Green Grass and Guns

A native son traces the tumultuous history of Cambria Heights, Queens, from a beacon of hope for black families to a tragic casualty of the drug war.

Green Grass and Guns

In 1965, when I was five years old, my family moved from the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn into a five-bedroom house on 210th Street in Cambria Heights, a little-known Queens neighborhood on the Nassau County border. Buying a house in Cambria Heights, at the time, was a symbol of success for many African-American families, and so it was for mine. The Greater Jamaica area, including Cambria Heights, St. Albans and Addisleigh Park, had become one of the city’s first middle-class African-American areas, over the years home to prominent residents like Count Basie, W.E. B. Dubois and Ella Fitzgerald. My father, a postal worker, and my mother, a registered private duty nurse, told us they moved into Cambria Heights so their children would have the opportunity to succeed.

In the summer, my younger brother and our friends would ride our bikes all across Jamaica, passing stately homes, clean lawns and tidy garages. Every other Sunday my parents would put all five of us—my sister, three brothers, and me—in the back seat of our Chevy Caprice and take us to Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn for worship with Reverend William Augustus Jones, who partnered with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to launch the Progressive National Baptist Convention, and is now perhaps best known for mentoring the Reverend Al Sharpton. As the civil rights movement blossomed, my parents and my friends’ parents made clear that they expected great things of us; that we could be anything we wanted to be, whether it was a lawyer, doctor, Congressman, Governor, CEO or President of the United States. Living in Cambria Heights provided you this chance, they said.

At the same time, it was common knowledge in my elementary school years that white people were moving out of Cambria Heights because black people were moving in. Of course, being six years old, I cared more about cartoons and riding my bicycle than race issues. As my elementary school years at Public School 147 went by, more African-American families moved in, and it was apparent that Cambria Heights would soon become an all-African-American community. By the time I graduated from elementary school, Cambria Heights was ninety percent black.

As I prepared to enter Junior High School 192 in the Hollis section of Jamaica, half-a-mile from my house, my peers and I heard stories that the school was tough and that we would encounter bullies, gangs and drugs. My older brother Elliott was already attending JHS 192 and had a reputation of fighting back and fearing no one. I took this to heart and resolved to fear no one myself, but also to stay out of trouble. My friends and I ignored the gangs and drugs, instead collecting baseball cards and comic books and joining in competitive sports leagues.

The author, front row second from right, with his Little League team (Photo courtesy the author)
The author, front row second from right, with his Little League team (Photo courtesy the author)

We saw kids in the hallways, and in some cases in our classes, wearing gang colors. I remember each gang clearly: the Seven Crowns, Seven Immortals, Savage Nomads, and the Black Skulls. Each wore denim jackets with cut-off sleeves and the gang logo imprinted on the back of the jacket. One of my older brother’s friends, Keith, became a division leader of the Seven Immortals, in charge of organizing gang meetings in a local park. My younger brother Bruce and I would sometimes ride our bicycles to the park and watch a gang meeting from afar. That was as close as we got—Keith wouldn’t let me and Bruce join his gang because of the respect he had for my older brother Elliott.

So for the duration of Junior High School, we avoided all that. I was starting guard on a team in the Hollis Biddies Basketball League, and pick-up games were big in Cambria Heights and greater Jamaica. All of us kids who played basketball would mix-it up and go to different parks in the neighborhood. I wanted to be a college basketball player and was a devoted fan. On Saturday mornings during the season, I was reliably glued to the television, watching NCAA games.

My friends and I developed a bicycle race from Cambria Heights to Elmont, a community just outside the city lines in Long Island. The race was called “The Fastest to Dead Man Hill”—Dead Man Hill being just a dirt road in Elmont with a lot of rocks and bumps on it. Time and time again we’d race the one-mile route, past the beautifully kept homes in the other parts of Cambria Heights, and on through Elmont.

I knew the name of every kid my age on the block: Phillip, Reggie, Fred, Earl, Jose, Rita, Karen, Denise, Bobby, Greta, Sean and Carmen, to name a few. Each house had a stoop, driveway, backyard and garage, and in the evenings when the weather was nice we’d gather on somebody’s stoop and talk about whatever. It could be school, comic books, relationships or sports. Most everyone—kids, mothers and fathers—would be there together. In families where the parents weren’t together, there was almost always a father figure around. This world so many people know today of fathers not being around to support their children just didn’t exist.

