Two months before Jordan Manners was shot dead in his school, the young men accused of his murder went to a local community group for help.
They didn't get it because they live in Canada's toughest neighbourhood, a place where guns are abundant and gang turf determines who can go where. One of the accused, a 17-year-old who dropped out in March and whose girlfriend gave birth a week before Jordan's death, said he had always struggled academically but wanted a program that could help him stabilize his life and finish high school.
"I'm slow," he told a community worker. "I know I am. I need a teacher who can be really patient with me."
The sad irony is that such a program already exists in Jane-Finch. But it's on the south side of Finch Avenue, which might as well be in another country.
The two accused are from the areas north of Finch that were targeted by police in this week's raids against the Driftwood Crips. The Crips have a sworn enemy in the Bloods, who live in the housing projects on Finch's south side, and they ceremoniously avoid each other's territory.
It's a segregation expressed mainly through clothing, blue for Crips and red for Bloods, and it has existed for a decade. Nor is it limited to serious criminals, but extends all the way to 13-year-old wannabes.
Last year, I spent three months writing about Toronto's Jane-Finch neighbourhood. I met a group of young people who provided a glimpse of what it's like to grow up here. Nearly two weeks ago, after Jordan's shooting death, I returned to the neighbourhood and spoke to some of the same teens again.
For all the headlines his killing produced, it was just one among many here, remarkable only because it happened at school. And although Jordan lived barely a kilometre away, he was from the north side of the divide, unknown in the south - killed, police say, not by enemies but by friends.
"I don't know the kid," one teen told me, "and I don't care."
Crossing the line
Most of those I spoke with live in the enormous Palisades apartment complex that sits at the corner of Jane Street and Finch Avenue. They are between 15 and 21 years old and consider themselves Bloods, an identity borrowed from the gang wars of Los Angeles.
On the Internet, they pass themselves off as hardcore gangsters. They want to look tough, and dress in baggy gangsta-style clothes, but few are deeply involved in criminal activity. The gang is a collective identity that provides a sense of security in a tough environment.
Lefty, a 16-year-old named for his smooth left-handed jump shot, was the first to explain the turf issues to me. We met on a warm summer evening last year as the sun slipped behind the Jane Street apartment towers. The leader of their weekly youth group had decided they should play soccer at nearby Driftwood Public School, which for the young men from Palisades meant going "up-top" into Crips territory. They were a little scared.
"What? We're going to Driftwood? Are you kidding?" Lefty said. "What if those Somalians come? They'll slice us up," someone else added.
The soccer game went off without incident. No one noticed that these teenagers, who happen to carry red bandanas, or "rock the red flag," had strayed outside their usual boundaries.
Sitting on aluminum bleachers in the park, Lefty looked out over the Jane-Finch skyline. He said his friends aren't "real" gang members. They don't own guns, and they're not in a battle for the drug trade. But they have to look out for each other. That's how it is around here.
"You've got to be deadly," he said with a shrug. "You've got to be strong and brave, and you've got to be willing to fight."
He pointed east to 15 Tobermory Drive, a hulking public-housing high-rise, west to Gosford Boulevard, and then north to Driftwood Court and beyond to Shoreham Court. All four housing developments are Crips turf.
"We're surrounded up here," he said. The Bloods' allies are all south of Finch, he explained, in places like Connections and the Lane, also public-housing developments.
In their planning sessions, community workers refer solemnly to "boundary issues" that impede program delivery. When the police hold consultations with youth, they have meetings in each distinct area to prevent rival gangs from mingling.
It's as though the kids have redrawn the neighbourhood map and forced the adults to adapt. As a result, the teens from Palisades, who often complain of having nothing to do, don't use the well-equipped community centre that's a block away in Crips territory.
There was a time when the gangs of Jane-Finch all wore red, but there was a split in the mid-1990s and the groups to the north went their own way. Recently, the self-imposed segregation has proved an effective buffer zone between the two groups, according to those who work closely with neighbourhood youth.
