More than 200 Hempstead Village residents and others from nearby communities came together in Mirschel Park Saturday for the seventh annual Hempstead Day, which promotes an end to neighborhood violence.
The village of 54,000 has among the highest crime rates on Long Island. That's why residents, community activists and local officials are concerned about statistics that show a rise in homicides in the village, bucking the national trend.
Homicides nationwide showed a decrease of 4.2 percent in 2010 compared with 2009, according to the FBI. But the number of homicides in the village doubled from six to 12 during the same period, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
"Mirschel Park is in a community that has great need," said Bishop J. Raymond Mackey, executive director of Helping End Violence Now (HEVN), a coalition of community groups that organized the event. "We wanted to reach out to the community and boost their morale."
Just a few steps from the park is Terrace Avenue, a six-block area described in January 2009 by Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice as the most notorious "open-air drug market" on Long Island. Mackey sent outreach teams there to invite people to the event.
"One of the greatest rewards is seeing lives changed," said Mackey, who remembered Hykiem Coney, a former gang member who became an anti-gang activist. Coney, 24, was fatally shot outside a Hempstead bar in 2006 by a gunman who had targeted someone else.
More than 50 teens played in a basketball tournament in Coney's memory during the event. Other attendees enjoyed free food and live gospel music. Some preached to the youth.
Tyric Vessel, 30, of Hempstead, told the crowd about his life growing up in foster care. At age 14, he was living on the streets of Baton Rouge, La., selling drugs and involved in gang activities. Though he came to New York in 2002 to pursue a career as an R&B singer, he ended up preaching instead.
"I don't dwell on my past," Vessel said. "I want to encourage young people not to be followers."