It was also around that time that one of my friends introduced us to marijuana.

My parents and my friends’ parents had no clue that the introduction of drugs and gangs in Cambria Heights would soon radically alter the vision they all held for the next generation of African-Americans.

I started at Andrew Jackson High School in St. Albans in 1974. I had developed an interest in business and writing, and wanted to be a journalist and business executive. I was a very busy high schooler— on the basketball and track teams, president of the 210th Street Youth Block Association, and also involved in AAU and Police Athletic League track teams. All of these activities were starting to affect my grades, although I didn’t pay attention to it at the time. I wasn’t failing, but I was just getting by.

Cambria Heights was starting to look a little different. Our parents had protected us from the tougher neighborhoods of New York City, but that protection they bought into by moving to Cambria Heights was slowly disappearing. Many of my friends became more and more involved with gangs and drugs.

We had three known gang members on 210th Street: Keith, a guy named Jose, who lived across the street, and Carlos, from the next block over. I saw them all the time but mostly had no knowledge of what they did for the gang—aside from Keith, who was well-known for his robberies. Marijuana became increasingly easy to find on 210th Street and at Andrew Jackson High School, and through local drug dealing crews like the Linden Boys, who would sell to people on foot and in cars along Linden Boulevard.

A corner on Linden Boulevard (Photo by Nicholas Pollack)
A corner on Linden Boulevard (Photo by Nicholas Pollack)

Peer pressure to take drugs, join a gang and fail in school was full-blown at Andrew Jackson High School. I tried my best to concentrate on sports; I smoked a little marijuana when I had to, but mostly stayed out of it.

I got a job on weekends, working alongside my brother Elliott as a vendor at Shea Stadium, selling soda, peanuts, scorecards, ice cream and hot dogs. Sometimes Mets pitcher Rudy May would give Elliott and me a ride home in his car. Riding with a professional ballplayer was very exciting. During football season (the Jets played in Shea at that time) I sold hot chocolate; after the game we’d go on the field and throw a football around.

In my senior year, a schoolmate introduced me to a guy named Charles Fisher, who was five years older and lived nearby in St. Albans. My classmate wanted me to talk to Fischer about the gang and drug trouble coming into greater Jamaica. An ex-convict who had once supplied drugs to the Linden Boys and had recently gotten out of jail, Fischer was now a member of the Five Percent Nation, an African nationalist group recently founded in Harlem by a former student of Malcolm X.

Fischer talked to me about my good name among my peers and said that I should work with him and join the Five Percent Nation to help address the problem of drugs and violence. He was working with a man named Russell Simmons to organize youth events at the time; Simmons, from Hollis, would, of course, go on to become a world-renowned hip-hop mogul.

The youth members of the Five Percent Nation were charged with creating peace between gangs and thwarting the impending black-on-black crime epidemic. Some people believed the group was a cult or a gang itself because so many of its members were ex-cons; I wasn’t sure.

I told my parents about Fisher and joined the Five Percent Nation over their objections—they disliked the group because, among other things, their message of empowerment taught that God is not a higher being than oneself. But I believed in what Fisher and the Five Percent Nation were saying. The gangs and drugs were all over the place in Cambria Heights, and something had to be done.

Today, a man waits at Harry’s Service Center on Linden Boulevard (Photo by Nicholas Pollack)
Today, a man waits at Harry’s Service Center on Linden Boulevard (Photo by Nicholas Pollack)

All of my friends were touched by it in some of kind of way; all of us knew people who were killed. Two murders on 210th Street stand out in my mind. One was Vincent Clyburn, who died in a gunfight, and the other was a kid called Me-Me, who was murdered by his brother, Jose, the known gang member.

In 1977, I graduated from Andrew Jackson with below a C grade-point average and no athletic scholarship offers. I thought I would go to junior college, become an A student, move on to a four-year school and play college basketball, my dream. From there, I’d get a master’s degree in business from an Ivy League School. That was my plan, at least.

