Commentary: The second miracle of East Harlem

Explaining this summer’s dramatic reduction in teen violence in our local community.

Shooting hoops at a SCAN-Harbor community center.

Shooting hoops at a SCAN-Harbor community center. Image courtesy of SCAN-Harbor

In 1973, a book was published called “Miracle in East Harlem.” Said publication outlined Manhattan Community School District 4’s dramatic improvement in reading scores for our East Harlem young people. Before the 1970’s, only 16% of youth were reading at grade level. East Harlem’s miracle, consisting primarily of offering a variegated array of school of choice, saw, by 1973 62% of the community school district’s young people reading at grade level.

So, today, fifty years later, I am pleased to offer the story of a “Second Miracle in East Harlem.”

Approximately four years ago, City Council Member Diana Ayala called a meeting of East Harlem based Police Service Area 5 youth service providers to discuss the alarming rise of teen violence in el Barrio. After prolonged discussion, Council Member Diana Ayala expressed concern regarding the lack of available counseling, social work and related services to address the needs of our ‘highest risk youth’ and their families. Representatives of the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development noted that they would speak with their commissioner to see if additional funding could be made available to afford buttressed service provision. 

Months following this meeting, Council Member Ayala was able to secure a commitment to afford approximately $200,000 in additional funding to support SCAN-Harbor’s Cornerstone programming at Wagner Houses. Wagner Houses was the largest NYCHA development in East Harlem (consisting of 24 apartment buildings), and the second largest NYCHA development in New York City. Further, Wagner had recently experienced the highest rate of teen violence in New York City. Thus, in October 2022, SCAN-Harbor initiated a DYCD model project designed to positively support Wagner’s ‘highest risk’ young people and their families.

Simultaneous to Council Member Ayala’s active support, Manhattan District Attorney Bragg put forth an RFP in the summer of 2022, to fund programs that utilize ‘at risk’ youth to address youth violence in their community. SCAN-Harbor was the recipient of a grant to train East Harlem youth at each of three SCAN-Harbor Cornerstones, to lead For Youth By Youth Healing Circles. Thus, we began said project in September of 2022, at our Wagner, King Towers and Johnson Cornerstones. 

Thus, as 2023 unfolded, SCAN-Harbor sponsored seven NYCHA based, DYCD funded Cornerstone Community Centers (Wagner, East River, Clinton, Lehman, Johnson, MLK Towers, and, Jackie Robinson Houses) … two Beacon Community Centers (El Faro and Usawa) … with the buttressed support of Council member Ayala’s Wagner DYCD model project ($200,000 plus per annum) … as well as Manhattan District Attorney Bragg’s For Youth By Youth Healing Circles programming, and, added SCAN-Harbor Board of Director support.

As 2023 progressed, we (SCAN-Harbor) felt we were ‘doing good,” but we were not sure how good. Violent incidents at Wagner had diminished. Similarly, teen violence had somewhat dropped as well. Yet, how much, where and where not, we were unclear.

The following is the text of an email forwarded to DYCD Commissioner Keith Howard, outlining what I would like to describe as the ‘Second East Harlem Miracle:”

SCAN-Harbor affords targeted youth services at four of PSA 5’s six largest public housing developments. Further, Wagner Houses, consisting of 24 NYCHA public housing buildings, is the second largest NYCHA development in New York City, and the very largest such development in PSA 5. Over the past decade Wagner Houses has experienced the highest incidence of gun violence, and related teen crime/violence in New York City.

In October 2022, SCAN-Harbor initiated a DYCD funded model project designed to service a ‘high risk’ Wagner teen population. This program was housed within our existing Wagner Cornerstone program, consisting of two full time staff dedicated to affording discrete counseling and positive youth development services to these ‘high risk’ teens and their families.

On Tuesday, Sept. 19, I had the opportunity to meet with PSA 5 Cpt. Chase Maneri in SCAN-Harbor’s East 102 Street office. At the conclusion of our productive dialogue, I asked Cpt. Maneri if he could forward teen violence/crime statistics (year over year) for both PSA 5 and Wagner Houses, from Oct. 1, 2022 through Sept. 30, 2023. The following is Captain Maneri’s response:

“‘Shots Fired’ incidents, in PSA 5, significantly diminished from 75 (2022) reported incidents to 26 (2023), a dramatic 66% reduction in such incidents.” The PSA 5 NYCHA development evidencing the highest number of violent incidents was not in fact Wagner Houses. Jefferson Houses had the very highest 2023 annual incidence of teen related violence in PSA 5. So, what about Wagner Houses for this same period? Well, the following is Captain Maneri’s verbatim report, “Wagner Houses has had two ‘Shots Fired’ incidents this year.” Said numbers reflect dramatic reductions over the prior year!” Captain Maneri concludes his analysis, “One of the shootings (at Wagner) is being investigated as a gang related shooting, but the perpetrators were from the Bronx. The other shooting is being investigated as a dispute, but not crew related.”

At the conclusion of my Sept. 19 meeting with Cpt. Maneri, he noted how demonstrably quiet this summer had been. “You know, Lew, we had only two PSA 5 shootings this entire summer … a powerful reduction over immediate prior summers.”

