ASBURY PARK - There is a beachfront playground here dedicated to a teacher killed in the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, a national tragedy that took place some 130 miles away.
But just across town, the pain that decades of gun violence has caused within the city’s impoverished West Side is neither memorialized nor acknowledged in any concerted way, residents say.
One year ago, on Feb. 21 last year, the shocking killing of a 10-year-old city boy added to the community's collective grief.
Yovanni Banos-Merino, an ebullient fifth-grader at Bradley Elementary School who enjoyed football, soccer and skateboarding, was killed when a gunman fired five shots into his family's West Side apartment on Ridge Avenue.
When the shooting erupted, Yovanni, one of eight children in the family, hid under his bed but was mortally struck by a bullet that penetrated his shoulder, authorities said. The boy's mother, Lilia Merino, then 38, was also hit, but was treated at a hospital and released.
Even as crime in the city goes down, the West Side of Asbury Park struggles with the heartbreak of gun violence. Ryan Ross and Shannon Mullen, Asbury Park Press
Yovanni's killing came at a time when shootings and other violent crimes were easing in Asbury Park, the city's Uniform Crime Reports show. It was the only gun homicide in the city last year; 12 other people were shot and survived, according to the 2018 report.
Comparative shooting incident totals for 2017 were not available, but those numbers have been declining since 2012, when at least 26 people were injured by gunfire, the Asbury Park Press reported. There were six total homicides in 2013, compared with two last year.
Overall, the city's crime rate fell 13 percent in 2018, as detailed in the graphic below.
Local officials point to a number of factors contributing to the trend, including the hiring of more police officers, police department technology upgrades, additional use of foot patrols, a concerted effort to boost recreational offerings and other youth programs, efforts by community leaders on the West Side to diffuse disputes before they escalate to violenc and a steadily improving local economy.
"Internally we've tried to look at ways to increase youth participation and keep them engaged," said Amy Quinn, the deputy mayor. She cited recent discussions the city has had with local business owners and developers about creating apprenticeships for city youth.
“It’s no doubt due to the continued team effort in the city: the support of the mayor and City Council in providing us with necessary resources and manpower, the dedication and hard work of the officers of the Asbury Park Police Department, and the ongoing participation from the Asbury Park community," Police Chief David Kelso said in a prepared release last month.
But raw crime numbers can't measure the suffering gun violence has caused in distressed, mostly minority communities like the West Side, where the lion's share of the nation's deadly shootings occur each year.
Residents and community leaders in those communities have watched the grassroots gun-control campaigns and protests spawned by mass shootings in suburbs like Newtown and Parkland, Florida, a year ago. Now they're asking, "What about us?"
"When you have a shooting in these suburban areas or in schools, it's a big issue," said Duanne Small, 49, a West Side resident and community activist.
"They get grief counseling, they get all the services that they need to deal with the trauma that they're going through, but it's not happening here in the city of Asbury Park, and in other African-American communities that I know of."
Small pointed to the playground that volunteers constructed here on the Seventh Avenue beach in 2013 in memory of Sandy Hook Elementary School teacher Rachel Rachel D'Avino as an example of how differently suburban and urban gun violence is viewed.
"When people (on the West Side) see that, they say, 'Oh, they don't care about us,'" he said. You can hear him talk about the disparity in the video below.
One year after a 10-year-old boy was shot and killed in his home by two teen gunman outside, is Asbury Park safer? City officials say they’ve made a concerted effort in recent years to boost recreation programs and job opportunities for residents of the West Side. Shannon Mullen and Ryan Ross, Asbury Park Press
Each year, African-Americans account for the majority of gun homicides. Firearms are the leading cause of death for black children and teens in the U.S., while black men are 19 times more likely to die of a gun homicide than white men, crime statistics show.
More than 1 in 5 black and Hispanic adults say someone they knew has been killed by a gun, according to a 2018 survey. But in places like the West Side, located in the city's southwest quadrant west of the train tracks that roughly bisect the town, it often seems as if everybody knows somebody.>
Jamar Small, 24, of Asbury Park was one of Asbury Park High School?s best all-around football players, graduating in 2010. He attended Texas Southern University on a football scholarship 24-year-old Jamar Small, of Asbury Park.
That's what made a recent gathering here at the Second Baptist Church of Asbury Park, a half-mile walk from Yovanni's former home, so notable. The Feb. 9 event was billed as a “listening project and vigil” for “survivors of everyday gun violence.”
