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Milwaukee's Amani Neighborhood Sees Both Violence and Signs of Hope

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Ann-Elise Henzl
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Denzel Sloan (left) and Quintrell Boyles at the COA Goldin Center in Milwaukee’s Amani neighborhood.";

Milwaukee’s homicide rate far exceeds last year’s at this time. Outbursts of violence have punched several neighborhoods particularly hard.

Last weekend, for instance, bullets struck five people who had gathered to mourn the killing of a teen. The COAGoldin Center at 23rd and Burleigh is about one-half mile away from the quintuple shooting.

At the end of the school day, the center’s basketball courts are packed. So is a table where high schoolers are playing chess. The scene in the Amani neighborhood appears picture-perfect. QuanCaston can’t say the same about the area.

“I spent eight years in the military, and I didn’t hear one-tenth of the amount of gunfire in this community, than I heard when I was actually in a war zone,” Caston says.

Caston teaches classes at the Goldin Center and lives nearby. Gunfire literally hit home a few weeks ago, when a stray bullet entered his house and grazed his stepdaughter.

The threat of violence is always present, according to QuintrellBoyles. “It’s affecting everybody tremendously. I mean, for some of us, it’s right on our front doorsteps. For others, it’s a block away,” he says.

Boyles works at the Goldin Center as its youth development program manager.

“I can definitely see the more influx of young people just trying to find a safe place. Even adults for that matter, making sure that their children are here. We get phone calls from parents all the time, checking to make sure their kids made it here safely from school,” Boyles says.

“I’ve been here nine -- going on 10 -- years, and this building I can honestly say is my second family,” says Denzel Sloan, a teen who’s found a sense of security at the Goldin Center. “There are people we can talk to if you’re afraid of whatever your reason may be, or if you need to sit down and just enjoy something, this building is the place to be. You pretty much don’t have to worry about anything outside these doors. And then once you’re outside these doors, it’s just a quick, safe shot home."

Sloan says kids have begun walking home in groups for protection.

Instructor QuanCaston says he uses chess to help kids learn to think strategically when making all sorts of decisions.

“I talk about it in that context mathematically, like, let’s look at probabilities. You’re less likely to be affected directly by violence if you are doing what you’re supposed to be doing,” Caston says.

What Caston believes he’s supposed to be doing is helping improve the neighborhood. So despite the fact that a stray bullet wounded his stepdaughter, the family made a unanimous decision to stay.

“Someone said, ‘now you’ll start thinking about leaving, you know, you’ll probably be out of here in a couple months.’ Actually, it made me want to stay even more. Because now if I leave, I’m a hypocrite and I’m a part of the problem of flight,” Caston says.

Tom Schneider is executive director of COA, the organization that runs the Goldin Center. He says in the last couple of years, it’s combined forces with other organizations in the Amani neighborhood on a concerted approach to reduce violence. The effort includes beefing up education programs for families and health care. Schneider says engaged residents have been a crucial component.

“The residents were involved in planning the new clinic, planning the new park. The residents formed a neighborhood association, they’re doing block watches. The residents are doing neighborhood cleanups, and the result has been stunning,” Schneider says.

Schneider says in the last two years, crime dropped in the Amani neighborhood more than 31 percent. He admits homicides are still too high, and says the answer is not simple -- but rather, comprehensive and sustained.

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