Flip through the funeral book at St. John Cantius Church in the East New York section of Brooklyn, and you'll begin to get a sense of life on some of New York's toughest streets. Sister Margaret Smyth, the associate pastor, points to the entry for 17-year-old Julia Parker, who lived around the corner on Wyona Street. As she was taking a walk last summer, she was shot through the head. Gang members "thought she had squealed to the police after her boyfriend was murdered," says Sister Margaret. A few lines down is the name of Veronica Corrales, age 9. She had just come back from a trip to an amusement park in New Jersey and was waiting in the family car as her relatives unloaded the younger kids. A stray bullet pierced the car, killing her.

Drugs, desperation, and undersize coffins are part of the fabric of life for East New York's 150,000 residents, one third of whom live below the poverty level or are on welfare. Here, more children under the age of 10 die of gunshots than anywhere else in New York City. Here, the rules that keep a community and society glued together easily come unstuck. In February, as Mayor David N. Dinkins was on his way to visit the fortress-like Thomas Jefferson High School on Pennsylvania Avenue, two students involved in a petty argument were fatally shot in a crowded corridor. They are among 75 Thomas Jefferson students who have been killed since 1986.

East New York is an alien, brutal place to Brooklynites like me who live just a few miles away in more prosperous neighborhoods. I'm familiar with East New York only because my uncle, a retired parish priest, invites me to visit every now and then. After he told me of an uplifting project his church had been involved in, I decided to take an even closer look at East New York.

ON PATROL. Officers Patrick Abdul and Mark Amos point out to me the puddles of blood that mark where two men dealing crack out of a van have just been wounded. They explain to me that the victims, both Hispanic, had violated the complicated territorial mosaic of East New York and had strayed into alien drug turf. So some Jamaican rivals had strolled over, checked out the scene, and shot down both men.

The rest of the two hours I spent with the two officers was much the same. From the moment our blue-and-white patrol car pulled out of the 75th Precinct lot, the radio reported a gunshot or a a drug deal about every 20 seconds. With me snug in a Kevlar bulletproof vest, we answered about a dozen calls--a reported mugging, a roving group of teenagers the officers frisked, a drunken domestic squabble they settled, and so on.

Later, I relate all this pathos to my uncle, Monsignor Walter Galuszka, the retired pastor of St. John Cantius. He says that, of course, it wasn't always like this. When he arrived 30 years ago from another Brooklyn parish, East New York was a blue-collar neighborhood of Jews, German Lutherans, and Italian and Polish Catholics. Most of its residents labored in the small factories that then dotted Brooklyn and Queens. The late Danny Kaye, amoung other notables, grew up on its tree-lined streets.

All that changed in the 1960s. The jobs moved out--to everywhere from New Jersey to Taiwan--and welfare recipients, many of them minorities, started moving in. First, social workers placed the newcomers on the fringes of East New York, particulary in Brownsville. Longtime residents started packing for the suburbs. School turnmoil and riots, followed by block-busting real estate tactics, accelerated white flight.

By the late 1970s, East New York was a fearsome slum. The city had little money--or inclination--to help. Federal urban-renewal and housing funds were drying up. With Ronald Reagan coming to power, little more money would be forthcoming. The city so neglected East New York that houses often burned out of control because there were no street signs to guide firemen.

Finally, churches and synagogues in East New York and nearby neighborhoods took matters into their own hands. In the early 1980s, they formed East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC), and new street signs were the first order of business. Then, they tried something far more ambitious: building thousands of privately owned, single-family townhouses to try to bring some stability to the neighborhoods.

CRITICAL MASS. They named their program after Nehemiah, the Old Testament prophet who rebuilt Jerusalem. First, EBC persuaded the city to condemn vacant lots whose owners had quit paying taxes. By the mid-1980s, the Nehemiah Plan began building two-story, brick townhouses on these lots, starting with $6 million provided by local Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches. So far, EBC has built 1,100 Nehemiah homes in Brownsville, 1,200 in East New York, and more in the Bronx and elsewhere.

Three principles guide Nehemiah, explains EBC Director David Nelson, a Lutheran minister. Owners must live in the houses. Homes must be available on a first-come, first-served basis to financially qualified buyers. And, says Nelson, there has to be critical mass--enough Nehemiah homes bunched together to keep drug dealers at bay. "You can't stabilize the neighborhood if you have Nehemiah homes scattered here and there," he says.

City bureaucrats repeatedly tried to derail Nehemiah, Nelson says. Its very existence, he claims, was a "tacit indictment of the City of New York and in particular, the Borough of Brooklyn."

Nevertheless, the Nehemiah homes have been a success. EBC stopped taking applications when they reached 5,500. So far, the group has turned away 35,000 other would-be homeowners. One who got in is Maria Burgos, a church receptionist who emigrated from Puerto Rico as a teenager in 1957. She and her husband, a factory foreman, earn $30,000 a year, hardly enough to finance a home in New York. But that was less than EBC's income limit of $52,000, so they were accepted as Nehemiah buyers.

BACKYARD BLISS. In June, the Burgoses moved into a three-bedroom, $62,000 townhouse. They put down $6,000 and got $10,000 from the city, a sum that must be paid back only if they sell. Mortgage payments come to about $418 a month--less than the rent they paid before. "If you're poor, you never dream of owning a home," says Maria Burgos. "Now, I have a backyard for my grandchildren. It's safe when you own your own place: You have better neighbors."

Police agree. Nehemiah makes their job easier, they say, because residents help in little ways, such as switching on every other porch light in a block to help drive criminals away. And homeowners tend to get in less trouble. Inspector Patrick Carroll, 75th Precinct commander, notes that robbery, burglary, and grand larceny all declined last year. "The community's changing. It's beginning to stabilize, thanks partly to Nehemiah," says Carroll.

You can still hear gunfire at night in East New York. But a civic effort is starting to take back at least some of those streets, decades after government gave up trying.

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