Bronx: Tracing the Bullet

By Kate Browne

For two years beginning in 2016 I worked on a Cocoon with the residents of Melrose Houses, Andrew Jackson Houses and Morrisania Air-Rights — three public housing complexes that sit side-by-side-by-side in the Melrose section of the South Bronx. I knocked on doors and held workshops in the neighborhood — on basketball courts, in community rooms and senior-citizen centers, and at the annual family-day picnics. People came and visited with each other and talked to me about their lives and the neighborhood. 

I interviewed more than 200 people in all, but the subject that would dominate the Bronx Cocoon was evident after only a handful of conversations. I realized that gun violence was a central fact of life for most of the people, something that perhaps shouldn’t be surprising given its ongoing prominence in media coverage and political debate. Still, the enormity of it was shocking. 

A mother recalled her son’s blood spreading across the hallway in front of their apartment door after he’d been shot. A father talked about his 30-year-old-son being shot in the back of the head. A school principal remembered when she was eight and her father, going out to shop, promised her a candy bar and never returned, shot dead while sitting in his car. Her family “went to nothing” after that, she said.

A father told me he had left New York for Kansas City after two of his teenage sons were murdered, the older one just ten days past his nineteenth birthday. “I just felt like either someone going to kill me,” he said. “Or I was going to kill someone. So I left.”

I began to think about the number of lives affected by a single gunshot and decided to trace the path a bullet takes through the lives of its victims, their families, residents and people whose work puts them in the bullet’s path. At nearby Lincoln Hospital I interviewed EMTs, nurses, trauma surgeons and staff. I interviewed the director of a neighborhood funeral home. I interviewed violence interrupters at S.O.S. (Save Our Streets), housing cops from the 40th precinct, grief counselors and members of bio teams hired to clean up the blood that is shed in shootings. A woman on such a team told me about a young boy, maybe six, who had watched blood — in his words — “drip, drip, drip” from his bedroom ceiling for days while New York City Housing Authority negotiated the price for a team to go into the apartment above and clean up a dead body.

Following the bullet’s path, you can only marvel at the distance that the damage it inflicts travels. A woman who records and analyzes data on Lincoln Hospital’s  emergency room patients said she has trouble reviewing cases with gunshot wounds similar to the one that killed her nephew, even though it’s been several years. "I have to take my time to review that type of paperwork,” she said. “It would be like I'm reliving the same moment. You know, it's heartbreaking. He was so young, and he was the one that wasn’t supposed to die."

A trauma surgeon I’ve known for a few years heads a level-one trauma center in a Camden, NJ, hospital but in the early 1990s he spent several years at Lincoln, and he explained to me what happens when a gunshot case comes in. He talked about the process of quickly trying to save a gunshot life: cleansing the patient’s body to prevent infection, assessing the ABCs (air tube, breathing, circulation), finding where the patient is bleeding. Then, likely, surgery, which ends, the surgeon noted, with a staple gun. He notes the irony of inserting  staples with a gun. “To put them back together,” he said. “As opposed to the gun that tore them apart.”

After I visited my friend in Camden, the grief groups I visited back in the Bronx— mostly mothers, fathers, and grandparents who’ve lost children to gun violence — wanted to hear what the surgeon had told me. It was mostly new information for them, and somehow useful in their grief.  I realized that the story of even a single gunshot is so quickly fragmented, so dispersed that it easily defeats comprehension by individuals and families. More difficult is the effort grasp the enormity of the collective loss, pain, despair that gun violence brings to a neighborhood. Working with the people in this part of the South Bronx, I wanted to try to piece some of these stories back together, to weave at least a partial account of their lives that better suggests the whole.   

I first visited the Bronx in 2011, running a workshop with students at IS 151, a middle school just a few blocks from Melrose, Jackson and Morrisania Air-Rights. Over the course of six months, I interviewed about 150 students. They were 5th and 6th graders, smart and aware. They talked about many things, but several themes emerged, including drugs (one boy wished that people who had died from drugs could come back and tell their stories, so other people wouldn’t take them); HIV (a girl wanted to become a doctor to treat the children in her neighborhood who had HIV: and gun violence. One student talked about seeing pools of blood on the basketball court once as he cut through on his way to school. A girl said she wanted to have two brothers instead of one. In case one got killed, she would still have a brother.

After working with these children, I knew I wanted to come back to the neighborhood and create a Cocoon here. I wanted to help residents create a moment in which their histories and stories could be heard. I wanted to give people outside the neighborhood an opportunity to hear the stories of a community devastated by violence, and by decades-old policies of segregation and disinvestment. But I also wanted to consider the depth and resonance of the neighborhood’s trauma, a trauma that eventually affects us all.

Illumination, May 19, 2018

The Bronx Cocoon was built on basketball courts known as "the cage" in the Andrew Jackson Houses.  

Cocoon culminated on Saturday, May 19th. Residents walked in a lighted procession across the grounds of the three housing complexes, then gathered at the Jackson Houses basketball courts, known as “the cage,” for the illumination of the Cocoon. Then all were free to walk through it and listen to the soundtrack playing inside, made from the stories the participants told about lives and histories.  

“Grief is hard for everyone,” a Bronx woman told me in an interview early on. Her son was   murdered years ago. “The pain goes away. It goes away. The memory, the feeling, the loss is there. But the pain goes away. People say they understand. But they can’t understand, unless you been through the same thing. So you don’t have anybody to talk to. And it don’t matter how long it is. It could be twenty years, thirty years, it feels like yesterday.”

A few days after we talked, her five-year-old great grandson was struck in the head by a stray bullet as he stood on a sidewalk after leaving his birthday party. Miraculously, he survived.

See more portraits from the Bronx.