Elijah Brown was 9 when he saw a man get shot dead.
It happened in 2004 in what he considers the safest, most dangerous place in Seattle — near the Rainier Community Center and Playfield in Genesee.
“I didn’t know what to think of it. You’re in the third grade – it doesn’t register,” he said. “It’s like you’re living a movie. I was more in shock at that specific time. As the years went on, and the shootings continued, it was like, that’s what’s happening.”
Last month, two young black men were shot to death next to the same park in separate incidents.
Brown is 22 now, and still lives up the street. Growing up, he tagged along with his older brother to the center’s teen program for bowling outings and cooking classes. Here he played football and basketball on community center teams and got his first internship.
This place is a paradox to him, suffused with happy childhood memories — and terrifying ones.
Brown points to where he and his friends were walking home from middle school when a man riding by in a car pointed a gun at them.
Another time, at football practice, shots rang out around them. The team hit the deck. “They're, like, just shooting and shooting, and we were on the ground for about five minutes just waiting,” Brown said.
Despite the violence, Brown and his peers kept coming to Rainier Community Center. For late night basketball gym on Fridays. For the recording studio. For the field trips to places they'd never been.
“We were always out doing something as a group,” he said. “That’s what made it fun. There was a year we went camping – we made chili mac over a fire. I went fishing before. You don’t hear about community centers taking kids fishing anymore. Getting them accustomed to new things. Understand that the world is a whole lot bigger than basketball, rap and being in the streets.”
He says Rainier Community Center kept many of the kids he knew out of trouble and out of the gangs that have long claimed these streets.
Then the teen program at the community center changed. New staff, new policies and new classes that just didn’t appeal.
They started charging $2 for Friday Late Night basketball and making teens show ID to prove they were between 13 and 19.
“There were little kids that would come with their older siblings, and they couldn’t come in,” Brown said. “How are you going to keep them off the streets if you make all these rules and don’t let them in?”
So Brown stopped coming as much. His friends, too.
One of those friends was Stephan Stewart. They had attended elementary and high school together and knew each other from the teen program.
Stewart was one of the men killed this month. He died at Rainier Playfield on July 14, gunned down as he visited a memorial to Shamar Curry. Curry had been killed days before.
The community center had been a lifeline for Stewart, Brown said.
“He was somebody who was involved in the gangs,” Brown said. “He had that pressure on him from the streets to be just like his dad.”
Stewart’s dad was also named Stephan — and his son became “Lil’ Steph.”
“When his dad was killed, his involvement got more,” Brown said. “He really was a good-hearted person. He really was a good person overall. But the pressure that the streets put on him. From the looks of it, it’s as if he had no choice.”
Stewart seemed to have turned a page in life. Friends say he was staying out of trouble. He had a young daughter about the same age as Brown’s son.
“We were talking the other day about how we became fathers, and how we can’t ever leave them,” Brown said. “So when you see something like this, it’s like he just couldn’t ever get past it."
Inside the community center, another man mourned the loss of the two young men killed near the playfield.
Andre Franklin grew up with Curry, 32, who was found dead on July 9 after a drive-by shooting. Another man was injured in the shooting.
Franklin directed the teen program that meant so much to Stewart and Brown. He now runs teen programs at other Seattle community centers, but he stayed in close touch with Stewart.
“Often he would tell me I was like his dad,” Franklin said. “I went to his graduations and have been involved throughout the years to guide him in the right direction and give him the resources he needed to be successful.”
Franklin said programs are only as strong as the relationships they create between kids and adults. And only as strong as the community’s commitment to giving young people what they need.
“Do you really want my son to have the same opportunities as your son?” Franklin said. “That's the question. People will say, ‘Yeah,’ but when it comes down to allocate resources, to what schools they are going to put their kids into, and providing opportunities, it doesn't really happen like that.”
Back outside the center, Elijah Brown ran into friends from the teen program. They live all over now and had returned to mourn their friend’s death.
And to be in this park, this paradox, a place where young people grow up, and where they know they could die.
That’s hard to understand for many new residents of the Columbia City area. These are people with enough money to afford the current price of housing in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Elijah Brown sees them comment in the neighborhood Facebook group about the need for more police.
“When I hear somebody in the group say, ‘What’s happening to our neighborhood?’ I just want to be, ‘Don’t you think that’s what we were asking, too?’” he said.
In the Columbia City area, two homicides in one year is unusual, but violent crime is not. Seattle Police Department crime statistics show that in Columbia City and Genesee, violent crime was at about-average levels at the mid-year point. But according to police statistics, this year guns have been involved in those crimes at the highest rate in a decade.
In the days following the second murder, police patrolled these streets, driving past again and again. Brown said that will tamp down violence for a while.
“It’s more involvement with the youth and not just the police patrolling,” he said. “Helping them find ways to get them out the street instead of just keeping them there and just lock them up. Because that’s the easiest thing to do.”
Brown said growing up in this community center helped him learn what he’s good at and discover the world beyond this neighborhood.
He's out of work currently. Brown had worked at a soup factory before he recently hurt his back. He still comes down to the community center all the time.
“Rainier is just my favorite place,” he said. “I come here to write. It lets me continue to be who I am, and that’s why I just like this place.”