Donna DiVito was excited when she bought her $40,000, three-bedroom home in a hardscrabble area of North Bellport in 1994.
Sure, the neighborhood had its problems, she said to herself at the time, but the lure of finally being a homeowner was strong.
Nearly 20 years later, DiVito is caught in that same mix of emotions. While she said she minds her business and avoids trouble, a few years ago someone shot up her house with a BB gun, causing $6,000 in window and vinyl siding damage. Police never made an arrest, she said.
She admits she doesn't feel comfortable taking walks in her neighborhood and says that her son, an NYPD detective, refuses to allow her grandchildren to visit, citing the area's violence.
On the other hand, she is reluctant to leave.
"[My son] . . . just says, 'Sell the house. You're in the hood,' " said DiVito, 56, a state worker. "It's not that I don't want to. But I don't know where I would go from here."
It's not an uncommon refrain from some North Bellport residents, who say they were lured to the area by affordable housing, but have recently become concerned about crime.
A perception of crime
But police say the area's biggest issue is perception, citing statistics showing that shootings, stabbings and other violent crimes have decreased slightly in the greater Bellport area over the past year, though gang activity and drug dealing remain persistent.
"I don't think North Bellport is a bad area; I think the whole greater Bellport area has a lot going for it," said Insp. Aristides Mojica, commanding officer of Suffolk's Fifth Precinct, which includes the area. "The overwhelming majority of people that live in the area are interested in continuing to make improvements. You don't have anarchy in the streets. . . . There's certainly a perception out there of a lot of crime, but it's for us to make the point -- it's not all that bad. The reality is in the numbers. But the reality is not to be complacent and to strive for improvement."
Only one homicide has been recorded since 2012 in the hamlets of North Bellport, Bellport, Brookhaven, East Patchogue and Yaphank -- an area served by a local ambulance corps whose volunteers began wearing bulletproof vests while on the job in response to a perception that the area was growing more dangerous.
"We wanted to protect our people as best we can," said Gregory C. Miglino, chief of South Country Ambulance, one of the largest ambulance corps in the state, which serves the Bellport area.
"When I started in EMS 20 years ago, people didn't wear gloves to calls; you got blood on you and it wasn't a big deal; times change," Miglino said. "And as the environment around you changes, you have to change for that environment."
From 2012 to 2013, burglaries in the area fell from 225 to 172 and aggravated assaults -- which include stabbings, shootings and assaults with other weapons -- decreased from 57 to 52. Robberies increased slightly, from 26 to 29. The number of charges of reckless endangerment -- which include shootings in which no one was injured -- increased slightly from 12 to 13. Rapes, however, increased, from two to six.
In North Bellport alone, burglaries dropped from 99 in 2012 to 68 last year, while aggravated assaults and robberies increased from 2012 to 2013.
Still, North Bellport was one of five communities where Suffolk police installed its controversial ShotSpotter Gunshot Location System in December 2011.
The majority of the crime in the area is in North Bellport, while the Village of Bellport -- home to waterfront mansions -- records much lower numbers, according to police statistics.
Gangs in the area
Some of the area's crime is gang-driven, Mojica said. "Even if the reality is their presence isn't driving big numbers, their presence does dominate the atmosphere. It's intimidating. Even if the numbers are small, the potential for them to have an impact is there."
Police say they've made inroads on the gang front. Last summer, Mojica said, police arrested several youth between the ages of 12 and 14. A North Bellport street gang called Natural Born Killers has been recruiting children as young as 9 to join the group.
But some community members say the area's reputation is somewhat unfair and argue the hamlet is on the upswing, with the national wholesaler BJ's poised to open a store there this year, bringing 130 jobs.
John Rogers, chairman of the Greater Bellport Coalition, said he has been working with Town of Brookhaven officials and police on several initiatives to revitalize the area, concentrating on creating economic opportunity as a way to tamp down crime.
"We're trying to create this walkable community of stores and shops that will give people in the community the opportunity to own their own businesses and create jobs," Rogers said.
But Anthony Gazzola, president of the South Country Community Conference, a nonprofit community group, said he regularly talks to residents about their crime concerns, and said incidents often go unreported for fear of reprisals.
"A lot of stuff happens around here; residents get beat up, and they don't want to press charges, so there's no reports," Gazzola said. "More than 50 percent of crime around here isn't reported. Nobody wants to report the crime."
The reality of crime
Catherine Donnelly, 41, an office worker who eventually sold her North Bellport home, said she always reported crimes. Like the three times her house was broken into, and the other time she got in her car to go to work and discovered two men in her backseat.
"My car got broken into in my driveway, and there were two men in my backseat," Donnelly said. "Luckily I noticed them and I didn't get strangled and knifed. I got out of my car and locked them in there."
She installed an alarm system and put security bars on her windows, but still didn't feel safe, she said.
A single mom to three boys, Donnelly said her then-middle school-aged son was bullied by boys who boasted their older brothers were gang members. That, she said, coupled with her feeling that neither she nor her boys could leave the house once night fell, solidified her desire to move.
"I was constantly living in fear," said Donnelly, who sold her house this year.