"The south guys don't want to beef with the north guys," one youth worker said. "The north guys are the killers."
The result has been a drop in traditional Bloods-versus-Crips animosity. But there has been a simultaneous increase in internecine strife, as young people from the same community feud among themselves.
The Crips, targets of the Project Kryptic raids, have gained a reputation as aggressive, trigger-happy stickup artists who generate a fair portion of their income through robbery. In the last few weeks alone, there have been several shooting incidents in the Shoreham and Driftwood areas. But the Crips lack effective top-down leadership. There's no system for redistributing income, as there is in traditional organized crime, for example, and small cliques have stronger loyalty to one another than to the gang as a whole.
The Bloods to the south have a more stable organization, in which senior leaders look out for the young people in their communities, encouraging them to stay in school and steer clear of guns. Some even deal drugs to put themselves through university, the youth worker said.
"The south side guys are the moneymakers," he said. "They're not into the guns because they don't want the heat the guns bring, and they have older guys to tell them how to act. They don't have that mentorship in the north."
Toughening up a grave
Allen Benn was killed in April at the age of 20. Police say he was lured out of his apartment and set upon by a gang of people, stabbed several times and left to die.
He was the last person anyone expected to be murdered, and his friends say he wasn't involved in any serious criminal activity. Like most young people in the neighbourhood, he was affiliated with a group. The four people accused of killing him are his friends and fellow Bloods.
Justice, 21, is one of the senior members of the Palisades group and was one of Allen's closest friends.
"It was just over stupidness," he said. "It makes me sick. I can't even think about it."
He and a few others members of his crew piled into my car this week for the short drive up Jane Street to the graveyard.
"We made his grave look so tough," Justice said. "Wait 'til you see. It's the toughest one in the whole cemetery."
Justice was wearing one of the several Allen Benn RIP T-shirts that he owns (many kids in the neighbourhood wore similar T-shirts this week, some in memory of Jordan Manners, others in memory of Aleisha Ashley and Monique McKnight, killed last week as police chased a stolen car.) The grave was decorated with a dozen red plastic roses. Justice and his friends fussed over the flowers, trying to make them stand upright in the dry, cracked earth.
"I can't believe he's gone. It's so weird," one of them said, looking down at the headstone.
"I know," Justice replied.
They shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other, occasionally bending down to brush away some dirt that obscured the epitaph. They placed coins around the bronze letters of his name for good luck.
"I'll bet you anything those coins are gone when we get back. Someone always steals them," Justice said.
They stood there looking at each other for a while, not sure what to say. Then they turned on Kwame (not his real name), a skinny, hyperactive teenager whose cousin is believed to have wielded the knife that killed Allen.
"Maybe we should kill you for revenge," Justice said.
"Yo, shut up, brethren. It's not my fault," Kwame said. He's clearly heard that jibe a lot recently. "How many times I have to tell you - I didn't even know they were planning anything. He's not my real cousin anyway. We just met on the plane from Sierra Leone."
As they wandered through the headstones, they named various people, all of them young, who are buried here and there. Their manner was a blend of solemnity and the peculiar pride of survivors.
"This place is going to fill up this summer," Kwame said.
"No it's not. Are you stupid? They arrested everybody. It's going to be fine," Justice told him.
On the way home, those still in school discuss their coming exams. One is hoping to pass science, having failed badly the year before.
"How is it possible to get a 20 per cent when I went to class every day?" he asked. "I hate science."
Basketball and firepower
On Tuesday this week, the group was in its usual spot, lounging in front of the massive apartment tower at 10 San Romanoway, dribbling basketballs and antagonizing one another.
A woman in her 40s walked up and confronted Justice in front of his friends, accusing him of abandoning the pregnant mother of his child. The woman was with a group of girls, one of whom was the embarrassed, forlorn-looking expectant mother.
The woman even showed him images of the baby's ultrasound to get his attention, but Justice was skeptical. He's pretty sure he's not the father, he said, because they broke up quite a while before she got pregnant. But he's willing to take a DNA test to find out, he said, and if it's his child, he'll take responsibility.
