On March’s final evening, a stolen car made its fourth pass down a quiet Brooklyn block and slowed to a stop before a row of neat brick homes. A gunman braced in the sunroof, then opened fire on three cousins having dinner in a parked car.
At least eight shots slammed into the Toyota Camry on the roadside in East Flatbush, killing a 12-year-old honor-roll student named Kade Lewin. Jenna Ellis, 20, was critically wounded in the driver’s seat, but survived, and an 8-year-old girl in the back seat was uninjured.
Police said the gunman likely mistook Kade for someone else. That fatal error prompted Mayor Eric Adams to hold aloft, at a news conference four days later, the boy’s white Nike sneakers with blue swooshes, making their absent owner a symbol of the need to end shootings that have upended hard-won progress reducing killings in Black and Latino neighborhoods.
As whiter, more affluent areas rebound from the pandemic’s ravages, renewed gun violence is complicating the recovery of vulnerable places like East Flatbush, a middle-class Black enclave with deep ties to the Caribbean.
“You just felt like everything was getting better,” said Louis Straker Jr., pastor of Reflections Church on Utica Avenue and a native of the neighborhood. “During the pandemic, all hell broke loose.”
East Flatbush had made long strides since the city’s most dangerous era. The neighborhood routinely saw 50 or more killings a year during the 1990s, when the city recorded more than 2,000 annual murders. When crime fell to its lowest point since the 1950s in the years before the pandemic, East Flatbush remained one of the deadliest areas. Then, in 2018, murders fell to only six from 17 the year before, according to police statistics for the 67th Precinct, which serves the neighborhood.
The pandemic brought a sobering reversal. Murders last year reached their highest level in a decade, and at least 103 people have been killed so far this year. As of last week, the 67th Precinct was leading the city with seven murders so far this year, up from two over the same period in 2021.
“There’s no doubt that we took a step back,” said Deputy Inspector Gaby Celiba, the 67th Precinct commander since January 2021. He said he sees reason to be optimistic as officers make more gun arrests: “We’re going to get it where we need it to be.”
East Flatbush became predominantly Black in the 1960s as real-estate agents used the fear of integration to drive out Italian and Jewish residents and replaced them with Afro-Caribbeans and African Americans who, with few desirable options, snapped up its one- and two-family homes at inflated prices. Today, major corridors like Church Avenue are lined with beauty supply shops, small hair and nail salons, Pentecostal and Adventist churches with vibrant signs and aromatic restaurants serving dishes like stew chicken, oxtails and callaloo.
Violence in East Flatbush was long contained among people involved in gangs, entangled in the drug trade and in hot spots in the neighborhood’s periphery. Now, police say that criminals have become more brazen.
Patricia Black, 53, has raised a family and run a salon in her house on East 56th Street since the 1990s, and never worried about harm coming to either. Then Kade was killed in front of her home. Stray bullets flew through her salon, located in her basement, shattering a mirror and lodging in the wall.
“I would leave my door open,” Ms. Black said. “Now, I don’t know what it’s becoming.”
Fahd Muthana, who owns and manages M&M Grocery, a deli on Nostrand Avenue, said the violence around East Flatbush today reminded him of the conditions in 1990 when he immigrated to the city from Yemen. Last November, his 18-year-old son, Zayid, was shot in the head and critically wounded while trying to stop two masked thieves from leaving the store.
Zayid had surgery to remove the bullet and after a period of recovery returned to school part-time, Mr. Muthana said, but has to take blood thinners to reduce the risk of clotting and give up his dream of playing football in college.
Mr. Muthana said the police have identified Zayid’s shooter from the store’s security camera footage and from a debit card that the gunman dropped during the attack, but that they needed more evidence to make an arrest. Deputy Inspector Celiba declined to discuss the investigation.
Mr. Muthana, who lives in Sheepshead Bay, said he would feel safer with more police around East Flatbush. “We want more safety, because it’s crazy outside,” he said.
Despite the violence, many residents said they still feel safe. A block and a half from the deli, Ceazer Stephens and Maine Gray chatted on a recent weekday evening next to a playground at the edge of Flatbush Gardens.
The rent-stabilized complex of courtyard apartment buildings, originally called Vanderveer Estates, was once notorious for drugs and violence. Residents called the intersection of Foster and Nostrand avenues “the front page,” because it was the site of murders that generated sensational headlines.
“I feel safe here, because this is my community,” Mr. Stephens, 30, originally from Trinidad, said. “The most that may happen is some type of unfortunate soul lost to drugs is going to ask you for a dollar. That’s about it. But nobody’s going to bother you or try to rob you. That doesn’t happen like that any more.”
Still, as violence rose throughout the pandemic, so did calls to address it. Mr. Adams was elected on a promise to restore public safety and has since revived police tactics that had fallen out of favor during the era of low crime. State lawmakers rewrote a slate of changes to the criminal-justice system passed in 2019 with the aim of reducing mass incarceration after critics blamed them for the rise in violence.
Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate and a former councilman for East Flatbush, said that he supports some of the mayor’s proposals, like a plan to make all agencies responsible for addressing gun crime.
But he said that the city does not need to return to policies and practices abused under previous mayors. New York, he said, pushed crime down before the pandemic in part by relying on community anti-violence workers and less aggressive, more focused police work.
“What’s most frustrating is seeing the gains that we’ve made slowly start going backwards,” Mr. Williams said. Instead of addressing social inequities that fuel gun violence, he added, “we’re going back to models that are primarily focused on law enforcement and incarceration.”
Yul Hicks, the chief operating officer of Elite Learners, an enrichment organization that works with young people in central Brooklyn, said that the city needs to increase outreach and support for young people who may be susceptible to gangs and violence.
“People at large may think that the community tolerates it or has accepted it as part of the culture — no, it’s hurtful to all of us,” he said. “But some of these young guys are not being reached.”
Last week, at the intersection of East 56th Street and Linden Boulevard, where Kade was killed, a Police Department van parked across from a makeshift memorial on the sidewalk. A balloon tied to a tree branch carried a simple apology: “I’m sorry.”
Kade was a student at K763 Brooklyn Science and Engineering Academy, four blocks from where he was killed. Councilwoman Farah Louis, whose district includes part of East Flatbush, visited the school after Kade’s death and talked to classmates, who described him as a deeply compassionate child who loved to play football and basketball.
David and Jenell Walcott picked up their son, David Jr., from the school the Monday after Kade died and found the boy sullen. He told them that he had been building a friendship with Kade over their mutual interest in architecture and video games like Fortnite and Minecraft.
“He said he’s nervous and anything can happen now,” Mr. Walcott said. “To have that realization at such a young age is heartbreaking. I think a little piece of his childhood left.”
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.