So, I went to LaGuardia Community College to get a business degree and started working with a new youth organization that Fisher had founded called the Counselor of Positive Progress (now Youth Enterprises). COPP was launched as a juvenile crime prevention organization; one thing we did was take young people to the Queens Correctional Facility and host a session with ex-convicts who spoke about how bad it was to be in jail.

After a year at LaGuardia, I took a leave of absence to work with COPP and several other groups, including  the NAACP Jamaica Youth Chapter and State Senator Andrew Jenkins. Some of the kids from the Jamaica NAACP Youth Council would indeed go on to be lawyers and doctors, but by this time it was becoming apparent to most parents in Cambria Heights that their attempts to shield their children from a so-called ghetto environment had failed. My neighborhood had turned into a battle field, and there was no turning back.

I’Jyana Ballard and Mahogany Kennedy walk home from school near Linden Boulevard (Photo by Nicholas Pollack)
I’Jyana Ballard and Mahogany Kennedy walk home from school near Linden Boulevard (Photo by Nicholas Pollack)

Although Fischer spoke about being righteous, he also smoked marijuana, and as I became more involved with the Five Percent Nation, I, too, started taking more drugs.

Then, in 1979 I had a nervous breakdown. I felt I had to get away from everything and tried to move to Los Angeles, but my mother, who was convinced that the Five Percent Nation had brainwashed me, got me to come back home and see a psychiatrist. The doctor told me that what was happening in Cambria Heights and greater Jamaica was real, but encouraged me not to overreact and to be careful when listening to black radicalism. I distanced myself from the group and decided to try something new: I joined the U.S. Navy and went to boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois. However, I didn’t make it out of boot camp, instead receiving an honorable discharge after the Navy found out I had lied on my application when I said I had never taken drugs.

A house nearby (Photo by Nicholas Pollack)
A house nearby (Photo by Nicholas Pollack)

When I got back to Cambria Heights in 1982, now twenty-three years old, the houses were still beautifully kept up, but the atmosphere was negative. All of my friends were smoking marijuana and drinking, and for most of them, getting a college degree wasn’t going to happen. Crime had only gotten worse.

“If you [went] toward Frances Lewis Boulevard or Hollis Avenue, there were people who, if they didn’t know you, would rip you off,” recalls Philippe T. Kernisant, a friend who grew up a few houses down from me. “If you had a nice coat they would try to take your coat and, you know, they would rob you if they didn’t know you.”

So I took another crack at moving to Los Angeles, but this time I stayed for six years and got a degree in business administration.

I would call my brother Bruce frequently to check in about what happening on 210th Street. The stories weren’t good. Black-on-black youth crime was well on its way to becoming endemic across America and Cambria Heights was not spared. My brother would tell me about friends being murdered in street fights. I was shocked and dismayed. In L.A. I lived in beautiful white neighborhoods and even tried my luck at dating white girls.

However, things didn’t go well for me personally. I started getting sick. I was stressed out and constantly breaking out in rashes. I was also constantly running out of money. I lived in a weekly hotel and wasn’t making enough money from my job as a store manager at a Radio Shack in the Fountain Valley suburb. After getting fired for not making my quota, my mother convinced me to come back home to 210th Street.

When I got back to Cambria Heights, now twenty-eight, I contacted old friends and got back into the groove of things. I got a job with MetLife as an insurance agent and moved back into the house with my parents. Somehow, the one mainstay in Cambria Heights was the value of the houses. The turmoil of the gangs and drugs didn’t affect real estate that much, as the neighborhood, with its stately single-family homes, was still a place middle-class African-American families wanted to move. In 1965, my father had bought the house for $25,000; in 1990 it was worth well over $200,000.

A family photo at the house in the 1970s; the author is on the left. (Photo courtesy the author)
A family photo at the house in the 1970s; the author is on the left. (Photo courtesy the author)

Yet, my block had changed drastically since my family first moved in. Gone were the days when everybody on the block knew each other and their children. . The few longtime friends and parents still on the block were the only people I knew. Like everyone else, I wasn’t going to try to get to know the new neighbors. The thought of my murdered childhood friends made me scared to reach out to anyone I already didn’t know.

In the ’90s, the murders continued, and they involved several people I knew.