Justice's friends teased him for a minute or two, and then the incident was quickly forgotten as they took to the basketball court.
The game was reasonably good-natured until Jamal (not his real name) showed up, flashing his red bandana and picking on one of the weakest teens in the group, a thin, meek boy wearing a gold chain - a desirable status symbol.
"Why don't I just grab your chain? I'd be doing you a favour, teaching you to stand up for yourself, bitch," Jamal said.
The young man looked terrified. Others intervened to prevent the robbery, but Jamal continued to push, accusing the teen of staring at him when he clearly was doing all he could to avoid him.
"Why you grillin' me? You trying to get at me?" Jamal said, circling him in an aggressive strut.
He threw a right hook that connected with the teen's jaw, landing with a dull thud. The teen staggered backward but didn't retaliate. All the while the others continued to play until a guy named Osman grew fed up and stepped between them.
"Just leave him alone. Can't you see he's not going to stand up for himself? Just leave, you're ruining the game," Osman said.
Jamal turned on Osman. "Check the firepower," he said, and pointed to the back pocket of his jeans to suggest he was carrying a gun.
"Check the firepower?" said Osman, incredulous. "I survived 10 years in a war, motherfucker, so think I'm scared of you? Don't tell me about firepower - punk ass bitch."
Jamal stormed off, and some of the players had the impression he was going home to get a gun, while others said he wouldn't be back.
Fifteen minutes later, a group of teens sitting courtside and smoking a joint got up suddenly and started moving away. The players noticed and saw a lone man circling on a bicycle with one hand concealed in his pocket, staring at the court.
One of the players said he hates being inside the fenced court because there's only one exit. The others started to disperse. It turned out not to be Jamal, but another young man they believed was carrying a gun and had a beef with some of the guys.
In the end, nothing happened, and those who never flinched mocked the others for getting nervous. "How's he going to come in here and bust shots?" one of them said. "No way, dog."
Opportunities, good and bad
Stephnie Payne said the killing of Jordan Manners should serve as a wakeup call to governments. "In my view the dam is about to burst. There are inadequacies in the system," she said, referring to a litany of funding cuts in education and social services.
Ms. Payne runs the San Romanoway Revitalization Association, a neighbourhood resource centre. The door is always open and teens are welcome to drop in for a meal, to use the computers or to get some guidance.
When you compare Jane and Finch with some of the city's other 13 priority neighbourhoods, she said, "yes, kids do die around here but let's look at the issue: Kids dying around here are young, black and male. They're primarily from single-parent households, led primarily by women who may have menial jobs or who rely on the state for survival. They live in apartment buildings, high-rises with other siblings. So when you look at those issues - poverty, marginalization, race and gender it creates elements of antisocial behaviour.
"We need to create opportunities for these students."
Ice is trying to find just such opportunities, as opposed to the one he was offered last year: selling crack cocaine.
Ice is 16 years old. He came to Canada from Ghana with his family eight years ago and they, like many recently arrived immigrant families, settled in the Jane-Finch area where rents are low.
Unlike most of his friends, Ice lives with both of his parents. While most of his friends have had scrapes with the law - for theft, assault and minor property crimes - he's not subject to any form of probation or judicial sanction. He passes his classes, excels in sports, and is one of the few in his group who talks about his plans for the future. He wants to learn a trade, possibly plumbing, and set up his own business.
He'd like to have more money now. He had a job last summer working as a janitor in his building, but it didn't last. So he was faced with a difficult, possibly life-altering decision: to deal or not to deal.
He thought about it for a while, and asked how it would work. The dealer would give him a cellphone, a list of clients and a quantity of crack. Clients would call the cellphone when they were looking to buy. For every sale, he'd get to keep a percentage and pass the rest back up the supply chain.
Ice decided not to do it. It's too dangerous, he said. When a dealer wants his money by 3 p.m., by 4 p.m. he doesn't want his money any more, he explained, he just wants you dead.
"It's a life-or-death situation," he said, "and I'm not into that."