After my meeting with Cpt. Maneri I spoke with SCAN-Harbor Cornerstone Directors at Lehman, Johnson, and King Towers. How do we explain this summer’s dramatic reduction in teen violence in our East Harlem community, heretofore known as “ground zero” for teen violence in New York City? Our Directors noted the devastating deleterious effects of COVID on our connections to “at risk” Johnson, Lehman, and King Towers teens. With teen programming now fully live over the past year, we were able to powerfully reconnect with our “highest risk” young people! Said connections clearly proved vital to the significant diminution of teen violence in PSA 5 NYCHA developments. Equally informative is SCAN-Harbor’s profound success in the first year of our Wagner model project. Finally, Rob Clarke, our Johnson Cornerstone Director, remarked that our newly established “Healing Circles” (funded by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office), have contributed to the recent significant diminution of PSA 5 Teen Violence.”

On the morning of Oct. 5, 2023, I called Jordan Stockdale, Manhattan DA Bragg’s chief of staff, to share with him these statistics. Jordan noted that “‘we’ (DA Braggs’ office) are fully aware of the dramatic reduction of teen violence in PSA5 (e.g. East Harlem).” I then asked Jordan if other challenged Manhattan communities realized similar positive teen violence turn-arounds. Jordan said, “No, East Harlem’s dramatic turn-around is singular and remarkable.” 

So, what does this “Second East Harlem Miracle” teach us? While a formal research design was not established before the initiation of our formidable, collective efforts to address East Harlem teen violence, one can, in fact, utilize a retrospective analysis to inform regarding the ‘why’ of this dramatic turnaround. Those contributing variables relevant to this turnaround are cited below:

  1. SCAN-Harbor sponsors seven DYCD funded East Harlem PSA 5 Cornerstone Community Centers, as well as two DYCD funded Beacons. Such sponsorship has endured for a decade or more. Thus SCAN-Harbor has established meaningful community connections with a majority of NYCHA developments. Further, SCAN-Harbor has intentionally reached out to crews/gangs at each of our seven Cornerstones. The “Second Miracle in East Harlem” is, in part, a result of ten years of outreach and services to our ‘highest risk’ young folk.
  2. PSA 5’s reduction in teen violence was significantly higher than ANY other Manhattan PSA 5 community (e.g. Harlem, Washington Heights, Lower East Side). Thus, something different was happening en El Barrio.
  3. Wagner Houses had experienced the highest amount of teen violence in New York City over the past decade! SCAN-Harbor’s newly funded DYCD model project began at our Wagner Cornerstone, on October 1, 2022. Further, Manhattan DA Bragg’s funding of our SCAN-Harbor For Youth By Youth Healing Circles intentionally included Wagner Houses young people. These two positive contributing variables can be seen as significant factors in Wagner’s dramatic FY23 turnaround!
  4. PSA 5’s dramatic reduction of teen violence was significantly superior to all other Manhattan inner city NYCHA communities. So, one may query, how can we attribute such change to SCAN-Harbor Cornerstones? A fair question. Both Cpt. Maneri and Jordan Stockdale noted that there was one PSA 5 NYCHA development that was not manifesting reduction in teen violence. This NYCHA development was Jefferson Houses. Jefferson had no Cornerstone and decidedly limited youth service, NYCHA development based programming.
  5. Wagner’s dramatic turnaround could be reasonably predicated on the significant buttressed support from DYCD (via Council Member’s Ayala’s input), as well as Manhattan DA Bragg’s vital For Youth By Youth additional funding.
  6. Insofar as adjoining Manhattan inner city communities did not evidence similar success in reducing teen violence, something different  was happening "en el Barrio." Clearly SCAN-Harbor’s seven Cornerstones, as well as, the additional supports received via the contributions of Council Member Ayala, Manhattan DA Bragg and DYCD staff support, cumulatively produced our Second Miracle of East Harlem.
  7. An additional positive contributing variable can be attributable to the elevation of Cpt. Chase Maneri at PSA5. Cpt. Maneri’s presence has been very positively experienced by many of us in East Harlem.
  8. Additional organizations contributing to PSA5’s youth service delivery matrix include Cure Violence programs, as well as, an array of additional youth service providers. Cure Violence programs exist in all challenged New York City inner city communities. While S.A.V.E., PSA5’s Cure Violence entity, has worked positively with SCAN-Harbor staff, similar Cure Violence staff work in adjoining Manhattan communities. Said communities have not achieved the dramatic turnaround realized in PSA5 over the same annual period.

A critical final consideration, herein, focuses upon our East Harlem teen population. Here-to-fore, too many of us have viewed our young people as inherently violent, in need of "scared straight" programming or simple "straightening out." Thus, our young men were seen as inherently violent, said violence coming from their subjective selves. However, if this were so, how did this dramatic turnaround eventuate in East Harlem? SCAN-Harbor has afforded positive, empowering youth services at our seven Cornerstones over the past decade. Said services were dramatically disturbed due to COVID-19. This disconnection was a major socio-environmental factor in the rising teen violence prior to 2022-2023. The addition of critical youth, family and community supports, afforded as we began FY2023 (10/01/2022 – 09/30/2023), all contributed to this Second Miracle in East Harlem. The "coming together" of our elected officials, Council member Ayala, Manhattan DA Bragg, DYCD Deputy Commissioner Darryl Rattray and Commissioner Keith Howard, with our SCAN-Harbor Cornerstone folk and Cpt. Maneri, this collective community effort was transformative.  As we strengthened our community, our young folk positively responded to their positive community.

Lew Zuchman is the executive director at SCAN-Harbor. 

NEXT STORY: Opinion: Why proposed cuts to NYC’s parks would be catastrophic