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In Huntington Station, push to save hometown

Anna Canales and her brother Osman, with Anna's

Anna Canales and her brother Osman, with Anna's 1-year-old daughter Natalie Canales, prepare to say goodbye to their sister Reyna and her family, who were in for a holiday visit from North Carolina. (Dec. 29, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

Rubenia Canales retrieved a black garbage bag holding the blue jeans her son wore the night two men attacked him in Huntington Station, and removed the crumpled pants.

She pointed to the ripped back pocket where her son, Isaí Canales, 35, carried his wallet, and to a dark blotch on one pant leg.

"That stain is blood," she said in Spanish.

Two men beat Canales as he left a Depot Road deli on Dec. 7. They dragged him out of the store, pummeled him so hard that they broke his jaw and left him bleeding on the ground, the family said. They took about $50 in cash from his day's pay for construction work, but didn't find bills he had hidden in other pockets.

No one called the police until Canales' family took him to the hospital, relatives said.

The attack was one of 52 assaults reported in Huntington Station last year and an example of the kind of crimes that cause residents of the hamlet's central neighborhood to live in fear and community advocates to push for change.

Life in Huntington Station's core -- a tight grid of streets and avenues on either side of the New York Avenue commercial stretch -- has, over decades, become defined by crime and the street gangs associated with it.

While Suffolk police reports show major crime has decreased in the past few years in all of Huntington Station, some residents of the central neighborhoods say they still live in fear of violence and that many crimes go unreported.

The challenges facing Huntington Station as a result of crime in its core area are representative of similar issues in other areas of Long Island, including parts of Brentwood, Wyandanch and Hempstead Village, where criminal gangs, substandard housing and the absence of cohesive improvement initiatives, among other factors, have given rise to blighted communities.

The unincorporated hamlet occupies about 5.5 square miles -- including the troubled core that stretches for more than 20 blocks along New York Avenue as it cuts through the center of the Town of Huntington. Long Island Rail Road tracks cross the hamlet named after the train stop, in operation since 1867.

Residents, activists, officials and the new Suffolk County executive, Steve Bellone, are striving to change the central area's reputation as one overwhelmed by crime.

"I began my term in the great community of Huntington Station because I felt the county had failed the community," Bellone told Newsday last month. "It was my desire . . . to send a clear message to the town and the community that they have a partner in the county and we will work together to enable Huntington Station to flourish."

Bellone rang in 2012 by meeting with officers from the Suffolk County Police Department's Second Precinct, which covers Huntington Station and its central neighborhood, and spent the first hours of his term patrolling the hamlet's streets with them.

Weeks later, Bellone returned to the community as he committed to redeploy the department's anti-gang units to precincts, signaling a renewed emphasis against street crime.

He said through a spokeswoman that he was focusing on Huntington Station "because it represented a community where territory was conceded to gangs and that was unacceptable."

That change will not come easily, say advocates who see myriad needs beyond law enforcement initiatives -- from economic development projects to recreational and educational programs that would strengthen ties among residents.

"You have a community here that is pretty much lost," said Ed Pérez, head of the Friends of Huntington Station Latin Quarter, an advocacy group, and co-chairman of a town coalition studying the hamlet's problems. "We want to say 'No more. It's enough.' We have had our share of crimes, so maybe we deserve our share of resources to fight this."

The crime that has dogged Huntington Station's core neighborhood, developed over decades of neglect after failed renewal efforts in the 1960s left empty storefronts and substandard housing, community advocates said.

That core area is roughly composed of more than two dozen blocks that run north to south along New York Avenue, another dozen blocks west of the thoroughfare, and some of the west-side streets just north of the railroad tracks. Most of the hamlet's remaining territory is not plagued by the blight, code enforcement and street crime issues that officials are vowing to fight.

In the past couple decades, the central area got a boost as immigrants, largely from Latin American countries, moved into the neighborhood, rented and bought homes, and opened businesses. A visible day-laborer community also emerged.

Street gangs and their associated drug activity took root up and down New York Avenue, police and residents said. Offshoots of the Bloods, the Crips, MS-13 and the Latin Kings recruited young men and, partly as a result, the hamlet's center became the site of violence, which helped solidify its negative image.

