at age 54 in the family’s deli that used to be just down the block.

But Kaid grew up in the neighborhood.

“People are nice,” he said. “People treat us very fair.”

Some neighborhoods saw gun violence drop in 2016:
  • Masten Park (in Masten): Five shootings, about half the five-year average of 9.6 a year.
  • Forest (West Side): Eight shootings, a drop of about one-third from the average of 12.2 a year.
Mayda Pozantides tills the ground where she is planting rows of crops at her Groundwork Market Garden on Leslie Street on May 4, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Mayda Pozantides, 29, bought a little more than 2 acres of empty land on Genesee Street, between Leslie Street and Colorado Avenue, 2 1/2 years ago. That’s where she runs Groundwork Market Garden with a partner, where they grow “a little bit of everything.”

Pozantides, who lives in Allentown, said she’s not ignorant to the neighborhood’s problems, but she hasn’t seen any gun violence. She said she’s never felt unsafe, she hasn’t been robbed and most of her interactions with her neighbors are positive.

The neighborhood is a victim of neglect, she said, and suffers from a lack of development.

Despite the neighborhood’s dangers, Diane Rose moved back there after living on the West Side for several years.

“There’s good things happening,” said Rose, 59, pointing to the Super Price Choppers grocery store, the food pantry run by Resurrection Church and the Jericho Road Community Health Center at Genesee and Doat.

Rose said she keeps a shotgun locked in her home and believes more should be done to cut the flow of illegal guns into the neighborhood.

“It ain’t the people in this neighborhood bringing them in,” she said.

East Ferry Street at Goodyear on March 10, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Socioeconomic conditions, demographic shifts, drug activity and the availability of guns all play a role in the complicated mix that translate into fluctuating levels of gun violence in the city, said Dennis J. Richards, chief of detectives for the Buffalo Police Department.

Retaliations, disrespect and turf wars can trigger violent outbursts, Richards said.

Buffalo has about 60 active gangs, according to police.

Police are constantly working to disrupt gun-related or gang-related activities in the city, which the department views as key to putting a halt to the violence. But investigators often face uncooperative victims or witnesses, which makes it tougher to get criminals off the street, he said.

Why is there disproportionate violence on the city’s East Side?

“I’m gathering that there’s a sense of despair among many who feel as though they have nothing to lose,” Richards said.

The Rev. James Giles, the coordinator of a coalition of anti-violence groups known as Buffalo Peacemakers, says that a number of street gangs or “crews” operate in and around the nine-block area on the East Side where the shootings occur most frequently. The shootings often are sparked by disputes among rival gang members, some of whom are from other parts of the city, he said.

Some neighborhoods saw gun violence get worse:
  • Lovejoy (East Side): 15 shootings in 2016, nearly triple the five-year average of 5.4 a year.
  • Emslie (in Ellicott): 13 shootings, nearly triple the average of 5.4 a year.
  • Hamlin Park (in Masten): 22 shootings, more than double the average of 10.8 a year.
  • Central Business District: Eight shootings, nearly double the average of 4.2 a year.

Ask the people who live in the neighborhood why they think there are so many shootings, and many tell you it’s the drugs.

It’s also not uncommon to hear that if there were more jobs available, there would be less crime.

Not everyone agrees. A lack of jobs is a partial explanation, said Stephen Kulu, pastor of New Generation Ministries on Doat Street. But some of it comes from the mental health and lifestyle of many young men on the East Side.

“I want the best stuff I can have in this world,” Kulu said, explaining the gunmen’s thinking. “I live fast and I die young. That’s the mindset of these guys.”

It’s easier for somebody to rob a person than go to work, he said.

“Even if you offer a job, they don’t want the job. Some don’t care,” Kulu said.

Averting the danger

Darrin Clay, 48, lives in a house on Nevada Avenue with his mother, nephew and grandson. It’s been his home since he was 6 years old, and he’s seen his street change from being mostly homeowners to now including a lot of renters.

His 20-year-old nephew’s best friend was killed in a shooting last year. His nephew was wounded in two shootings, he said.

“I worry about him all the time,” Clay said.

Mildred Smith, 70, lives on Montana Avenue, the next street over. She said she’s been awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of gunfire during the 16 years she’s lived on the street. Instead of a gun, Smith carries haircutting scissors with her for protection. If she carried a gun and she was stopped by police, the officers might think she “was one of them,” she said.

About two years ago, a man was fatally shot across the street from her home. Smith calls her neighborhood “real dangerous,” and she normally doesn’t go outside at night, though that doesn’t mean she’s always safe.

“They’ll shoot you in the wide-open daytime,” she said.

King, the man shot on Burgard Place in 2003, has been trying to prevent violence in Buffalo in recent years. King worked a couple years for Buffalo SNUG, a group whose goal is to de-escalate conflicts on the street. The name, which is the word “guns” spelled backwards, stands for “Should Never Use Guns.”

King goes to scenes of shootings and homicides. Sometimes he encounters people who see their loved one lying in the street. Sometimes he sees guns on the streets that were made for the battlefield.

“I’m trying to help my community,” he said. “I’m trying to help my people.”

But he said it’s like living in hell.

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