Elevate Difference

Gangs in Garden City: How Immigration, Segregation, and Youth Violence Are Changing America

As sprawl becomes less environmentally acceptable, foreclosures soar, and media trumpet the end of the suburban dream, the suburbs or at least some of them, have emerged as a problem, rather than as a solution. Although the house prices in the true islands of affluence have fallen, crime, drugs, and gangs are emerging in suburban neighborhoods abandoned to working-class and immigrant people. Sarah Garland provides an in-depth analysis of how the Long Island suburb of Hempstead decayed in her book, Gangs in Garden City. She also explores how interconnected the decay of Hempstead and other such communities is to other critical issues such as foreign policy, the war on drugs, immigration, and No Child Left Behind.

However, front and center are the stories of individuals, from gang members to police to educators. We meet Julio, the child soldier of the U.S.-funded Salvadoran army, who braves the perilous border crossing to join his mother in the United States. His attempts to ameliorate the gang problem in Hempstead are rebuffed by authorities and he ends up detained by immigration authorities and eventually agrees to be deported back to El Salvador, where his gang associations still haunt his life. Jessica will especially engage feminist readers. A tough tomboy, who still wants a frilly dress for her fifteenth birthday celebration, she faces fatal retribution when she runs afoul of gang politics.

Garland tracks the gangs of the title from Central America and back, but avoids the facile explanation that views the source of the problem as coming from elsewhere. She traces the ideology of suburbia back to the garden city of the book title, a concept that grew out of the distaste for the slums created by industrialization and urbanization, a flawed ideal of a contained community safe from the outside world. Once a rural village, Hempstead transformed into a suburb in the 1940s and, because of its mix of older single-family housing and apartments, was one of the first suburbs to be racially integrated. She explores the implications of retail flight, a declining tax base, and drug traffic in Hempstead from the point of view of the police chief, the school principal, and county politicians. Add a misguided foreign and immigration policies to this toxic mix, and the result is the sad story of Hempstead. She also explores the uses made of gang activity in stoking the public’s fear of crime for political advantage.

The benefits of meeting the human beings affected by the unfolding sociological disaster are somewhat undercut by the sometimes confused narrative. The intentional intertwining of their stories and the decision to intersperse their stories in necessary exposition about changes in legislation, city planning ideas, and juvenile justice theories make the story difficult to follow at times. Then again, Garland never ignores the complexities attending this issue. For, that she deserves our gratitude.

Written by: Frances Chapman, September 24th 2009

Thick, skillfully crafted review. Gives excellent idea of the book. Thanks.