Chilling on the corner: KingJamell Modest.
Life at a Time
Common Council man Corey Ellis sees a powerful future leader
in King Jamell Modest, and tries to make sure that the teenager
is not consumed by life on the streets
Photos By Chris Shields
gonna kill you! I’m gonna kill your ass!” someone shouts on
the corner of Second and Quail streets in Albany on a Wednesday
afternoon in September. Bottles are smashed, chairs flung,
knives drawn, fists thrown; people are screaming. Someone
yells, “Gun!” and a woman lets out a high-pitched shriek.
A number of teens run from the boiling conflict, others run
toward it. Neighbors hang out of their windows with cell phones
in hand, dialing 911.
The police aren’t here. And they won’t be for at least another
Common Councilman Corey Ellis is shouting: “King, I’m not
gonna lose you! King, I’m not gonna lose you! Get in the car,
King,” as he pulls a young man who looks perhaps 18 away from
the roiling storm of violence that now involves around 20
young teens and parents.
Ellis’ arms wrap around KingJamell Modest as he pulls the
young man by the waist, Ellis’ suit jacket flailing, his Blackberry
tossed out of his pocket and into the air as King struggles
forward, drawn towards the escalating brawl.
It all happened so quickly.
Modest had been in the midst of interviewing local teens about
their home lives. Ellis’ protégé, Modest is involved in the
councilman’s Save Our Neighborhood program, which is designed
to boost community spirit and focus the energies of Third
Ward residents on neighborhood-improvement projects. Ellis
also is employed by the Trinity Institution, where he is in
charge of community outreach. Once a successful New York attorney,
Ellis has returned to his hometown and dedicated himself to
reuniting and repairing his despairing neighborhood.
Modest, who spent months last year in juvenile detention for
unspecified drug charges, has gone through training to be
a peer mentor at the Arbor Hill Community Center, is well-read,
has a commanding voice, and quotes statistics as if he were
reading out of an almanac. Modest is a born leader, and Ellis
Modest rests his head some nights at his mother’s place on
Colonie Street and some nights at his sister’s in downtown
Albany, but he always finds his way back to Second and Quail
to hang out with his friends.
When Modest walks down the street in West Hill, there isn’t
one person who doesn’t greet him by name. “Hey, King,” says
a man in a backward Yankees cap. “What’s poppin’, King?” demands
a young kid with an attitude bigger than his body, as he puts
out his fist for Modest to pound.
King. That’s right, you look good. You know you can’t handle
this!” shout a gaggle of girls sitting on a stoop as Modest
strides past. Modest doesn’t walk anywhere casually; he accelerates
forward with purpose, leaving anyone who isn’t quick enough
If Modest told you he was only 15 (and he is), you wouldn’t
believe him. If he mentioned to you that he has been shot
twice, and in the same sentence mentioned a statistic about
young residents of Arbor Hill eating only one meal a day,
you might cringe and wonder how such a well-spoken, bright-eyed
young man could find himself in such trouble. But King can
explain it. It is all too easy.
of the hill: Modest and friends.
commands his peers with a warm but firm voice that indicates
knowledge and wisdom beyond his years.
live with both of your parents?” Modest asks a young girl
who walks by with a group of friends.
just my mom,” she replies. Similar answers come steadily from
the rest of the group. One-parent, multiple siblings.
Ellis has tasked Modest with writing a list of demands from
teens in the area who hang out day after day on the stoops
around Second and Quail. Most of them, in their early teens,
sit on the steps, too young to work, too old for the community
centers, their houses too crowded to go back to after school.
overpopulation of our houses has forced us onto the street.
And it has forced us to live in some of the worst sanitary
conditions imaginable. There are a lot of destructive social
diseases destroying the moral fiber of our community,” King
explains to the group of young teens.
He begins surveying again. “How many people live in your apartment?”
responds one teen.
Modest is suddenly distracted; he excuses himself. “I’ll be
nods Ellis, not noticing where King is heading.
