By Howie Mansfield
Sun Staff Writer
In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied together. They entered the same mysterious gateway of human birth, into the same adventure of mortal life.The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
— Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967
As a Christian, one is called to serve the poor and disenfranchised. Whether in suburban sprawl, the inner city or the rural countryside, one must give a voice to those without a voice, and bring hope to the hopeless. The southside of Syracuse has become a breeding ground for drug use and distribution, gang activity, rape and other acts of violence against residents. The average person in that community struggles daily with fear, anxiety and frustration.
The following are stories of people raising their children, working and building community amid poverty and despair.
Teichera Price’s story
Teichera Price is the mother of three children. Her husband, Dennis Price, Sr. and their children, Asif, Dennis, Jr., and Shanita, live close to violence each day. Fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time keeps them off the streets and in their home.
“I don’t get out a lot. But I do read the paper and watch the news. I talk to people and I listen. Some of the things I hear are about the same for everyone. I tell my son [Asif] not to be on the street after sundown. I can’t tell my daughter [Shanita] what do to, because she’s 20, but I tell her I’m not going to be out walking around. I’m not out unless I have to,” Price said. “Since we have an inoperative vehicle, I have to walk to work when it’s pretty dark. I deal with people by keeping to myself.”
Price talked about her walk to work. “I try to convey a sense of direction and purpose when I walk — not drifting aimlessly. When I go, I do it because I have a mission. I don’t look for people to get in the way of that mission. I mind my business and hopefully others will mind their business,” Price said. “I walk fast. I stay alert. I’m not looking to socialize or to make friends. If anyone asks me for something, I say, ‘No thank you’,” she explained.
Price does believe in the power of prayer. She said God is with her family, even through the tough times. She hopes her son Asif will find male role models outside the home.
Many families fight the continual battle of keeping up with a changing society.
“It’s very difficult to keep a piece of property up to standard. Leaking roofs, falling stucco or anything else that needs repair — people in the lower income brackets in the urban neighborhoods don’t have the money to do the things they would like to do,” Price said. “People always feel they have to keep up. Credit problems and bills over our heads, many people live beyond their means. Society dictates what has to happen. You have to have this and that, and you have to do this and that. Pretty soon, you are in the hole.”
While in that hole of despair, God reaches out to everyone, she said.
“I had an epiphany. I was talking to my parents in California and they told me how much they love me and that I still have their support. God was hearing my prayers. I have the support of my co-workers and supervisors at work. That’s all the sign of answered prayers,” Price said. “It’s good to know when things could only get worse, God still answers prayers. God will see us through.”
However, Price said the neighborhood needs help. And she wonders when help will come.
“I do believe it’s going to have to get worse before it gets better,” she said. “The devil is busy here.”
Jeannette Edwards-Griffin’s story
Jeannette Edwards-Griffin is a mother and grandmother trying to give her family strong Catholic values. She works for Child Protective Services and knows that children need help in schools and in their own homes.
Griffin remembers a time when everybody went to church and were given religious education. Over the years, she said, people fall away from the church, but they all seem to come back.
“One day, I realized that I needed to get back to church. I was a certain age when I wanted to bring my own family because they needed that,” Griffin said. “I go to Mass at the Brady Faith Center, because it gives us comfort. We talk more with each other. Father John [Schopfer] celebrates Mass not at us, but with us.”
The schools in the city are losing control of the students, she said. A relative of Griffin told her about incidents at Hughes Magnet School in Syracuse where “kids have taken over the school.” Students are making inappropriate gestures to teachers and the principal, Griffin said. She doesn’t think this is a good learning environment. She explained that schools need to make psychologists available for students so problems can be discovered and solved before they get even worse.
“This is a scary neighborhood. I’m not going to tell you that it isn’t. If I go to the store after 9 p.m., I know what route to take. I’m not going to get caught in a drive-by [shooting],” Griffin said. “Look at my car. A guy rolled over my car while shooting somebody! That’s the kind of stuff we see.”
Even in the good families, Griffin said, there are kids who feel they don’t want to be a part of them.
“I know it’s partly their upbringing — who they have as mothers. Kids in gangs are hopeless. They might have come from good homes, but they choose not to live in them,” she said.
Griffin talked about situations she has faced in the city that illuminate the problems.
“When I go up to the northside of the city, it’s just as horrible. When I go to pick up my daughter, I have to sit in my car and leave my car running with the lights on and windows and doors locked. People get jacked all the time,” she said. “Kids grow up with their mothers working two jobs and they are both part-time. The mother makes a decision, ‘Do I pay the rent, get food, or pay NiMo?’ There are kids with no coats in the winter. And the young boys are watching their mother and they do something about it. If they steal or sell drugs and bring their mothers $200, why would she not take it? We wonder why kids act this way.”
Griffin sees boys between the ages of 10 and 12 on the streets near her home on Hudson Street selling cocaine. She has experienced gang activity close to home. “I remember walking my granddaughter to daycare. We took a shortcut through a vacant lot and there was a group there putting their guns in their coats,” she said. “It’s as though I’m infringing on their space.” Akiva Titus-Hadley, Griffin’s daughter, was exposed to violence at a young age.
“It’s hard to be out here. It’s all about the money. It’s fast everything — fast cars, fast women, and fast money. There is so much poverty here. Poverty and hunger beget crime. People who don’t have [the things they want] will get trouble by need. The young people are angry. The anger I see is unbelievable. I’ve been in people’s houses where there is feces on the floor. They have no hot meal,” Titus-Hadley said. “I’m concerned because I have small children. I’m concerned for my son at 5 years old. I’m worried if I’m going to lose him to the streets. There was a bad set of kids here this summer. And I thought that maybe since my kids are good, they might be a good influence on them. But they picked up all the negative.”
