Not Much of A Thanksgiving for One Teenager

Police approach a male suspect on the street in Harlem (Photo: Euna Lee)

By Euna Lee

A week before Thanksgiving, the jurors in a criminal courtroom at the New York State Supreme Court found a teen-ager guilty of second-degree murder. The young man, Mark Acevedo, 17, faces a sentence of 25 years to life; he will be in his forties before he’s eligible for parole.

Acevedo’s gang-related case is not unique. Teenage violence is the second leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States and increased poverty levels have triggered a rise in violence in certain parts of New York City. A recent U.S. Department of Justice study shows the rate of youth gang activity increased to 34.5 percent in 2009 from 32.4 percent in 2008. And the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice shows the biggest number of youth in detention in New York City come from the city’s poorest neighborhoods; East Harlem, St. George, South Jamaica, South Bronx, etc.

“Violent crime is largely a function of poverty. You won’t see many violent crimes on the Upper East Side of Manhattan,” said defense attorney Eric Sears, Acevedo’s lawyer. “Those are people who have difficulties [living in projects] that they have to deal with where people in wealthy neighborhoods don’t have.”

Acevedo’s journey to court follows that pattern. It began in July 2010. In the afternoon on a sunlit, hot, humid day, 911 received more than a dozen calls from people near the Lincoln Projects in Harlem. One of the callers told 911 a young man fled from the scene. “He was young; maybe 20-something.” The sense of urgency penetrated from the voice.

Paramedics responded to the calls first and then police arrived on the scene at East 132nd Street and 5th Avenue. They saw a puddle of blood on the street and found a tall, heavyset black man slumped over in the passenger seat of a blue GMC Yukon. They transported the man to Lincoln Hospital, the nearby hospital, but he was later pronounced dead on arrival. The man was identified as Derek Nelson, 34.

Two days later, police arrested a suspect, Mark Acevedo.

Fifteen months after Nelson’s death, Acevedo sat alone in a Manhattan courtroom with his defense lawyer Sears. As Acevedo faced criminal charges in court, the prosecution, as part of its case, played 14 of the 911 calls received on that fatal day to re-create the chaos of the scene of Nelson’s death. Assistant District Attorney David Veiga at the New York State Supreme Court laid out what he argued is a gang related case: A youth gang member, Acevedo, had a dispute with a rival drug dealer for a territorial battle and drug distribution. Veiga argued that Acevedo received a gun from an older member to kill Nelson.

Teens hanging out after school near Madison Ave in Harlem (Photo: Euna Lee)

Acevedo’s trial went on for nearly three weeks and none of Acevedo’s family members attended. Acevedo’s past history, as Sears relays it, gives credence to the attorney’s view of teenage crime. Acevedo had been in and out of foster homes after his biological parents left him. A half brother, he grew up with in a foster home is his closest family member but he was never seen in the courtroom.

“These kids don’t go to school and are out all night. These boys gangbanging one street to the next, selling drugs,” she said. “Guns are packed in their book bags. Their parents have no control over them.”

The increase in violence here is evident by looking at how business at local funeral homes is doing. Marison A. Daniels Funeral Home, one of more than a dozen funeral homes in Harlem, has performed more than 20 young people’s funerals so far this year. Most of them are from violence related deaths. The number of youth funerals has been slowly going up for the past 10 years. And Daniels has seen a big change in the cause of the young people’s death over 50 years.

“Going way back, pneumonia was a big factor [in teenage death]”, said Theodore Daniels, the owner of the Marison A. Daniels Funeral Home. “Now, it’s between violence and drugs.”

What makes teenagers so violent? Acevedo’s defense lawyer, Sears believes the environment is an important factor.

“People who appear to be a success in the neighborhoods are people who succeed on the street as opposed to [getting it from] school or careers,” said Sears. “Because of this poverty, there is less perception that they have future.”

Over the past 20 years, Sears has defended various teens accused of violent crimes; many of them raised in abusive homes. He remembers many of his young clients, who like Acevedo, would sit alone in the courtroom without any family members to support them. Sears remembers a particular defendant from nearly 20 years ago.

“A 13-year-old girl killed a taxi driver. She had been in and out of a foster home, physically and sexually abused all through her 13 years. She even had various psychiatric hospitalizations. It was predictable even in her medical record,” Sears said. “The doctor said this kid needs help. You can’t just put her back to the street. And one day it just blew up.” Sears said she is still serving her sentence.