A teenage girl King has just interviewed knows where he is
heading, though. Across the street, a group of young men toss
their bikes away and start shoving each other and shouting
don’t get in something you don’t got nothing to do with! King!
King! Don’t get in there!” the girl pleads at the top of her
lungs. “You ain’t got nothing to do with none of that! I’m
telling you the truth! Don’t get in that, King! No, uh uh!
No!” she pleads.
And then the voices spark up: challenges, threats, the hyena
shrill of onlookers jeering tussling friends. Ellis spares
no time grabbing the young men he can reach, pulling them
away from the harm that might be done to them, or that they
might do to others.
wanna go back? You wanna go back?” Ellis demands of a teen
who calls himself Pistol.
Pistol mumbles something indecipherable, head down, driven
you’re not!” responds Ellis. “I don’t want you to go back,
brother.” He pushes the teen into his Lexus. “King! Get in
the car! Get in the car! King, no you’re not! King! You wanna
go back to jail? Get in the car, King!”
King later explains that the argument started when one friend
shot another in the face with a paintball gun. “This wasn’t
no uptown-downtown thing,” King states adamantly, just friends
ain’t the cops here?” ask a number of teens standing with
Ellis away from the still-boiling violence. “Didn’t anyone
call?” asks Ellis, who only minutes ago was pulling kids out
one by one. He realizes his phone is missing.
Down the street, workers at a local day-care center yell at
the mass of fighting kids and demand to know why the police
haven’t yet responded. “I called them five times, and they
still aren’t here!” says a woman who won’t give her name because
“I don’t want my windows smashed.” She insists something like
this happens almost daily after school on the corner of Second
Shouting erupts again, followed by a spine-tingling scream.
A teen in a hoodie swings an oversized plastic Big Wheel at
A collective gasp silences the crowd.
A teen falls to the ground. His head hits concrete. He’s just
been clubbed in the skull with the metal piece of a chair.
The wind blows up some dust as the crowd slowly moves in closer,
toward the fallen teen. Around them, the deteriorated buildings
are scrawled with graffiti, the stoops filled with young children
in diapers. Mothers poke their heads out of half-cracked doors
as the neighborhood creaks and sways in a hushed silence.
And then she screams.
the fuck? Look at what happens out here! No one cares! No
one cares!” shrieks the young woman, who later identifies
herself as the cousin of the fallen teen. She wanders alone
away from the violence.
The teens involved in the brawl look around wide-eyed, shocked.
The young man is still twitching on the ground. They look
like they want help, like maybe they realize things have gone
Ellis pauses for a moment catching his breath.
is what we deal with every day,” he says. “This is what I
physically have to do. I have to pull them out. Where are
the parents? The more you get to know them, the more you find
out who they are. And King is a leader, and that is why I
am pulling him out, slowly but surely.”
As if on cue, Modest and another teen approach Ellis. The
anonymous teen says, “Nigga be here lying dead or some shit,
nigga having a seizure,” and points towards the chaos.
Modest points to the police cars that have finally arrived.
“Look, Corey, they don’t do nothing! They want this shit to
happen, they don’t even hop out, they want this shit to happen,
they ain’t doing nothing!”
The police cars arrive, and they arrive en force. Around 16
gather on the street—no ambulance.
The injured young man remains convulsing. People are still
devil don’t care!”
of crackers don’t want to help.”
just leave the victims out on the street for us to see,” says
one girl, who wants to remain anonymous. “They want to scare
Spend a few hours on the street here, and it’s clear that
police in this part of West Hill don’t interact with residents
in the same manner as they do in Center Square, or Pine Hills,
Near Second and Quail, police cars stalk pensively behind
groups of teens, with officers asking questions or barking
orders out the windows, using gang words; then they accelerate
excessively, leaving clouds of smoke in their wake. They park
on sidewalks, idle three cruisers side by side in a street,
blocking traffic, or they brake suddenly at four-way intersections,
clogging traffic while they eye groups of teens. Officers
tend not to get out of their vehicles. They drive their cruisers
over grass onto basketball courts to tell teens to get out
of the park, to stop playing, to ask, “What are you doing
here?” Not that King has never been in trouble before or never
will be again, but still, to him the answer is obvious. “We
just playing basketball!”
know what they call this area of Arbor Hill?” asks King. “They
call it ‘the slums.’ They call it a run-down neighborhood.