Police presence in the neighborhood has been better, Griffin and Titus-Hadley said, but there are still many issues that are unresolved.
“The police know where they [gangs and drug sellers] are and where they hang out. But lately, the new police chief [Dennis Duval] has been pushing them back. The corners are not as full. You see police cars following them now,” Griffin said.
Titus-Hadley is concerned for her safety when going out to socialize with friends.
“Someone was shot in front of me,” Titus-Hadley explained. “I’ve seen two people get shot in front of me, but I still go out. I only go to the places with security. Everything was fine until the shooters came in. I don’t even think they were patted down.”
Griffin said parents need to be role models for their kids.
“Parents don’t take interest in their kids — what they are doing and who they associate with. Places around here are supposed to be safe, but they aren’t. People get caught up in the society, they get swept up,” Griffin said. “We need to stick our nose in their business.”
There is hope, she said, if we stop the cycle of poverty and give strong faith values to our children. Titus-Hadley said when prayer was taken out of school, the neighborhood took a turn for the worse.
“They have no disciple in their day. They used to have something to believe in,” Titus-Hadley said. “Now, they have nothing to believe in.”
But through all of the violence surrounding them, Griffin sees her grandchildren raised in the faith. She will have a number of them make their first communion this year. The hope of the future lives in them, she said.
John Thomas’ story
John Thomas, a retired resident in Syracuse and a member of Syracuse United Neighbors, said he moved from the suburbs back to the city to be in a more family-friendly environment.
“I wanted to be in family-oriented neighborhood where everyone looks after each other. We still do that, when one of us is away,” Thomas said. “Homeowners are trying to bring the neighborhood back to what is was in the 60’s and 70’s.”
Thomas said former Syracuse Mayor Lee Alexander, during the 1970s, offered programs for people to keep their neighborhoods strong. Today, it appears as if they just want to let the neighborhoods go downhill or die all together.
“They want to divide the neighborhoods. Many of the houses are owned by slum lords, people down state or outside of New York State,” Thomas said. “They want to put a sewage treatment plant down here. They think they can just dump it in an area because it’s declining. But there has been no talk of bringing the neighborhoods back.”
Thomas said the city administration wants to place the treatment plant on the southside with no consideration to how it will look in the community.
“The city government just decided to put this in your own backyard and you have no say-so. You pay taxes, so why don’t I have any say? This treatment plant is going to be the size of the Carrier Dome. There will be sewage and chlorine fumes in the air, which will affect our breathing,” he said. “What about beautifying the area? They won’t do it. It can’t be done. If they put this treatment plant in, the value of the homes will keep going down and you will have no place to go.”
Thomas talked about what the City of Syracuse used to look like before all of the building and development started by urban renewal in the 1960s. He said the city could look beautiful again, if only the money were available. He feels city officials and lawmakers have spent too much time focusing on the DestinyUSA mall expansion project in Syracuse rather than helping declining neighborhoods.
“They could fix up all of the streets, fix the sidewalks, do some landscaping. They could give low interest loans to people to help them fix their homes. But they don’t do that stuff anymore in this neighborhood,” Thomas said. “This area could look like DeWitt, Westvale or Fairmont. It just needs some tender loving care.”
Jacqueline Rowser’s story
Jacqueline Rowser is a single mother of seven children. She works as coordinator of the Brady Faith Center, bringing her children up with a Catholic school education. There was a time growing up, she said, when the church was “the backbone of the community.” But the Christian lifestyle is not accepted in the midst of all the violence.
“In raising my kids, there is a lot of things I don’t let my kids do. Standards have to be set. We have to go back to church. If you don’t stand for Christ, you will fall for anything,” Rowser said. “People are not concerned about their souls.”
Rowser said the Brady Faith Center offers children a place to grow in their love for Jesus.
“These kids who get in trouble can stop the destruction and follow Jesus. I have seven kids at home and Jesus is what gets me through. I want to instill those faith qualities in my children so they can teach others about Christ,” Rowser said.
Shootings are a part of everyday life, Rowser said, but she said early intervention by police could prevent them from happening in the first place.
“Police talk about some place being known as a drug house and they know young people are selling drugs, but they do nothing. They need to be involved before stuff happens, then the situation can be handled before violence occurs. Police need to get more involved with the kids — make them feel more relaxed and safe around them. We need positive role modes and if police officers are down here talking to them, listening to them, they will be more respectful to the law.”
Male role models are desperately needed in the neighborhoods, she said.
“A lot of households have no male role models in them. Fortunately, some kids have grandfathers or uncles that they get mentoring from. Usually it’s just the mother. We can only be mothers. We can’t be dads,” Rowser said. “Male role models are a foundation for a child to build a relationship with Jesus.”
Rowser hopes the mayor and police will build strong relationships with citizens and youth and re-build the community. Until then, she just holds her children tight and tries to give them the best she can.
“God’s grace is sufficient,” she said. “He supplies all my needs.”
“Oasis of Hope and Peace”
Father John Schopfer knows each of the stories well. As the director of the Brady Faith Center, Father Schopfer meets people like Thomas, Griffin, Price and Rowser each day. He knows that kids see too much violence.
“When I was a kid, you would be concerned about who was winning the World Series, not figuring out why the latest shooting happened,” Father Schopfer said. “Kids see too much and it’s not on television. It’s reality. When they see Father Brady’s picture on the wall and they ask me where he is and I tell them he died, they ask, ‘Who shot him?’”
The hope for the future comes through places like the Brady Father Center.
“The Brady Faith Center offers an oasis of hope and peace. We celebrate Mass, which is the greatest sign of hope. We need that goodness each week,” Father Schopfer said.