As elevated trains rumble overhead at the Metro North station on 125th Street in East Harlem, a team of street cleaners works 40 hours a week filling yellow garbage bags with discarded coffee cups, cigarette butts, and dirty needles.
“We’ve got to keep it safe and clean for our kids,” said Gary Linares, program director at the nonprofit Positive Workforce, which helped recruit the six-person street cleaning team. “We’re out here all types of hours, cleaning when problems arise.”
The East Harlem revitalization project, called Uptown Grand Central, recently received funding from the Manhattan district attorney’s office to pay people to beautify the area. It is one of 10 grants awarded this summer with the goal of preventing violence by investing in communities rather than waiting to prosecute crimes that have already happened. One group will use the funding to pay young people to paint murals in public housing and another will spend it on tech classes. Some recipients will spend it on restorative justice programs, healing circles, and mentorship sessions.
But that funding will soon run out. Even as shootings in the city remain above pre-pandemic levels, only $32 million — about 15% of the total $250 million initially earmarked for the grants — remains. If the DA’s office doesn’t replenish the fund, it could be up to private donors to pick up the tab. The DA’s office said it works to support its grantees and trains them in how to fundraise on their own but did not respond to questions about whether it would allocate more funding when the $250 million runs out.
“I know the trauma of gun violence firsthand. I’ve had a gun pointed at me, I’ve been shot at,” said Bragg at a press conference about the grants in August, where he stressed the importance of preventing violent crimes, as well as prosecuting them. “My deep hope for Manhattan is that no one else has that trauma.”
‘This is a model for how to reinvest’
The violence prevention grants are part of the Criminal Justice Investment Initiative, which was created in 2014 under former Manhattan DA Cy Vance. His office had received hundreds of millions of dollars prosecuting corporations that had committed financial crimes. So, Vance decided to set aside a large portion of the money for programs to make communities safer. Now, almost all the money has been awarded, though some grants will take years to spend.
CUNY’s Institute for State and Local Governance helps manage the fund. It reviews applications, recommends which groups should receive money, and measures how well recipients are using the grants.
Director Michael Jacobson hopes this program will set a new standard for a more holistic approach to public safety – one that focuses on evidence-based initiatives to help communities thrive.
“If you’re looking at preventing crime and increasing public safety, there are a host of ways to do that,” Jacobson said. “A ton of those ways lie outside the formal criminal justice system.”
Jacobson called it “a model for how to reinvest.”
“There’s obviously a huge amount — as there should be — of talk about disinvesting and reinvesting,” he said. “But that has to be more than just a slogan, right? Reinvest in what?”
The intersection of sanitation and safety
On its face, Uptown Grand Central’s cleaning program may not seem like the most obvious use of violence prevention funding. But the area around the 125th Street train station has seen its share of shootings. In February, a stray bullet hit a city bus in the middle of the afternoon. And in July, a 14-year-old was killed just three blocks north as he left a bodega.
The area has also long been a natural spot for trash to build up. Commuters toss their coffee cups. Visitors to nearby clinics and a safe injection site leave behind drug paraphernalia. People who sleep under the tracks have limited access to bathrooms, so they sometimes urinate and defecate right on the concrete.
Director Carey King, who lives in the neighborhood, thinks cleanliness and public safety go hand in hand.
“How does a clean street affect a safe street? Well, you just feel like the street is taken care of,” she said. “You just know that you’re part of a community that somebody cares for and somebody’s working to make better and you want to be a part of it.”
Around 4 p.m. on a recent Monday, Jason McDavid splashed the concrete with a hose, trying to wash away dead leaves and the smell of urine.
McDavid sees his job as much bigger than just trash pickup. He calls himself a “liberator” who tries to “keep the vibes up” — both with people on the street and with his younger co-workers. That’s the best way he knows how to keep the community safe.
“Sometimes people just need people to talk to, you know? Just to hear them out,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t even have to talk. You know? Sometimes you do more listening than talk. And they like that.”
That’s the type of support that Janet Cohen of The Community Initiatives of New York hoped to provide with the funding her organization received from the DA’s office.
The Central Harlem-based nonprofit used its gun violence prevention grant to give 25 teens stipends to participate in a six-week mentorship program with a mix of group sessions and one-on-one counseling.
“Oftentimes, our kids are [resorting] to violence because they don’t know — or they think that that’s the only option for them,” she said.
Cohen said the grant money allowed her to focus on teens who needed a little extra convincing to participate — those who she said had “one foot in and one foot out” of the program.
A lot of times, she said, the teens she works with get in trouble because they’re suffering at home and feel like they need to earn money to help their families. With funding for stipends, she can offer them an alternative.
“Let me pay you and teach you how to become mentally stable, how to become, you know, a support for those that are broken before you go back in there,” she said. “It’s a whole process.”