The first days were the worst.
It was freezing, and I couldn’t find my gloves. There was snow on the ground, and nobody was interested in helping Blade photographer Amy E. Voigt and me put together a map of gang territories in Toledo.
East Toledo seemed like a logical place to start. We walked around the Weiler Homes, stopping residents to ask if they knew anything about gangs in the area.
We learned later that the silence was probably more about survival than not wanting to cooperate.
We spent two days doing this — driving around the city trying to find people and community organizations willing to help.
“We can’t help you.”
“We won't help you.”
“Are you crazy?”
“I don't know what you’re talking about.”
Frustrated, we gave up for the week (it was a Friday). I left work thinking there was no way this map would ever happen.
The police couldn’t help — not really. “Be careful,” officers cautioned as I explained why I wouldn't be around the Safety Building for a while. "You can't trust these guys."
Eventually, by some saving grace and a few decent ideas, we met people such as Willie Knighten, Jr., Roshawn Jones, Shawn Mahone, and other people we can’t mention by name. Each of these men knew something about gangs and works with young people now.
About the series:
They were our connection to the inside. They were great sources for information, background, and understanding. They put up with a lot of phone calls and numerous follow-ups and connected us to other people — including the gangs — who could help.
Without them, we might still be working on this project.
Everyone thinks I’m a cop.
Ten weeks and an estimated 900 hours later (between Amy and me), the map is on Page A13 today. A companion interactive gang map complete with videos of interviews with gang members is at toledoblade.com/toledogangmap.
I am a better reporter now than I was when we started this project in mid-January. The Blade, I think, is a better newspaper for taking on the task.
People expected Amy and me to be scared of the assignment. Send two women into neighborhoods that are oftentimes not known for anything other than violence?
“You don't want to talk to these guys. They're going to set you up and rob you.”
“You’re going to be in danger and taken advantage of.”
Once during the assignment, there was a rush of adrenaline. In the moment — the “riot” outside Scott High School after students were pepper-sprayed by sheriff's deputies — adults and youths threatened Amy. One kid took a swing at her while she was recording video and taking pictures. We left rattled, but after a few minutes to stop, breathe, and sit down, we were fine.
Otherwise, I never felt like we were in danger. No one threatened me, made me feel insecure, or uncomfortable. No one tried to intimidate me.
The people we talked to — active and former gang members, frustrated mothers and fathers, young Toledoans trying to make a difference for themselves, their families, and their city — were kind. They were welcoming, they were gracious.
I guess I'm a little frustrated I even need to explain that.
We had the great fortune of meeting people who were willing to trust us and open up to share their stories and their secrets.
I think the Toledo community will be better for reading the stories, seeing the photos, and watching the videos.
I imagine people will be upset by the information that is here; some might not believe it’s accurate. It’s not something that's been widely available before.
Former Toledo Mayor Jack Ford said he hopes the map is a catalyst for a candid community conversation.
One of the most frustrating parts of reporting this series was finding out there’s no real end in sight. If the young men and women who are involved in gangs don't see it, how can I?
I want to be optimistic.
There are a lot of programs that offer help to troubled youth and convicted people who want to do better with a second or third chance.
Sometimes that wake-up call takes a little longer for some.
The young men and women we talked to — most of them were my age — said violence only ends with prison or more violence. But even then violence begets violence.
On the streets, it’s survival of the fittest, and that can mean a lot of different things.
One of the things that struck me most during our conversations with gang members came during an interview with “Chaos,” a 28-year-old gang member from the south side. A Folk.
He said, basically, what he does on the streets he does for his family — he is making a reputation for himself so that his cousins, brothers, nieces, nephews — whoever — has an easier time in the future.
Sounds a lot like what my parents told me when I was a kid. “Taylor, our goal is for you to be more successful than we are.”
At some point, probably before I was even a teenager, my mom told me that. Didn't make a lot of sense then, but it does now. Same principle, different application.
And, at this point, I feel like I understand where the gang members I interviewed are coming from — I kind of get the gang culture and lifestyle.
“Chaos” explained that the culture and the lifestyle are not the same thing. Gangs don’t have to be bad. The culture is the idea of solidarity and community.
The lifestyle — drugs, guns, violence — that's what some gang members adopt and what gets them in trouble.
But really, when it comes down to it, I don’t understand at all. And no matter how many months Amy and I could have spent on this project, we would never fully understand.
But we’re doing our best to get it, to understand, to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
I hope people will keep sharing. My ears are open.
Contact Taylor Dungjen at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6054, or on Twitter @taylordungjen.