On a recent June evening, Tonya Williams-Blake sat in a green plastic chair on her front stoop and lit the last of her cigarettes.

Kids rolled by on bikes and neighbors came and went, often with a smile and a greeting — “Hey, Miss Tonya.” The rose bushes were in bloom and lightning bugs flickered in the grass of the Brooklyn Homes.

But Williams-Blake looked ready to go inside. She spoke quietly. Her eyes darted nervously, scanning for the first signs of trouble as she finished her smoke.

”If I hear firecrackers or stuff, I’d have been gone in the house and left you sittin’ out here,” Williams-Blake said. “I’m not saying I’d do it on purpose, but that’s how afraid I am.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Every time she steps outside she remembers what happened last summer.

The community’s annual “Brooklyn Day,” a block party that drew hundreds, descended into chaos when gunfire rang out just after midnight last July 2. Thirty people were shot, most of them teenagers, including two fatally: 18-year-old Aaliyah Gonzalez and 20-year-old Kylis Fagbemi. It is the largest mass casualty event in city history.

Kylis and his mother lived next door to Williams-Blake on Gretna Court. Gonzalez died on the sidewalk stairs in front of her door. There’s a bullet hole in Williams-Blake’s upstairs window sill from that night. Her granddaughter’s crib is in that room. Police, in radio communications in the immediate aftermath, described the area in front of her house as “ground zero.”

”It’s made me so paranoid,” she said. “My mental status is not right.”

A police officer walks through the crime scene on Elarton Court in Brooklyn at 8;28 a.m. following a shooting on Sunday, July 2, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

In the immediate days and weeks after Brooklyn Day, politicians flocked to Brooklyn, a forgotten corner of Baltimore, and promised support. Gov. Wes Moore and Mayor Brandon Scott walked the streets. Some of the most powerful lawmakers in Annapolis, Senate President Bill Ferguson and Del. Luke Clippinger, visited the neighborhood, which is in both of their districts.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The City Council held oversight hearings to determine how police and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City could let such a large event go unnoticed. The government had failed these people, and now it wanted to help.

Residents of the housing project who wanted to move were offered transfers. A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, or MONSE, said 23 Brooklyn Homes residents received relocation and housing assistance directly from the city, and that 19 others were referred to the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office for help. MONSE has documented 2,000 interactions with neighborhood residents in the past year.

Of Williams-Blake’s neighbors, she is one of the few to stay in the homes after the shooting. The people who left were her friends, she said. One was Fagbemi’s mother, who couldn’t bear to stay where her son was killed. Another had to move because her young son was so traumatized. Another had a brick thrown through their window because someone saw them on TV news appearing to talk to police.

One moved and saw a shooting right outside their new home. Some of Williams-Blake’s friends ended up in other public housing complexes worse than this one, she said. She wants to move, but she isn’t going to Cherry Hill or Westport. She wants to leave Baltimore altogether.

The city made therapy available to residents who wanted it — Williams-Blake was already in therapy before the shooting, she said, and Brooklyn Day is just something else to talk about.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The housing authority hired private security to patrol the complex after years of going without. The Police Department determined officer indifference toward the community played a role its poor response to the crowd before the shooting. An internal investigation led the department to dock 10 employees’ pay and move to fire two others, an officer and a civilian; officials did not release their names or the specifics of their infractions.

Residents say they see squad cars more often now, something the department wanted to prioritize in the wake of the shooting. Last year, the Brooklyn neighborhood, which includes the housing complex and is one of the city’s largest, with about 10,000 residents, had one police post to patrol it. Now there are three.

It’s possible the extra attention from the city has paid off. As of June 25, there has been one homicide in Brooklyn. There had been five through the same period last year.

Violence is down all across Baltimore, but especially in Brooklyn. Historically, it has been among the city’s most violent areas in the first half of the year, according to police records. The neighborhood averaged 5.5 homicides and 11 nonfatal shootings per year through June 25 between 2020 and 2023 — the highest total for such violent crimes of any Baltimore neighborhood.

It’s not just homicides that are down in Brooklyn. All violent crimes are down nearly 29% compared to this time last year.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The progress has residents feeling some semblance of security — the word “quiet” is tossed around by some.

”Don’t get me wrong, my antenna still stays up,” Williams-Blake said. “But I’m feeling a little comfortable.”

Nonprofits string the neighborhood together

Pastor Billy Humphrey considers himself a Brooklyn lifer. His church is on 9th Street. His grandmother’s house, which he called his childhood home, is on 6th Street. The nonprofit he runs, City of Refuge, is on 7th Street. Another grandmother lived across the city line in Brooklyn Park.