"I worry very much for my children," said Rubenia Canales, 61, who works nights cleaning offices in Melville. "When they have to go out they are on my mind all the time and I call them just so I could know they are fine."

A Nov. 27 gang-style shooting that injured three men on a sunny Sunday afternoon served as a reminder of how much needs to be done before Huntington Station residents like the Canaleses see a difference.

"We have a gang problem," said the Rev. Bernadette Watkins, who works with teens through her Huntington Outreach Ministries. "Some of these kids have been friends for years . . . then they joined these gangs and they became enemies."

The brazenness of the November shooting served as catalyst, bringing out about 100 people to a march against violence and spurring the town to bring back a civic coalition that had gone dormant to address the hamlet's core-area problems.

"My experience is that this is a community of people who care about one another, and the violence that takes place is the result of gang stuff that has little to do with most residents," said Msgr. Joseph P. Granata, pastor of St. Hugh of Lincoln Roman Catholic Church in Huntington Station. "The response has been for the community to draw closer together."

 

Pursuing their dream

Salvadoran immigrants Rubenia and Brígido Canales moved in 2002 from the Village of Hempstead with their three sons and two of their daughters to one of Huntington Station's west avenues. They purchased a split-level house for $218,500 and rented out the ground-level apartment to help pay the mortgage.

But they realized soon after moving in that the tree-lined street was not the charming suburban spot pictured in their American dream.

Thieves broke into their cars to steal radios and any other sellable items, they said. A bicycle disappeared from their yard. Groups of young men hung out outside and sometimes threw objects at their house.

Then it got worse: assaults, shootings and stabbings nearby.

"You are lucky if you live around here and nothing happens to you," says Brígido Canales, 57, a construction worker in Farmingville.

The most recent arrivals in Huntington Station are largely immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala. Foreign-born residents make up about 28 percent of the more than 33,000 people in Huntington Station, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Eleven percent of the population is black and 64 percent is white. Hispanics, who can be counted as either black or white, make up 37 percent of the population.

The densely populated core neighborhood reflects the changing demographics. Several storefronts along New York Avenue advertise in neon lights "Envíos de dinero" for the money remittance services used to wire dollars to countries of origin. The restaurants and bodegas offer familiar music, warm food and a drink.

The commercial area has attracted entrepreneurs such as Fermín Núñez, a Dominican immigrant who owns bodegas in Westbury and Riverhead as well as in Huntington Station.

His Huntington Deli draws so many customers that a man begging for change acts often as a doorman. Inside, steam from piles of white and yellow rice, boiled yuca, tripe and meatballs fog up glass counters.

"This place is good for business," Núñez, 36, said of the commercial area. "I keep the business clean, there's good lighting and we don't sell beer to drunks. But the [surrounding] neighborhood is dangerous."

Town Supervisor Frank Petrone said the hamlet's challenges -- long in the making -- will take time to be fully addressed after previous failures.

"It's going to take a concerted effort," Petrone said. "Everybody is at fault because we didn't stay together -- between the town, the county, the school district, some of the community people -- and what happened is that people became fragmented and became frustrated. Unfortunately, that was the snowball that rolled down New York Avenue."

 

Coalition tackles challenges

Those who responded to Petrone's recent call to join the Huntington Station Action NOW coalition have organized into subcommittees focusing on issues ranging from forming block associations to lobbying the government for resources.

The subcommittees reconvened last week to start setting an agenda for Huntington Station -- one that could include community policing, youth sports and tutoring programs, affordable housing and business zone beautification, said coalition co-chairwoman Dolores Thompson, who grew up in Huntington Station.

Coalition volunteers expect to make a public presentation of their plans in mid-April.

"The challenge is trying to take back our community," she said. "We had a wonderful community for years and we want it to be wonderful again."

The once-rural area, where the post office adopted the name Huntington Station in 1912, had by 1940 become a thriving community with schools, diners, a library, a movie house and a funeral home.

