In Harlem, When An After-school Fight Involved a Gun and Me

My suburban Canadian heart is still slightly racing just after my first encounter with a gun today.

Since moving to Harlem in August, I thought I’ve seen or heard it all, from a nasty car accident to a police takedown that involved 10-15 squad cars to a drunk woman who pulled her pants down to have sex in the alley across my brownstone. (She didn’t because people walked by.) I’ve witnessed many amusing moments from the window of my third-floor room.

But today I actually became part of the scene when a street fight involving a group of teenage boys interrupted what had otherwise been a beautiful, warm March afternoon for the parents and children who ran down 123rd Street screaming out of fear.

Normally, if you walk on 123rd St., near Amsterdam, in the evening on a weekday, you will see groups of children heading home from school. Some wear the khaki pants and blue sweaters that their charter school uses as a uniform. When it’s warm outside like today, some children and their parents go to the playground and basketball courts in Morningside Park. Almost always, I hear laughter and kids chatting excitedly about whatever interesting event is occurring in their lives. It could be any neighbourhood in New York City.

But I realized today that part of the childhood experience for some students living in Harlem will include memories of guns and police cars.

Today, as I headed after spending the day in a nearby cafe, a group of girls walked a few feet ahead of me, passing the Dominican frio frio cart that usually stands outside the 123rd St. Harlem school building on warm days. Suddenly, the girls started to yell. They first ran east toward Morningside Drive but quickly turned around and ran screaming past me. Everyone started running away. Confused, I looked across the street and saw a mother pushing a stroller frantically yelling for her child to follow her.

I didn’t know what was happening. I thought it was some sort of school game, maybe a big hide-and-go-seek event until I saw how scared everyone looked. Then I heard an elderly woman rush past me muttering something about teenagers, guns, and how someone was going to get hurt.

Two construction workers peered outside from an open door, so I stood with them, hoping they’d let me inside if shots were fired. In middle of street were a group of teenage boys. Whatever the case, someone thought they saw a gun and it caused widespread panic for everyone including myself.

The situation cooled down after a few minutes. A few police cars cruised by after the boys left. You can see the police station from the school building.

No one I spoke to wanted to give their names. One school construction worker, who’s from Queens, said that it was the second time he saw this happen in front of the school building, where at least three schools are based.  He’s been working there for three months. The second construction worker said he wasn’t shocked. Guns are a problem in the city, he said.

The mothers I spoke to said that they didn’t realize what happened. One 31-year-old mother said she lived across Morningside Park for most of her life and doesn’t feel like safety is a problem.

That may be the case. Most days, I feel completely safe walking home in Harlem. I live in an area that has been gentrified but still rough around the edges. There have been moments where I felt unsafe, including a time some guy grabbed my arm at the 125th D subway station because he thought it was the best way to get my attention.

But Harlem is a great neighborhood. It’s full of history and culture. I’ve met many wonderful people here. Yet as an education reporter, it was surreal to understand that for some Harlem children, the scariest moments in their life will include a situation like today, when they run down the street terrified.

Looking back, while I didn’t grow up in the safest neighborhood, I think the scariest moment for me was thinking I was going to receive a bad grade or feeling worried that my teacher was going to yell at me for handing in a late assignment. I never felt scared to go to school.

I wonder what these children will be thinking about today. I wonder if they’ve experienced this before. I wonder if test scores even matter when part of the learning environment for these Harlem children includes knowing how to run away from a fight that involves guns.

It’s heartbreaking when the reason a child may not want to go to school is because she feels unsafe.


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