“I’m pretty connected,” he said.

For 22 years, Humphrey has used City of Refuge to help fill the gaps in his corner of Baltimore. It opens its food pantry three times a week and serves prepared meals once a week. It also runs a baby supplies pantry for mothers. People can sign up for workforce development classes or GED training.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

City of Refuge is just one of many nonprofits working to hold the neighborhood together. There’s the Transformation Center on 4th Street, which operates its own food pantry, after-school and workforce development programs. Its leader, Pastor Brian Zimmerman, has been in Brooklyn for 10 years.

”We’re just kind of a tool box,” Zimmerman said. “Someone who can help [people] navigate those big obstacles in the community.”

Brooklyn and adjoining Curtis Bay are cut off from the rest of Baltimore by the Patapsco River. The bus trip to and from is long and can be unreliable. There is no supermarket. Gov. Moore said in January that 1 in 3 kids in Brooklyn live below the poverty line.

For years, these nonprofits and others like them existed largely on their own, with little coordinated help from city government. Brooklyn Day seems to have changed that.

“I had this expectation the city was going to pull out, that once the cameras went away, we would go back to normal,” Humphrey said. “But it hasn’t happened, and that’s encouraging.”

Some people, Humphrey included, wonder what took so long. City Councilwoman Phylicia Porter, who represents Brooklyn, said an “international tragedy” shouldn’t have to take place in order for the city to make meaningful investments in certain neighborhoods. “When we’re talking about ‘Why did it take so long?’ I will wholeheartedly agree with that statement,” she said.

She has spent much of the last year going “through the fire,” doing more listening than talking when she meets with residents. Community leaders credit her for organizing neighborhood recovery efforts. Many people see progress compared to where the neighborhood was before the mass shooting — and yet more progress, they say, has to be made.

“These issues didn’t develop overnight,” Porter said. “It’s really a generational [problem] that has permeated over some time.”

Residents still remember as life goes on

Charlene Bowie poses for a portrait in Brooklyn Homes, in Baltimore, June 13, 2024. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

On the corner of 9th and Stoll streets, a half-block from Brooklyn Homes, Ben Hinman has steadily worked his garden since he moved in last year. The Safeway employee moved to Brooklyn from Howard County, and is turning the front yard of his rowhome into a flower-filled oasis.

Sometimes, people from down the street and in the homes ask Hinman for cuttings or advice on how and when to plant. He likes it when people sit in his garden. He made the space for others to enjoy, and the most recurring conflict he deals with is people arguing over who gets to sit in the swing.

“When I bought the place, everyone was like, ‘You’re in the ghetto,’” he said during a break from tilling a flower bed. “It’s not that bad. … I don’t see a lot of mischievous things.”

The worst was the night of the shooting, and he didn’t see or hear any of it. Hinman sleeps in the basement, and he’s a heavy sleeper. The cameras he installed around his house captured the terror. People fled up his street and some hid on his back porch, unsure of where to go. He said it’s the only time his motion-activated back door camera has turned on since he moved in.

Most of the neighbors know each other, whether they live in the housing complex or nearby. Down 9th street and around the corner, on Elarton and 8th, two women have become steadfast friends.

Charlene Bowie lives in the Brooklyn Homes, and her neighbor across the street, Anna Hessler, doesn’t. They’re both retired and both have buried children. They’ll push their carts to the food pantries together, but most of the time they can be found on Bowie’s steps, where they gossip and watch the comings and goings. Bowie has lived in the homes for a little over seven years. Hessler, across the street, for about four.

Bowie can remember the shooting like it was yesterday.

Right around midnight, Bowie put most of her nieces in a Lyft and sent them home, she said. She went upstairs with her granddaughter and started watching television in an upstairs bedroom. When the gunfire erupted, they dove to the floor. One bullet ripped through the air conditioning unit and grazed her granddaughter’s back, Bowie said. Outside, on her front steps, a young girl was hiding in her doorway, bleeding from a wound. Bowie worked as a nurse before retirement, and she wrapped the girl’s wound in a towel.

About a week later, when Bowie was cleaning her home, she went to trace the bullet’s path through her upstairs. At first she thought it was shrapnel from the air-conditioning unit that hurt her granddaughter. Then she went to inspect her leather-bound bible, and — she swears this is true — there was a bullet in it.