The slums—everybody calls it that. There was this police officer
guy and he asks us, ‘You guys like the slums, don’t you?’
That’s just how they talk to us.”
And while some of the actions of the police may well be justified,
it does not make the teens feel welcome in their own neighborhood.
I was a kid, the cops walked the streets. The officer in my
neighborhood knew who my mother was, he knew my family,” says
Ellis. “Now I don’t even see these guys get out of their cars.
If Police Chief [James] Tuffey thinks it is too dangerous
for them to walk our neighborhoods, we would like them to
tell us that.”
The police do get out of their cars today. Finally, they check
on the teen who was convulsing, help him to his feet; they
speak to neighbors, but they obviously avoid the throngs of
teens who are gathered at the scene. “They will tell you they
don’t talk to them because the kids don’t want to snitch,”
says Ellis. But a few of the teens gathered around Ellis insist
they would speak about the incident if asked.
No officer approaches the group of teens gathered around King.
They ignore Ellis. The only sign that anyone notices them
is when an SUV full of detectives slows down on its way past,
its tinted windows rolled down so that a detective wearing
shades can take pictures of Modest, Ellis and the gathered
They are under surveillance, and this is how the kids in this
neighborhood learn to see the police: as hostile surveyors,
Despite the negatives Modest faces daily in his neighborhood,
he says he has been inspired by Ellis and his Save Our Neighborhood
initiative, and he has taken the message to his friends, who
have helped him formulate demands.
by one: Albany Common Councilman Corey Ellis.
wants people to start seeing the positives. He wants the media
to take a look into his neighborhood and see the reality,
notice what needs fixing, and see that the community is strong
and ready to make changes.
Modest wants someone to listen. And Ellis is doing that.
The teens’ demands are as such: They want money or the ability
to make it. Their parents are already struggling to survive
as it is, so the teens need help getting jobs and supporting
They want respect from the police.
They want a place to go so that they don’t have to be on the
street after school every evening. Some place with a PlayStation
and maybe something to eat.
these desires might seem basic to kids from the suburbs, the
kids from Arbor Hill and West Hill feel excluded, unwelcome
and cut off from the things and places that should provide
them with some sanctuary.
do they have to go for jobs?” asks Ellis. “The mall? Take
a survey of the mall and see how many African-Americans work
even get in there any more, ’cause we aren’t 18,” chimes in
The teens also find themselves being turned away from some
local community centers and feeding sites, told they look
too old, or that they might “cause trouble.”
Even school, the very structure that is supposed to guide
these teens into adulthood, feels tenuous to them. Things
are so tense in Albany High that one screw-up finds them placed
into alternative programs or even faced with expulsion.
Ricardo Caldwell, one of Modest’s friends, says he was nearly
expelled from school for the first incident of violence he
was ever involved in. “He got in a fight yesterday,” says
Ellis. “A kid jumps him, he fights back.”
my fourth year in high school,” chimes in Caldwell. “And I
was never in trouble for anything. I’m in 12th grade, and
they are ready to kick me out.”
never even looked into anything,” adds Modest, “and they just
automatically assume he’s a bad apple and say, ‘Let’s get
him out of the school.’ We are the ones they gave up on. The
ones society already gave up on. And they have given up on
a lot of people we know and they were ready to give up on
Ellis explains that because Caldwell got into a fight with
a kid from downtown, the school was anxious to make sure that
any feud was preempted and therefore Caldwell was going to
be expelled. “Once they get in a fight uptown-downtown, that
is it,” says Ellis.
But Caldwell fought his expulsion and is back in Albany High.
