Teens call it the "Darkside."
The name may call to mind visions of Star Wars, but no imperial storm troopers patrol this area of Dartmouth North, bounded by Halifax Harbour, the Albro Lakes, the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge and Highfield Park. In their place, groups of young people wander the streets wearing hoodies and blue bandanas that proclaim this their territory.
"I tell them they're not representing anything," says Bonnie Hill, a life-long resident of the area. She's been a teen basketball coach and run teen programming at the North Dartmouth Boys and Girls Club. "All people see is your blue bandana, hood and baggy pants. They don't see you."
The Darkside is also the scene of an alarming number of swarmings. An analysis of daily police reports shows there were 37 swarming-type robberies in Dartmouth North last year. That's the highest number in the city, and up from 13 in 2005 and just 11 in 2004. Thirty-four of last year's attacks in North Dartmouth occurred in the Darkside. In comparison, there were 23 swarmings in all of north end Halifax in 2006.
The new community cop, constable Randy Wood, makes no attempt to downplay the situation. When he drives by, teens throw up their hoods or cover their faces with those blue bandanas, and they usually give him the finger. "There's a gap right now," he says. "I'm trying to bridge the gap between us by putting a human face on police officers."
One of the ways he's accomplishing this is by meeting with teens at the North Dartmouth Boys and Girls Club on Farrell Road, a large blue building out of place among the small, beige vinyled duplexes in the area. On this night there are no bandanas to be seen inside, where five kids sit around Wood in the club rec-room. The room looks well used—what isn't scuffed, dented, marked or out of place is missing altogether. It's the first time most of them have spoken with him. Though Wood, a former prison guard and built like a redwood, is physically intimidating, the teens don't hesitate to talk.
They spend two hours asking him about his job. They listen to his walkie-talkie, take turns handcuffing each other and learn how police catch criminals. Wood explains some of the tough decisions police officers have to make, like whether or not to shoot at someone.
Sometimes the teens laugh and joke. Sometimes they're so quiet you can hear the buzz of the overhead lights, such as when Wood tells them there are 19 police officers and extra patrol cars in the Darkside any given night. Police have been directing more resources to the area since early February. "We've got to stop all the violence and shootings. What else are we going to do?" says Wood. "That's why you might see four cop cars at a traffic stop.... We're not out here to bust your balls. We just have to stop this violence."
When Wood suggests taking a ride along with him, that's when the teens hesitate. They look at each other dumbfounded, with wide eyes. Laughter breaks out at Woods' apparently ridiculous suggestion.
"You can help a family or person one day, and the next day they don't like you," says Wood. "It's peer pressure. It's still not cool to like the police."
At the United Church on Hester Street, three teens sit slumped in chairs looking completely disinterested in being there. They keep their earbuds in, frequently check their cells and fiddle with the curtains. The teens who gather here on Sundays say they know why 2006 was a bad year for swarming—there's nothing else to do but get into trouble.
"If you had something to do you wouldn't do violence," says 15-year-old Meaghan Clyke. "You give up on yourself just like everybody else that gives up on you."
Carlos Beals, 17, says hanging out in groups on the street is the only thing many teens have to do. "If they called it a program, and gave it a name like a gang, they'd be doing something, but not anything positive." Meaghan, Carlos and their friends are supposed to get together to talk about what it means to be Christian in today's society though they usually end up talking about the problems they face every day. "We don't have a best part of our community," says Carlos. "We only have a bad part, which is all the violence."
Meaghan's brother, Rashawn, 16, says friends are the only community they have. Rashawn once considered gang life, but his friends talked him out of it. "They told me to think about my future. I know I wanna go places, and I don't want to risk that doing something stupid."
Although these teens are trying to keep busy and stay out of trouble, it's not easy. Some get in trouble standing up for their more violent friends. Rashawn says they do it because "we know for a fact they're there for us if something happened to us." In July, police were confronted by a crowd of teens while investigating a theft at the Dartmouth Sportsplex. More recently, a large aggressive group of teens at the Halifax International Busker Festival successfully prevented the arrest of a friend suspected of assaulting someone with a rock.
Trying to overcome the stereotypes is a daily struggle. The teens say teachers don't give them a chance and cops often talk to them only when they're in a group. But when they're hanging out with friends, they're embraced for who they are. They talk of friends who are happy when they get arrested, and brag about being in the Nova Scotia Youth Centre, a young offender facility located in Waterville. Carlos says one solution is to toughen the Youth Criminal Justice Act. "People get used to committing crimes. It becomes a game," says Carlos. "There's nothing else to do, so why not play cops and robbers?"
Della LeClair, the lone clinical social worker at Waterville, has seen a rise in the number of teens sent from Dartmouth over the past two years. She says it takes a community to raise a child, and urban areas need more community support for their young people. "I'm up against a complete brick wall here," says LeClair. "Even if I can motivate the teens to change, how are they supposed to replace what they get out of crime in healthy ways?"
At the North Dartmouth Boys and Girls Club, funding is always a concern. The non-profit club can only hold teen programs three nights a week. "If I could have my way, I would like to see the club open at night seven days a week," says Nancy Hollis, the executive director of the club. "But we need the money." The North Dartmouth Community Centre, run by the municipality, could financially fill the teen programming void, but the centre has a partnership with the club. To avoid taking members away from the club, the centre can't hold similar programs. That means the Boys and Girls Club is the only place in the Darkside with teen programming. Carlos says there needs to be programming every night. "They're open three nights a week and they say they're making a difference," he says. "OK, so I go out and kill someone Monday, and go to the club Tuesday."
Bonnie Hill says she knows 90 percent of teens in the Darkside. She's one of the area's few community leaders: They call her Bonzilla. Along with fellow community member Darlene Kane, she's trying to start her own teen-only facility, working on a proposal for grants and funding using testimonials from teens and parents. Last September, her basketball team of 13- to 15-year-old boys was thrown out of the Boys and Girls Club during its first practice. A teen broke a door swinging on it. Now there are no sports teams for 15-year-old boys at the club. Hill couldn't stand seeing kids being turned away because they've been blacklisted for bad behaviour. "I understand safety reasons, but when those kids come to the club they are completely different than when they're standing around outside." Following the ban, the club's bus's tires were slashed three times. The club's security cameras were smashed and the building was egged.
"If kids are on the street, and nothing's being offered to get them off it," says Hill. "This is the stuff they're going to be doing—crime."
The good news is the beefed-up police presence appears to be working, says constable Wood. As of August 19, there had been 11 swarmings in the Darkside. The regional councilor for the area, Jim Smith, calls the numbers a "little distressing" but says the problem isn't limited to North Dartmouth. "There's no reason to call alarm to it here.... It's a problem across the city where kids will beat someone up for $5 or cigarettes."
Back at the Boys and Girls Club, Wood plays basketball with some of the teens he's getting to know. When he's done, he'll head out on patrol in an unmarked car. Wood considers collecting intelligence and patrolling to be community work, "just in a different way." The most important part of his job, he says, is helping residents take their community back. Despite the stats and the problems, he believes there's enough hope alive to make it happen.
"This community is the strongest around that I've seen. It's one big family," he says. " are now adopting our measures to make sure the area's healthy. We know what's going on and we know the people. And it works very well."
Mike Landry is the listings editor for The Coast.