Sears, an experienced lawyer knows well that a teenager’s bad upbringing can’t be an excuse in the court. But in many cases, Sears believes some explanation exists as to why a 13-year-old or a 16-year-old would shoot and kill someone.

But to a victim’s family, no explanation excuses the crime. “I feel sorry for the kid [Acevedo],” said Nelson’s grandmother, Annie D. Nelson, fighting back tears as she walked out of an elevator door of the courthouse. But for her, it’s all about the grandson she lost, the grandson she raised.

Others, like the Harlem resident who refused to give her name, don’t excuse Acevedo for his crime, but they understand what probably drove him to do it.

“He was stupid to kill my friend,” she said. “But they need to lock up the guy who gave him the gun.”

Attorney Sears denies Acevedo had a gun at all.

“It’s more than just lip service,” Sears said. “Acevedo says, so I say, he did not kill Nelson. So nobody handed a gun to him.”

The only friend Acevedo seems to have is his long time friend Patricia Luna, 18. Acevedo made two calls from jail to her, Luna said

“He was very upset but tries to keep his head up,” Luna said outside of the courthouse. “Mark was like any teenage boy.”

Luna believes Acevedo did not kill Nelson, but is covering for someone. “He was always less violent than any of his friends. It’s very upsetting. If he didn’t do it, he will serve a lot of time,” she said.

For Sears, it’s the end to yet one more teenager’s tragic story.

“He was 16 and now is 17. He’s going to jail for a big chunk of his life. How is a 17- year-old to do the first day of a 25 year sentence,” Sears said.

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Posted by on January 10, 2012 in Newspaper


A Different Value in Life

Liem Nguyen, Vietnamese refugee, was 14 when he escaped Vietnam with his family. His journey of 48 days on the boat began as the hot summer started in June of 1986. They only had three days worth of food. And his experience taught him a different value in life.

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Posted by on December 21, 2011 in Video


WWII Veteran

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WWII Veteran who was in the segregation army now lives in the projects alone in Harlem. He lives with old books and cockroaches. His health condition is the least of his concerns. He hung up on a follow up call from a medical assistant about his diabetes.

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Posted by on November 12, 2011 in Photo


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Pumping Up the Runners with Music

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Posted by on November 8, 2011 in Video


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Recession Brings Families Together

By Euna Lee

Barbara Gallo, a 48-year-old mother, moved into her daughter’s apartment three months ago, and she’s not the only one. As a result of the economic downturn, many families are finding themselves back under one roof in Northern Manhattan.

Gallo’s biggest fear is that she made the wrong choice when she left her job of 15 years to take care of her 21-year-old daughter, who was hospitalized for three months in 2009. Gallo had been living in her own place and making $17 an hour as a medical assistant. She is now unemployed and lives with her daughter’s family in a one-bedroom apartment.

Many families find living together a necessity in the current economic recession. (Photo: Euna Lee / NY City Lens)

“It sometimes feels degrading as a mother,” Gallo said. “I was always the one who took care of my children.”

This September, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that one in five New York City residents live in poverty. In Washington Heights, families have been feeling the pinch and increasing their numbers under a single roof in order to save money. And the size of households in occupied housing units has increased 27.44 percent for the past 10 years according to the U.S. Census.

Gallo now stands in line two times a week for food stamps at New York City’s Human Resources Administration office in Inwood. Together with her unemployed daughter’s food stamps, she gets $400 each month to buy food.

Gallo said that she knows how to stretch such a small amount of money for the family’s food. “I am a better shopper than my daughter,” she let on.

Gallo explained that she tries to see her situation as a helping mother rather than the one who depends on her child. And when the baby arrives, she said she will be ready, “My daughter will need me more than ever when she gets tired from taking care of the new baby.”

Unlike Gallo, Alicia Marte, 23, is a daughter who moved back into her parents’ apartment. But the embarrassment Marte feels is no different than what Gallo feels. Marte was laid off five months ago after working for five years in an office administration job. She has two children, a 1-year-old and a 2-year-old. Marte feeds them with food stamps, but a month’s supply only lasts two weeks, and she often depends on her parents’ support.

Sitting with her two children and friends at an empty table in a Burger King on Saint Nicholas Avenue, Marte reveals her frustration with her situation. “I don’t even want to talk about it,” she said. “Look at us. We are here because we have nothing else to do.”

The downturned economy has forced many young adults to move back into their parents’ homes in order to get by. While many families are back together by necessity, others are by choice.