Following a talk by a keynote speaker, the mother of a 19-year-old Trenton man who was killed trying to protect two friends from random gunfire, current and former residents of the West Side area took turns sharing their own stories.
For some, it was the first time they’d spoken so publicly about their loss. Among those who spoke was Small. Tears rolled down his face as he recounted the 2015 homicide of his 24-year-old cousin, Jamar Small. A talented college football player at Texas Southern University, he was gunned down outside his home on Summerfield Avenue five days before Christmas.
“It’s still painful to this day,” Small said days later. “I think about him every day, man. I really miss him.” You can hear Small reflect on the gun deaths of his cousin and other local residents he knew personally in the video above.
The Second Baptist event was a joint effort by the church and the Monmouth County affiliate of Moms Demand Action, a grassroots campaign that grew out of the Sandy Hook shootings that now has chapters in all 50 states.
“They spoke just from their heart. It was eloquent and beautiful how they talked about their children and family members,” said Theresa Turner, a Spring Lake resident who heads the Monmouth Moms group.
"What really struck me was how close this community is," Turner added. "They would point and say, 'You were there for me when that happened.' You could tell that this was a community that cared."
'Like hearing birds chirping'
Douglas Eagles, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Monmouth County, helped organize a vigil outside the Monroe Avenue club after Yovanni's death. One of the boy's sisters addressed the crowd that night. You can hear what she said in the video below.
Mourners gather at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Monmouth County to hold a vigil for 10 year Yovanni Banos-Merino who was shot and killed this past week. Doug Hood
Counselors from the Traumatic Loss Coalition of Monmouth County were also on hand to talk with the club's youth.
Eagles, however, said he's struck by just how "normalized" gun violence has become on the West Side. He recounted a conversation he had two years ago with an employee the day after he'd been shot in the arm in a drive-by shooting.
"He's talking to me about this experience in this very calm and easygoing tone. And I was like, 'Reggie, you have a bullet in your arm. I'd be in the corner rocking back and forth, and here you are telling me this is just a matter-of-fact incident.'"
"Mr. Doug, growing up in Asbury Park, hearing gunshots is like hearing birds chirp," Eagles remembers him saying.
"It's become so normalized and such a part of the background noise of life for kids in this community," Eagles said.
The challenge for the school system and organizations like his, he said, is "building these kids up with the social and emotional skills that they're going to need to process those kinds of experiences."
A tearful confession
Daniel Harris, a deacon at Second Baptist, intended to speak on his family's behalf at the Feb. 9 event about their first-hand experience with gun violence.
Instead, he was surprised when his wife, Emily, stood and spoke about the grief she lives with every day over the slaying of her 26-year-old sister, Patricia Bowens. She was shot and killed in a Philadelphia alley some 30 years ago.>
Dan and Emily Harris, community leaders and lifetime residents of Asbury Park's West Side, pose outside of their home in Asbury Park, NJ Friday, February 15, 2019.
(Photo: Tanya Breen)
It was the most he'd heard his wife speak about the incident in many years, he said.
"We had to go up and identify her body," he said.
All those memories flooded back a year ago when the couple heard about Yovanni's death.
The Harrises own a home on the other end of Ridge Avenue and they often used to see Yovanni on the street.
Emily Harris said Yovanni and his sister walked past her house the day before he was killed.
Two Neptune teens — Karon Council, 19, who admitted to firing the shots with a 9 mm handgun, and his accomplice, Jah-Del Birch, 17 — pleaded guilty in October to aggravated manslaughter. The teens' lawyers said they only meant to scare their target, whom authorities identified as Juan Garcia. The dispute stemmed from a prior altercation during which Council was stabbed.
Council bent over and sobbed in court Jan. 11 when a judge sentenced him to 25 years in prison. Birch, who was 16 at the time of the shooting but prosecuted as an adult, received a 10-year term.
"I never intended to harm anybody, and I'm sorry I took that little boy's life," Council said. "I'm sorry that I caused pain, I'm sorry that I hurt that boy's family." You can watch Council's sentencing in the video below.
Emotions run high as Karon Council is sentenced to a 25 years in prison for the shooting death of Yovanni Banos-Merino in Asbury Park. Thomas P. Costello and Kathleen Hopkins, Asbury Park Press
Yovanni was such a happy and friendly child, Emily Harris says, shaking her head.
"That little boy didn't deserve that.
"Everything is in God's hands, but I don't know the purpose of it," she said quietly.
"I'll never understand it."
Contributing: Staff Writer Austin Bogues
Shannon Mullen: @MullenAPP; [email protected]; 732-643-4278