Q: What’s the Best Way to Turn Around a Young Street Thug? A: Maybe with a Former Street Thug.
To understand the miracle, you must first understand why the city needed one. And to understand that, you need to know a bit more about Boston’s gang culture.
We’ve never had well-organized gangs, at least not on the level of the Bloods, Crips, and Latin Kings—national syndicates with a clear structure of power. Those gangs have tried to recruit here, but they’ve had only limited success. Boston remains a provincial town. It’s so provincial, in fact, that gangs here are organized not by city, or region, or even by neighborhood, but by street: Intervale in Roxbury; Corbet in Dorchester. At their most inclusive, gangs align themselves around the projects in which their members grew up: Mission Hill in Roxbury; Academy on the border of J.P. and Roxbury. Theories abound for this tribalism, but the best explanation may be that Boston is a compact city—48 square miles—with most of the violent crime occurring in a roughly 1½-mile radius that stretches from parts of the South End to parts of Mattapan and has as its main thoroughfare Blue Hill Avenue. In short, there’s not much ground for anyone to claim, so you claim what you can, even if it’s only the street you live on.
There was gang activity before the 1980s, but gangs in Boston didn’t really organize themselves until crack hit the streets. Then it was hell with the lid off. Turf wars, drug-fueled shootings—by 1990, the murder rate had hit an all-time high in Boston, 152 homicides. Paul Evans, who would later become the city’s police commissioner during the Miracle, wondered aloud, in his John Lindsay moment, if the city would remain livable.
Vito Gray knew those years well. He grew up in Mission Hill in the late 1970s and early 1980s, where his father dealt drugs for a living. His older brother and sister stayed away from the game, but Vito didn’t. He was in and out of the state’s Department of Youth Services from age 13 on for dealing. At first it was weed; by the end of the 1980s, as he became a man, it was heroin, crack, whatever the marketplace wanted. Only by then he wasn’t dealing much himself. He was “one of the bosses,” he says. He oversaw supply. He gauged demand. He collected the money. He says he didn’t order hits, but Robert Lewis Jr., who knew Vito then, says he was feared on the streets. “He was an asshole,” Lewis says. For the attempted murder of Victor Woods, Vito served six years in prison, beginning in 1991.
Lewis created a street-worker program while working in the mayor’s office a year earlier, in response to the record-high murder rate. Forty mostly minority men and women tried to reach gang members wherever they might be and convince them to stop, or at least offer them reasons to. The program wasn’t as focused—in recruitment, training, or execution—as today’s effort. But it was a step up from the existing neighborhood watch groups, and can be considered among the first initiatives of the Boston Miracle.
It is, alas, tough to track the chronology of that thing. So many people and ideas came together during the Miracle, melding into a unified front of We’re Not Going to Take This Anymore, that it’s hard to say this program led to that reduction in crime. But it’s worth recalling a few key moments.
In May 1992, Mattapan’s Morning Star Baptist Church held a funeral service for Robert Odom, who had been killed by members of a neighboring gang. Hooded affiliates from another gang, the Vamp Hill Kings, burst through the doors mid-service and opened fire on the mourners, stabbing one teen nine times. Out of that horrific day came the famed Ten Point Coalition, a grassroots effort led by prominent black clergymen to, among other things, convince gang members to find legitimate work.
At the same time, Boston law enforcement was collaborating. First with Operation Night Light, in which parole officers visited parolees at night, in their homes, to ensure no court-imposed curfew was broken. And next with Operation Ceasefire, in which cops, clergy, lawyers, and academics devised a plan that threatened gang leaders from targeted areas—the 1990s’ one-percenters—with long federal sentences for any mishap. Freddie Cardoza became the unfortunate poster child of Operation Ceasefire. A nasty gang leader, he was arrested in 1995 for possessing a single bullet, which he flipped in the air to taunt some nearby cops. Many prior federal convictions allowed the U.S. Attorney’s Office to prosecute with impunity. Cardoza got 19 years in a Kansas federal prison essentially for flipping that bullet, a message not lost on other gang heads.
This concerted effort by Boston’s civic leaders to oust its criminal leaders had a profound effect on the city. By 1999, the murder rate hit a historic low: 31 homicides. Nationally, the 1990s saw a dip in crime, but Boston’s decrease was six times the national average. During an 18-month stretch between 1996 and 1998, no child under 18 was killed in Boston. That’s still seen by law enforcement officials as miraculous.