Vincent Williams was one of them. He and his brother Vernon had all the toys and games a kid could want. They lived in a well-kept home and had two loving parents. In 1992, when Williams was twenty-five, he and Ismael Ramos stole $40,000 from a house in Queens Village, and in an attempt to eliminate the witnesses, shot a woman who lived there and murdered her two children, ages two and five.

Cambria Heights’ reputation extended well beyond New York, too. One particularly heinous, and unforgettable, crime was committed in North Carolina by Van Brett Watkins, one of the kids who hung out with us at Dobbins Grocery Store back in the day. In 1999, Watkins murdered Cherica Adams, the pregnant girlfriend of Rae Carruth, an NFL Football Player. The killing made international news.

Other friends who left and returned had similar experiences. My childhood friend Sean, whose family also moved onto 210th Street in 1965, was one of the few who went straight to college and graduated with a B.S. in electrical engineering from North Carolina A&T.

“The 210th Street family, I will never forget,” says Sean. But, he adds, “It was a challenge when I came back from college because people moved out of the neighborhood. They went to jail, began to use drugs or were dead. It was a challenge relating to others because of the college exposure and my inner determination to achieve bigger and better things in life. Family values and neighborhood pride has faded away throughout the years.”

After the crack cocaine epidemic subsided in Cambria Heights and across the United States in the late ’90s, crime started to wane. I found work as a courier and would learn to be one of the best foot messengers in the city.

By 2011, both my parents had passed away and the house, now worth $450,000, was willed to my three brothers and sister and me. So I am part owner of the house in Cambria Heights, and I still live in it today.

The author in Times Square (Photo courtesy the author)
The author in Times Square (Photo courtesy the author)

The turmoil of the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and parts of the early 2000s is practically gone. My neighborhood is still a beautiful one. Yet, the idealistic atmosphere of the ’60s is long gone, too. I don’t know who my neighbors are, what kind of work they do or who their children are. Recently, I spent ten days in the cold and dark when the neighborhood lost power after Hurricane Sandy. My neighbors were also out of heat and light, but none of us spoke to each other. I was too scared to go out in the neighborhood in the pitch black.

I should say that the Caribbean families who have moved in have brought a sense of community of their own. Dobbins Grocery, where I used to buy candy, was owned for several decades by Rutherford Dobbins, an African-American jazz musician. Today it is Batista Mini-Mart, run by Fausto Batista, a Dominican native who says he enjoys a good rapport with the mostly African-American and Caribbean customers who frequent his store.

I still see new middle-class African-American families moving in—but not in the open way they did when my family first moved on the block. Nowadays you don’t see kids running in the streets, riding their bicycles, having snowball fights or playing touch football. Even finding people willing to be interviewed for this article proved immensely difficult.

Those years in Cambria Heights from 1965 to ’72 remain special to me. Just living here made us feel like the American Dream could be achieved by anybody, regardless of their skin color. It was a community where parents instilled self-esteem in their children and taught us we could be anything we wanted to be. That, of course, has changed. Many of my childhood friends were murdered or committed terrible crimes. I am still a lowly messenger and self-published author without a family of my own. My life is far from what I had dreamed of as a child living in Cambria Heights.

My childhood friend Sean Cheatham remains positive. “I don’t know many neighbors on the block at this time,” Sean tells me. “However, that doesn’t stop me from speaking or holding on to the 210th Street tradition of helping one another.”

As I walk around Cambria Heights today, I remember the vision of my parents and my friends’ parents. I am proud that both my mother and father lived long enough to see the first African-American President take his oath as President of the United States, and that they left an estate worth over $500,000 to their children. The final chapters on Cambria Heights have not yet been written, and my personal story is not over either. I recently self-published “Asphalt Warrior,” a memoir about my life as a messenger in New York City, and have designed my own signature messenger bag. I have plenty more stories to tell, and so does Cambria Heights, Queens.

In the summer of 2012 there was yet another murder on my block—a young man named Keith who lived across the street from me. I don’t know what kind of worked Keith did, or much about his situation, as I was too scared to ask anyone. I do know that he owned  property on the block and drove a Bentley, and that he was murdered in front of his house—an incident that barely seemed to raise an eyebrow among neighbors or the media.

Only one newspaper briefly mentioned that a black male had been killed, right here on 210th Street.