But urban renewal projects in the 1960s -- reflecting the national trend of razing old downtowns in favor of roads and concentrated shopping malls -- drove away businesses with owners who lived in Huntington Station, said Alfred V. Sforza, a dentist who grew up in Huntington Station and has compiled several volumes of town history.

Big projects for planned communities ranging from luxury apartments to subsidized housing that had been envisioned to revitalize the area were never fully realized, Sforza said.

The hamlet's core neighborhood became a forsaken area of unfinished construction and empty lots, said Sforza, 72.

"That whole community was taken apart and ever since that time we are dealing with challenges and committees trying to improve it and planning to rebuild," he said. "There have been maybe four or five plans to revitalize the area since and none of them have materialized."

The Hispanic population's lack of political cohesion has hampered those residents' ability to lobby effectively for change, said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

"As Huntington Station became poorer and more Latino, it stopped looking and sounding like the rest of the town, and the political, cultural and personal relationships with the power brokers in the town and the county diminished," Levy said. "The residents there need to . . . use the clout of common purpose to lobby for more."

Xavier Palacios, an attorney who was raised in Huntington Station and has an office there, said revitalization needs to engage the Hispanic community to gain traction. He is part of a group of current and former Latino residents trying to become involved in that change.

"We are homeowners, we are attorneys, we own bodegas, we own supermarkets," Palacios said. "We pay a lot of taxes and we don't want crime. We are as done with gangs as anybody else."

 

Bloodshed and pushback

Shootings and stabbings have helped shape its reputation.

Two gunmen shot a man as they ran down the street, firing a hail of bullets near Pulaski Road in March 2007. Armed burglars broke into a Lenox Road home in April 2008, firing at two men who were playing video games. One was shot and the other jumped out a window to escape.

The corpse of a stabbing victim lay in the open for hours at the edge of the hamlet near West Rogues Path as onlookers streamed by in October 2009.

A series of unrelated incidents in the summer of 2010 included three murders and the shooting of a 16-year-old girl during a street party.

That year the Huntington Public School board closed the Jack Abrams School nearby as concern spread that violence was creeping too close to the children. The decision left some residents with the impression that officials were giving up rather than fighting back.

"My daughter told me once that they told her at school that there were robbers around and to drop to the floor because there could be a shooting with police," said Ana Canales, 33, one of the Canaleses' daughters who moved in 2006 to a house near the former Abrams school. "It was really worrisome."

Osman Canales was driving to his sister's house in late December when he passed a common scene on New York Avenue: police cruisers with lights flashing and yellow crime tape.

One thought crossed his mind, he said: "Who did they hurt now?"

But another shooting, in January 2010, compelled Osman Canales, 23, the youngest of the Canaleses' three sons, to get involved in efforts to fight the violence.

The family had returned home from church when they heard the shots that killed Geremías Cáceres, a neighbor. Cáceres, 39, had been walking home with Denis, his 17-year-old son, when three young men tried to rob them. He didn't drop to the ground fast enough and was shot. The robbers, who have been convicted of attempted murder and murder charges, left the man to die steps from his house.

"That's when I understood that in this community some people are paying for the sins of others and that something has to be done," said Osman Canales, a student at Suffolk County Community College and friend of Denis Cáceres. "We, as residents of Huntington Station, can't continue living in fear."

Canales got family and friends to join a vigil he organized to denounce violence. He took it upon himself to go to Hispanic-owned businesses and try to get them behind a petition calling for safer streets, but said few of those merchants wanted to stir things up, either because they didn't care or were afraid.

 

Officials coordinate efforts

Police say Huntington Station is becoming safer.

Overall crime fell by 32 percent in the hamlet from 2010 to 2011, according to the most recent Suffolk County police statistics. Violent crime dropped by 18 percent with fewer murders, rapes, burglaries and larcenies.

In 2011, 654 incidents overall were reported, compared with 959 in the previous year. Statistics are not broken down by neighborhood, but represent the hamlet as a whole.

Insp. Edward Brady, commanding officer of the Second Precinct, credited the decrease to a combination of collaboration with other law enforcement agencies and focused police work in problem areas. He cited a 2010 joint effort with the FBI that put 20 gang leaders, mostly from the Latin Kings, behind bars.

