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Chilling on the corner: KingJamell Modest.

One Life at a Time

Albany 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

By David King

Photos By Chris Shields

 

I’m 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 15 minutes.

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 recognizes it.

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.

“Heyyyy 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 behind.

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.

King of the hill: Modest and friends.

Modest commands his peers with a warm but firm voice that indicates knowledge and wisdom beyond his years.

“You live with both of your parents?” Modest asks a young girl who walks by with a group of friends.

“No, 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.

“The 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?”

“Seven,” responds one teen.

“Six!” exclaims another.

Modest is suddenly distracted; he excuses himself. “I’ll be back”

“Alright,” 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 threats.

“King, 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.

“You wanna go back? You wanna go back?” Ellis demands of a teen who calls himself Pistol.

Pistol mumbles something indecipherable, head down, driven to fight.

“No, 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 fighting friends.

“Why 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 and Quail.

Shouting erupts again, followed by a spine-tingling scream.

A teen in a hoodie swings an oversized plastic Big Wheel at another teen.

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.

He convulses.

Silence.

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.

“What 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 too far.

Ellis pauses for a moment catching his breath.

“This 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 screaming.

“The devil don’t care!”

“Bunch of crackers don’t want to help.”

“They just leave the victims out on the street for us to see,” says one girl, who wants to remain anonymous. “They want to scare us.”

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, or Delmar.

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!”

“You 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.

“When 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 teens.

They are under surveillance, and this is how the kids in this neighborhood learn to see the police: as hostile surveyors, indifferent occupiers.

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.

One by one: Albany Common Councilman Corey Ellis.

Modest 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 themselves.

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.

While 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.

“Where do they have to go for jobs?” asks Ellis. “The mall? Take a survey of the mall and see how many African-Americans work there.”

“Can’t even get in there any more, ’cause we aren’t 18,” chimes in another teen.

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.”

“It’s 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.”

“They 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 him.”

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 and shunned.

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.

Silence.

“What, 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.

“You 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.

“It 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.

“People 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 away.

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.

“They 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.”

“That was my senior caption,” says Ellis.

“I 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.

dking@metroland.net


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