Jonathan Rodriguez, 23, moved back into his mother’s place to help out after his mother lost the use of her right hand and with it her job. He often fills out paperwork so that his mother can get food stamps. Rodriguez’s income from the Goodwill store on 181st and Amsterdam Avenue is the only financial source for both of them.

“I would never live with anyone else, even with a girlfriend.” Rodriguez said. “I only did it for my mother. She raised me, and it’s my time to take care of her.”

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Posted by on October 25, 2011 in Newspaper


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New Bill Seeks to Expand Taxi Services

By Euna Lee

A new bill, called the Five-Borough Taxi Plan, which will permit up to 30,000 livery cabs to pick up street hails anywhere in the five boroughs outside of the Manhattan Central Business District and the airports, is on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk for his final approval.

New Yorkers will be able to legally hail livery cabs off the street in all five boroughs if the bill passes. (Photo: Euna Lee / NY City Lens)

The goal of the new plan, which was passed in June by the state legislature, is to give high quality taxi service to residents in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island and upper Manhattan; the areas yellow cabs generally don’t travel to. But the plan doesn’t clarify what the new permit will mean for livery cab drivers, including a possible fee, if the bill passes. And many livery cab drivers worry that the unspecified potential costs may mean they won’t be able to keep operating their taxi business.

Kamel Alwawada, 24, a livery cab driver of two years, said fellow drivers fear the new plan will require a meter that is similar to the one in yellow cabs, approximately $1,500 more in insurance and it will make him paint his black Town car a brighter color.

“The city is doing it just for money, not for people.” Alwawada said, sitting in his cab at the corner of 187th Street and Fort Washington Avenue in Washington Heights, where livery cabs often park.

What the future law requires is not very clear for drivers yet. Every driver has a slightly different idea about what the law might mean. They hear one thing from fellow drivers, another from their dispatch centers. Some turn to the customer phone line at the Taxi and Limousine Commission for answers, but its average waiting time, over 20 minutes, doesn’t motivate many livery drivers to pick up the phone.

Taxi and Limousine Commission spokesperson, Allan Fromberg said the additional $1500.00 insurance is not true but the plan will require a meter, roof light with a GPS system and an undecided common color. And other options are on the table for discussion.

“Livery cab drivers should pay closely attention on TLC website for the new plan,” Fromberg said. “We will post new information as soon as we have it.”

But Internet access is not much of an option for the drivers who spend half of their day driving. And their dependence on the information, which comes from word of mouth, has left worries for many drivers about what the new bill might mean to their bottom line.

Jesus Navarro, 77, a livery cab driver for the last 35 years, still believes that his car insurance will go up under the new plan. Navarro calculates that it costs him $60 a week for gas to cover his 12-hour workday, which begins at 6 a.m., and $60 to $70 a week in fees to his base dispatch that provides him with service calls. For Navarro, any additional cost will sting.

“We don’t have that kind of money,” Navarro’s fellow driver, Marlo Mejia said.

The bill should result in expanded taxi service in boroughs where yellow cabs scarcely venture. (Photo: Euna Lee / NY City Lens)

Mejia thinks he might need up to $8,000 for painting his car and meter and for other requirements, if he wants to continue his business. He’s driven a livery cab for seven years, but says he has not had enough left over to save a large amount after expenses. “We may need to look for some people who have money to pay.” He laughingly added, shrugging, “Jewish? Russian Mafias?” He isn’t the only driver who jokes about such things.

Meanwhile, customers who might benefit from the new plan don’t seem to even be aware of the bill. In Washington Heights, for example, residents just seem to be glad that they have taxis around them. And some worry if liveries are allowed to pick up fares anywhere in the city, especially in busier spots downtown, it might result in fewer cabs in their neighborhood

“We have no yellow cabs here. It will be bad if I don’t see the livery cabs here. I like them,” said Aisha Schiebler, 30, a 4-year-resident of Washington Heights, who uses livery cabs three times a week said.

Picking up a fare on the street is technically illegal for livery cabs. The driver can be ticketed up to $350 if they get caught at the first offense. But residents regularly hail livery cabs and drivers, who cannot solely depend on service calls, regularly pick them up to make ends meet. Service calls often bring no more than $35 for a half day, many drivers said.

If the new bill passes as a law, the one thing livery cab drivers won’t have to worry about any more is getting tickets for picking up hails.

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Posted by on October 20, 2011 in Newspaper


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Recession on the Street

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Recession shows everywhere in an individual’s life and local businesses

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Posted by on October 15, 2011 in Photo


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