Q: What’s the Best Way to Turn Around a Young Street Thug? A: Maybe with a Former Street Thug.
Vito Gray talks about the day he almost killed a man in a voice not much above a whisper. He’s usually more authoritative than this: From the Timberland boots he favors to his black, shaved head and broad, imposing physique, Vito announces his presence—or rather, his presence announces him—with every languid step he takes. This proclamation extends, naturally, to his voice. It’s normally deeper than most men’s, and paced by a cadence that’s never hurried, because it has never needed to be. For most of Vito’s life, people made sure to listen to what he had to say.
But now, as he sits in an idling car on a rainy Saturday afternoon, overlooking the grassy common area of the Mission Hill projects in Roxbury, and recalls the drug empire he once ran here, Vito’s voice goes soft and loses its luster, especially when he’s asked about Victor Woods. His eyes narrow at the mention. “Who told you about that?” he says, as if he’s been wounded. The Globe ran the briefest of news briefs on it in 1991. The paper said that Vito was only 21 when he stabbed Woods, then 30.
The words come painfully slow now. “Yeah,” he says. Woods was a “dealer-slash-user” but wasn’t dealing for Vito, he says. “He had actually stolen one of the stashes…he stole, so”—and here the words collapse into a nearly inaudible drone—”there’s a penalty that has to be paid for that.”
He goes on. “Because if we don’t straighten it out, then, you know, then once he go around telling people he done took the dope, look at what they can do.” By which he means, Look at what can be done to Vito’s Mission Hill projects. “So we let it be known that we not going to tolerate that. Not stealing from us no way.” (Woods couldn’t be reached for comment. A Boston Police Department spokeswoman says that Woods’s name is unfamiliar to cops who tracked the drug scene in the early ’90s. But, she stresses, that doesn’t mean Woods was unfamiliar with the drug game itself.)
Vito isn’t angry recalling any of this. His tone never rises and his eyes look only to the soggy common area beyond the driver’s-side window. He feels terrible about it all. Not just terrible for Victor Woods, who lived. Or for himself, who did 10 years in state prison. He feels bad for the Mission Hill projects. What happens here now, among the latest generation—Vito Gray, 39, helped cause that. “Them seeing me get money. Them seeing me doing things,” Vito says. “They like the lifestyle.”
Atonement takes many forms, though. For Vito it came from the church, but also from a statistic buried in a 2008 report from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The report said that as much as 60 percent of today’s crime in Boston is caused by one percent of the population. This revelation spurred the traditionally circumspect Boston Foundation to find a way to reach these one-percenters, many of whom are between the ages of 16 and 24. The result: a weeks-old outreach program of (legitimate) job training and (quite real) cautionary tales, staffed by men who know the streets because they are often of them. This is how Vito Gray became a Boston Foundation “street worker,” a member of the most revolutionary social-welfare outfit in the country.
The program is revolutionary not just for the means by which it attempts to succeed, but also for acknowledging the unintended consequences of the city’s prior success. The Boston Miracle of the 1990s did many things: organized the clergy, cops, and social services as never before; convicted gang leaders and drug lords like Vito to long sentences; and gave the city’s youths an 18-month—18-month—reprieve from a single murder, for which those involved with the Miracle received national funding and international fame. But the Boston Miracle also wiped out the hierarchies within the city’s street gangs. The kids who were left had no one to teach them the streets’ code of ethics: namely, when to shoot, and whom. More than a decade later, violence is once again on the rise, but the shootings and murders this time are often—if the word can be used in such a context—senseless, over personal beefs and misconstrued slights, not turf battles or mishandled drug deals, as was the case in Vito’s day. (“If it wasn’t about dollars, it didn’t make no sense,” he is fond of saying.) Street workers like Vito—men patrolling the streets they once ran—are providing a structure, a hierarchy of sorts, for today’s kids. It’s just that, this time, Vito and guys like him are teaching the kids while helping the other side of the law.