“I just started praising God, thanking God,” she said. “It could’ve hit her in the back, she could’ve been paralyzed for life.”

Bowie said she never thought about moving. It didn’t matter what happened last summer. This is her home.

Conditions for violence remain

In the Brooklyn Safe Streets office one sweltering afternoon, Corey Winfield explained how time works, how right now is only right now.

“At the end of the day, it’s quiet now. But that’s right now,” said Winfield, the site director. He looked at his watch. “I’m looking at 4:20. Four-twenty-seven, it can erupt.”

It’s happened before. It’s what happened at Brooklyn Day last year. (Safe Streets workers, who are tasked with resolving disputes in the neighborhood as a way to reduce gun violence without police, ended their shifts that evening about 1 ½ hours before the shooting and were not present.)

Just because there has been less gunplay this year compared to others does not mean the conditions that beget violence have improved. Winfield said Safe Streets employees in Brooklyn help squash anywhere from seven conflicts a week to seven a day, depending on what’s going on.

“It’s always about little petty stuff, but the petty stuff turns into big stuff if it’s not alleviated,” Winfield said. “There’s so many little guys with guns.”

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City has hired armed, private security to patrol the Brooklyn Homes complex after last summer’s mass shooting. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

It can also be about desperation. Michael Dorsey founded Grow Home Baltimore, another Brooklyn-area nonprofit, and explained how young people in need of money often resort to guns or crime to make ends meet.

“This area still has less local jobs available than the rest of the city on average,” Dorsey said. “There’s not so many small businesses that are thriving.”

As long as poverty persists, it is hard to suppress violence.

“Are we really attacking the causal mechanisms [of violence] as opposed to a flash in the pan? Probably not,” Dorsey said.

Part of Grow Home’s programming is employing neighborhood kids part-time while offering on-the-job training for future employment. They’re paid $15 an hour and learn skills like landscaping and construction as part of the program. To keep their temporary employment, they have to work with a case manager, write a résumé and apply to at least five jobs a week. Grow Home has about 50 kids a year go through that program. The idea is that more employment will lead to less violence and crime.

Winfield agrees the local economy is poor. He said the young people of Brooklyn, like a lot of Baltimore neighborhoods, need more people to believe in them. To see them and show them the rest of the world, beyond their blocks. Of the 30 Brooklyn Day victims, 24 were under age 20.

In late March, Safe Streets took a group of kids from the area to the White House as part of its Easter celebrations. It’s not something Winfield could have imagined a year ago.

“What are the odds of kids in the projects, you know, walking through the White House and standing in front of the West Wing, taking pictures in front of the Oval Office?” he asked.

A tree grows in Brooklyn

The neighborhood is divided over whether Brooklyn Day is worth celebrating this year. The city, with Safe Streets, is going to host a “Brooklyn Healing Day” on July 2. Winfield promised a strong event, one focused on kids and community.

Brooklyn Homes tenant council President Erika Walker said she doesn’t want the event at all. She called it a “smack in our faces” and a photo opportunity for politicians. Residents have complained that the complex’s community center, which closed for renovations after the shooting, didn’t open on time. It was supposed to be open in January and instead reopened at the end of June.

“They make promises they don’t keep,” Walker wrote in a text message. “I’m over the city and my residents are as well.”

There hasn’t been much movement on the criminal case. Five people have been charged in connection to the shootings; four have pleaded guilty and one is awaiting trial. None of them are older than 20. None of them are charged with murder.

Even the physical remnants of last year’s shooting are complex. There are still bullet holes in people’s homes. The armed guards that walk around are there because of what happened. A barren stump marks where a giant tree was cut down in the days after the shooting because its canopy blocked a city surveillance camera.

In the weeks after Brooklyn Day, two new trees were planted in the complex. One near where Fagbemi died and the other where Gonzalez died. Tonya Williams-Blake feels it’s her job to watch over them. She was disappointed when she learned a group of kids had torn down Fagbemi’s tree. She explained to them what the tree meant, and asked them not to touch Gonzalez’s.

So far, they’ve obliged. Spindly with a small crown of leaves, Gonzalez’s tree looks like it could snap in a storm. It still grows, for now, outside Williams-Blake’s front door.

This tree, pictured on June 13, 2024, was planted last summer in the spot near where Aaliyah Gonzalez was shot and killed. Tonya Williams-Blake can see it from her front steps. She watches over it. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Baltimore Banner photojournalist Jessica Gallagher and reporter Dylan Segelbaum contributed to this article.