Police officials would not estimate the size of the gang population in Huntington Station or its reduction since more aggressive enforcement started.

The Second Precinct has identified three "areas of concern" for increased patrolling in and around the more densely developed sections. Police also have created a new patrolling sector north of the railroad and assigned more patrols to problem areas, such as the east streets just south of the tracks and the avenues west of New York Avenue -- where the Canaleses live.

In December, police tested an acoustic shooting detection system known as ShotSpotter that officials say will improve response times by detecting gunfire as it happens.

Under the Bellone strategy to send anti-gang units to the neighborhoods, the precinct received one additional supervisor and five anti-gang officers in January. In the month after their redeployment, those officers had made 81 arrests for street crimes and illegal weapons. Among those charged were 25 known gang members, Brady said.

"We are keeping the pressure on," he said. "Our objective and our first responsibility is to make the community safe for our citizens."

Some residents say there may be more criminal activity in the central area than police indicate because not all incidents are reported. In the beating of the Canaleses' son, for example, no one called police from the scene, even though he told his family there were several witnesses.

 

'We can live in peace'

Despite the crime, many have decided to remain in Huntington Station's core neighborhoods. Sisters Victoria and Nuria Rubio grew up in Huntington Station and stayed. They like the community's diversity, they said, as well as its central location with easy access to shopping and beaches.

"It's like a diamond in the rough," said Victoria Rubio, 32, a health plan promoter. "It's still affordable and this could be a good place for middle-class families . . . We just need help fixing it."

Some change already is under way.

Brad Rosen, treasurer of the Huntington Station Business Improvement District, plans a grand opening before summer for the Station Sports Family Fun Center he developed -- a $1 million entertainment center in the middle of the hamlet.

He wants parents to be able to take children to play arcade games or host birthday parties at the center. Its mini-golf course stands out with faux rock formations, cascading water fountains and synthetic putting greens near the busy intersection of Depot Road and New York Avenue.

Rosen's office is in a renovated Depot Road complex that replaced a manufacturing plant and a day laborer hiring site shut by the town in 2010. He set aside a building on his property to house the town's public safety staff and an office for Second Precinct police officers to access surveillance feeds from 33 cameras along New York Avenue that could aid them in criminal investigations.

"I see the future here as bright and beautiful because I've heard from people here and they want this. They want change," said Rosen, 47, a Huntington resident.

At the same time, the town has been criticized by others, including Steven Spucces of the Greater Huntington Civic Group, for "not doing an adequate enough job" to both clean up the commercial area and to combat overcrowded and dilapidated housing nearby.

A Petrone spokesman said the town is doing all it can, while seeking support from state legislators to reinstitute a town-based code violation bureau that would pursue and process violations in a speedy and even manner.

Pérez of the Latin Quarter group cautioned that enforcement should be balanced with working with the Hispanic community. He suggested the community's ethnic flavor could become a strong selling point if New York Avenue is transformed into a hub of Hispanic arts and cuisine.

"We have to make it appealing for everyone," said Pérez, 55. "We need to get rid of the ghetto image and things will change."

Despite all the challenges, Huntington Station is home, Brígido Canales said as he sat in his living room recently, holding granddaughter Kelly, less than a year old and dressed in pink rompers.

"We hope that things will get better," he said. "We work very hard and we want to be able to come to our house and feel like this is a refuge and that we can live in peace."

With Deborah S. Morris

 

Portrait of a community

The Suffolk County Police Department Second Precinct has identified three "areas of concern" for increased patrols in Huntington Station:

1. "The East Streets" near Pulaski Road

2. "The Avenues" on the west side of New York Avenue

3. An area north of Railroad Street near the Jack Abrams School

Total populationn: 33,029

White: 21,130

Black or African American: 3,592

Asian: 1,164

Hispanics (of any race): 12,109

Immigrant population: 9,348

Median household income: $75,881

Population below poverty-level: 3,106

Owner-occupied housing units: 6,999

Renter-occupied housing units: 3,068

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 Census and 2008-2010 community survey estimates

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