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Editorial: East Siders strive to build ordinary lives in a neighborhood beset by violence

Despite gun violence, the East Side remains home to proud residents, many of them poor, who are trying to make a difference by maintaining their homes and their gardens and watching out for one another. They are assisted by others, among them the Rev. James Giles, the coordinator of a coalition of anti-violence groups known as Buffalo Peacemakers.

Giles has spent more than 20 years working with those at risk of going to prison and those returning from incarceration. He speaks plainly about the problems – street gangs or “crews” in the approximately nine-block area.

More money and resources will help the problem, Giles said, “But it takes a more collective effort,” one involving individuals willing to pitch in to help transform their community.

A remarkable story by News staff reporter Aaron Besecker, with photography by Derek Gee and data analysis by Lexie Heinle and Dan Kirchberger, revealed startling statistics on gun violence in a neighborhood that straddles part of Genesee east of Moselle Street, where about 700 people live. In that nine-block area from 2011 through 2016, 47 people were shot in 80 separate incidents.

Mike King, who was shot four times in the back and arm in 2003, compared life in the neighborhood to living “in a war zone.”

But this is also home to a lot of ordinary people who are forced to endure under extraordinary circumstances. It is where Jacqueline Wells’ grandson was wounded in a drive-by shooting on Goodyear Avenue a few days after Christmas in 2013. It is where Tieshawn Greene, 25 at the time, was struck by one of three bullets fired from inside a black Chevrolet Impala.

Life here can be hard for those mixed up in the violence, and hard for their families. But the area is full of good, hardworking people like Takesha Leonard, a nurse practitioner at the Jericho Road Community Health Center, whose job sometimes involves just listening to people’s problems. She tries to downplay the public perception of violence: “Everyone is not going to shoot you. But if all you watch is that television, I would never walk foot in here.”

Going by the numbers, violence on the East Side seems pervasive, accounting for roughly three-quarters of all shootings in the city during the last six years despite having only a third of the city’s population, according to an analysis of Police Department data.

Gang activity has been breeding here for decades. It festers amid poverty, poor educational outcomes and few businesses.

It is a place, as Gary Steeves, pastor at Resurrection Lutheran Church and Resurrection Life Ministries at Genesee and Doat streets, told The News, where every family has had more than one shooting, “or knows somebody with more than one.”

Like Rhonda Lee, 58, of Bissell Avenue. She has nine children. Three of her seven sons have been shot. Her 22-year-old cousin, Xavier Wimes, was shot and killed on Jan. 1, marking the first homicide in Buffalo this year. No arrest has been made in that killing.

Nonprofit groups, individuals, businesses and churches are trying to turn things around.

They include Harmac Medical Products, which has partnered with Habitat for Humanity, among others, to build new houses, apartments, a community garden, soccer pitches, greenhouses and a café near Harmac’s Bailey Avenue plant. And there is Mayda Pozantides, 29, who along with a partner created Groundwork Market Garden on 2-plus acres of empty land on Genesee Street, between Leslie Street and Colorado Avenue. And Super Price Choppers grocery store on Genesee and Goodyear, operated by A.K. Kaid. His family did not leave even after his grandfather, Karim Kaid, was fatally shot 20 years ago in the family’s former deli just down the block.

The headlines are often about violence, which overshadows the ordinary lives of hardworking East Side residents determined to persevere. That perseverance will be necessary if the neighborhood is to overcome the shortage of jobs, good education and hope.

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