Ellis says it is just another way these kids feel abandoned
The day after the neighborhood brawl, Modest, dressed in a
hoodie and carrying a backpack, approaches a group of young
women on a Second Street stoop. He sorts through a backpack
full of loose pages of homework until he finds a folder that
contains the list of demands he has drawn up. Attached to
it is a petition. There are about 10 signatures on it; teens
from ages 15 to 17 have signed their names and written their
ages. The incident from the previous day still has some teens
talking, but Modest is interested in moving forward, talking
about positive changes he hopes he can make with Ellis. “What
you guys want to see change?” he asks the girls.
you don’t want to change nothing? You like the way everything
is?” King asks, wide-eyed. The girls giggle. “No way! I want
a job. I want a place to hang out,” says one girl. The girls
prod each other, but no one has many ideas. Quickly, they
are back to chatting and giggling. Modest is distracted again
and walks down the street to talk to a friend.
Ellis met Modest about a year ago. He got a call from Modest’s
aunt. “She said, ‘I hear you help young men.’ I told her that
I do,” recalls Ellis. Ellis then met Modest and talked to
him like he was a real person, not some street kid, a criminal,
or a pariah unworthy of his attention. After that, Ellis brought
Modest to a peer-mentoring program at the Arbor Hill Community
Center. That is when Ellis says he realized Modest’s ability
to influence his peers.
gotta just pull them out one by one,” says Ellis.
But Ellis realizes despite the fact that he grabs Modest off
the street whenever he can, even though he is willing to go
out of his way to find him and give him something to do other
than hang on the street, trouble is still waiting.
is that one day that I am not there. That single moment. I
see it when he is away hanging with his friends for a while.
He changes. Then, when he is back with me, he is himself again.”
Ellis hopes Modest can use his sphere of influence to get
kids like himself out of life on the streets.
Ellis says the first thing Modest wanted after Ellis began
mentoring him was for Ellis to help all of his friends. “
‘You gotta get my mom a job, Core, you gotta help my friends
out, Core.’ That is what he told me,” says Ellis.
While Ellis respects the young man’s loyalty, he worries about
it as well. He thinks it may stop him from eventually pulling
himself out and making a life for himself.
According to Ellis, if you ask Modest or any of his friends—including
the ones who are currently in county jail—if they are involved
in gangs, the answer is an emphatic “No!” And yet, Ellis knows
that, one way or another, Modest and his friends have a habit
of getting themselves into trouble.
have told me King is going to break my heart,” says Ellis.
“I told ’em to wait and see. This young man is special.”
On a chilly Tuesday in November, Ellis waits on the corner
of Second and Quail. He has spent the last two hours looking
for King. “He didn’t go to school today,” he laments.
Ellis strolls down the street asking, “Have you seen King?”
of anyone he thinks might know. They all shake their heads
that they haven’t.
For three days, the kids who normally fill the stoops on Quail
have been missing; Modest and his running buddies are M.I.A.
and Ellis is sure it is not the cold that has driven them
Ellis has visited their normal chill spots, dropped by the
porches they hang out on, strolled into empty houses inhabited
now only by lonely dogs. He wonders out loud: “When was the
last time it was fed? He’s probably hungry.”
But King is nowhere to be found. Ellis won’t say what it is
he is worried about—perhaps violence, trouble with police,
feuding—but he knows something is not right.
Ellis approaches a group of very young kids, dressed for the
winter, huddled around the door of a feeding center. “Why
are you guys just sitting on the corner?” he inquires.
s’posed to be open!” replies a youngster before he and his
friends scamper away.
Ellis turns his attention to a mural of a young man holding
a cross tagged on the side of the building.
Part of the mural says, “God grant me the serenity.”
was my senior caption,” says Ellis.
was strolling home one night and I found this necklace, and
it had that inscribed on it.”
He begins reciting from memory: “God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change
the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Ellis stops at a few more houses, queries a few more passersby:
“You seen King?”
Today Modest is nowhere to be found.
People have told Ellis that Modest will break his heart. Today
there is no mistaking, Ellis’ heart is heavy.