Gangs of Central New York

Thirty years since former gang leader General Davis ruled the streets, Syracuse is home to 22 gangs and 1,300 gang members, and the violent crime rate remains above the national average.

Three decades ago, it would have been unimaginable to have a conversation with General Davis in a public space like the chic Café Kubal on University Avenue in Syracuse. What can you expect from a man who is a self-proclaimed "one stop shop for gangs in Syracuse"?

"I was in Miami carrying books. I was in Syracuse carrying guns. I was leading a double life."
- General Davis, former Corleones gang leader

Certainly not a misty eyed 53-year-old man in jeans and a polo clutching a folder and his autobiographies, Free from Death Road and Dead Boys Walking.

"I love reading and loved studying," Davis said by way of explanation.

Despite notoriety as founder and former leader of the Syracuse Southside gang Corleones, Davis was no uneducated thug. A lover of books and libraries, Davis studied humanities at Onondaga Community College and then transferred to Miami Dade College in Florida where his gang activities began interfering with his studies.

"I was in Miami carrying books. I was in Syracuse carrying guns. I was leading a double life," he said, shaking his head in disbelief.

Yet even 30 years after Davis led the Corleones, the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety identifies Syracuse’s Southside and Westside as “home to disproportionate shares of crime, violent crime, gangs and active gangs.”

Violent crime in Syracuse is well above the national average, even for the largest U.S. cities. Although gang members make up less than one percent of the city's 145,000 population, the report states that there are 22 identified gangs, ranging in size from 3 to 162 members, and a total of 1,317 identified gang members in the city.

Troubled neighborhood

“The first real gangs that were identified in news stories were in the 1980s," said Hart Seely, a senior reporter who covered gangs for The Post-Standard in the early 1980s. "The city was identified by U.S. News and World Report as one of the most troubled neighborhoods in America, and that is what turned heads and drew attention to the gangs in Syracuse."

Charles Kiesinger, patrol sergeant at Syracuse University’s Department of Public Safety, however, recalls a time in the 1960s when the city had such a strong crackdown that the Haitian and Jamaican gangs at the time were forced out to neighboring Rochester and Buffalo.

"There were never any national gangs like the Bloods and Crips in town," Kiesinger said. “With these national gangs filtering in now and having their networks spread here as well, I don’t think that Syracuse is much different from the larger cities like Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago.”

Like these three mega cities, Syracuse is home to a diverse immigrant community. But unlike these behemoth cities, Syracuse lost its glory as a large industrial center when companies like General Motors and Carrier started to move out in the 1980s, transforming the city into a college town with Syracuse University as its centripetal economic force.

As a result, the upper middle class white population left town for the suburbs, and the schools and cheap residential projects such as Brick City, where Davis grew up, became a battleground for drugs, money and territory among the minorities that were left behind.

The preface to Davis’s book, Free from Death Road, observes that the “majority of black kids found themselves in school systems and educational programs they couldn’t relate to ... unemployment and institutional racism were rampant in the workplace.”

“With no jobs and nothing for the youth to do, young men turned to streets and to drugs which led them to the gangs,” said Syracuse resident Anna Kelly, a cashier at a restaurant on Marshall Street. Kelly, 50, has been battling against drugs and gangs since her younger brother got involved with street gangs two decades ago.

Web of gangs grows

While the endemic poverty and the lack of jobs is a no-brainer when analyzing Syracuse’s symptoms, another issue is that the gangs are smaller and less organized, said Kiesinger.

“People may be breaking off from one gang and forming another and that makes it difficult to identify them,” Kiesinger said.

Syracuse Police Sgt. Tom Connellan, who heads the agency's gang violence task force, also sees shifting alliances as a tricky factor in organizing an effective crackdown.

“These kids grow up together in the projects and are usually friends who turn into bitter enemies so you can’t tell who’s who,” he said.

While the gangs are smaller, Kiesinger said that what makes the situation dire presently is the possibility that these gang members may have ties to the national gangs. As the web of gangs grows, some gang members who received some college education have begun to conduct complex operations that makes catching them more complicated, suggests Kiesinger.

"Statistically speaking, with the number of people involved in gangs and Syracuse being a college town predominantly, I don’t find it hard to believe that students here could possibly have affiliations with national gangs," he said.

Roles of drugs and family

But Davis views the situation through a completely different prism. He claims that the issue is more serious now because of new drugs, such as 'water' (embalming fluid), that kids today use. These drugs often lead to hallucinations and a loss of physical control. (New York was among the states that were hit worst by the bath salt epidemic earlier this year as well.)

Now that he is 53, Davis also sees the problem as a classic generational divide, claiming that unlike his gang, gangs today have no respect for elders, women or children, which he attributes to a disintegration of family structure.

Steve Papazides, a cook at a pizza joint and a Syracuse Westside resident for more than two decades, also blames flagging family structures as the main cause for the spike in gang activity.

"I know a guy who has six kids from six different women and they don't even get child support. When I ask him if he sees his kids, he says, ‘My kids don’t want to know me,'" Papazides said.

While Davis grew up in a single-parent household with six siblings, his mother held a stronghold in the house, he said.

“I would never talk back to my mom," Davis said. "I was a complete mama's boy. My mom never let me down. She was always there for me even during my court trials.”

The biggest problem apart from the usual generation gap is that these kids either don’t have a parent at home, or that the parent just doesn’t care, said Davis. In some cases, the parent also condones the drug selling and gang activity because the child brings home money.

A step forward

To break through these layers of complexity is difficult. Until the gang violence task forces and city rehabilitation programs recruit ex-convicts and former gang leaders, Davis doesn’t see things improving.

“If their mama can't talk to them, you certainly can't,” said Davis of law enforcement programs like Syracuse Truce, which focuses on enhanced enforcement and street outreach. “Without the involvement of people like us who have been there, you will not see any result,” he said. “I can bet that out of the $300,000 grant allotted to Syracuse Truce, $200,000 will go in official bureaucracy and before you know it, the money will run out.”

Instead of working with the authorities, who Davis says don’t want to give people like him a chance, he uses his autobiographies and his personal testimony of change in his workshops to guide the city’s struggling youth. And though his workshop and training program, Death Road Presentations, isn’t as sophisticated as Los Angeles’ Homeboy Industries, where former gang members are employed with the company’s bakery, café and retail store, Davis is satisfied that it’s a step in the right direction.

“You need people like me whose lifestyle these kids can identify with,” he said. “This way they can see ‘what made my man change’ and they find that in themselves to change too.”

Trayvon picture

The picture of Trayvon Martin paired with a story about gang violence is racist. Young black men in hoodies are too often assumed to be violent gang members. There was no evidence that Trayvon was a gang member. I wish you would have taken the time to find a more appropriate picture.

Experience is the best "TEACHER"

It's true unless you've been through it you don't know how it is,which inables anyone that's in it to become unresponsive to want ever thought or motion one that might want to help May input without knowledge of realization of being in a situation that somehow is so easy to get into and hard as he'll to get out of.

Hang all these criminals.

Hang all these criminals. They have destroyed this city. I wont even go downtown anymore.

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