My efforts to conduct an ethnographic field study of someone in the Egleston Square community were focused on Carlos Martinez, a community engagement-focused police officer, whose role was evident throughout my time observing how he interacted with the members of the Egleston Square community. He makes it his business to be available at all times for whatever people need to come to him for. During our time together, most of our activities consisted of talking to residents and business owners, and taking care of requests from them. With many of the people we met, Carlos had a very casual or informal approach to conversation, like one would talk to a long-time friend. It gave the impression that he knew everyone on a more personal level than just a local law enforcement officer.
It was a sunny Monday morning when I got off the train at Green Street and started walking toward the District E-13 Police Station. It was still sunny when I walked inside a few minutes later. The lobby was empty; not entirely expected at 7:50 in the morning. I took a seat on one of the red mesh benches in the lobby; the kind of bench you would expect to see on a playground built in the late 90s or early 2000s. The kind made of a wire lattice coated in a thick layer of some kind of resin or dense plasticine rubber, with thick, curved pieces of metal painted with the same rubber material for supports.
Carlos Martinez came out to greet me and to give me a release form to sign, a prerequisite for me to ride along in his car. With the formalities out of the way, we walked out to his car and headed off down Washington Street to Egleston Square. He outlined his usual schedule for me; he begins mornings during the week covering the street crossings near the schools in the area, and then moves on to walking patrol for the rest of the day. His car was a Ford, the model as ubiquitously identifiable as law enforcement as the uniform.
As we pulled out of the parking lot and started down the street, Carlos outlined to me his role in the community. He described his purpose as primarily being present to assist residents and business owners in the area with day-to-day issues and concerns. He named dealing with vagrants, substance abusers, and public drinkers as being the major activities outside of his role assisting residents.
We parked on the corner of Washington Street on the south side of Egleston Square and started walking south back in the direction of the police station. Carlos leaned into his shoulder radio and called in a code 19, which he then explained was shorthand for a “walk-n-talk” patrol; a patrol through an area on foot specifically to talk face to face with residents and business owners. The street was comparatively quiet, owing mainly to the schools having the day off and the marathon taking place downtown. As few cars as there were, there were even fewer pedestrians. The first building we passed Carlos identified as a residential property operated by Urban Edge, which he explained he had frequent interactions with. We ducked into the parking lot to check the relatively secluded dumpster area for vagrants or signs of substance abusers, but found nothing. A short distance after the apartment building, however, Carlos pointed out a small pile of beer bottles wrapped in paper on top of a pile of garbage bags. “There are lots of things that go unseen,” he said, “lots of things if you aren’t really looking for them.”
We stopped into a few shops as we walked, a convenience store and a meat market. Carlos knew the owners of both shops well, and exchanged pleasantries with them as one would with a long-known acquaintance; not too casual, but a strong enough relationship to put a smile on each other’s faces just by seeing each other. In both shops, he asked if the owners had anything they needed to bring to his attention, or wanted him to know about. Neither had anything pressing to mention, so we took our leave and continued down the street.
As we walked further down, I asked what it had been like to grow up in the Egleston Square area. Carlos replied that it had been vastly different from what it is today. He stopped and gestured down the street from where we had come, and pointing in the direction we were headed. “The Orange Line used to run right through here,” he said. Standing on the sidewalk under the sunny sky, it was hard to imagine that there had ever been an elevated railway stretching above the street. Carlos considered the old Orange Line to have been a blight on the city and its people, the perpetually darkened street below serving as a haven and breeding ground for substance abuse and gang violence. He attributed the area’s huge reduction in crime largely to the removal of the railway.
Carlos pointed out the small park across the street and explained that it was dedicated to those who had lost their lives to the violence in Egleston Square. I asked him if he had been witness to any of the violence that the park had been constructed in remembrance of; he replied that he had. When he was a child, he lived in a building just across the street from where we were standing. He came out of the entrance one day and watched a man die in front of him. As Carlos described it, the man had been stabbed in the back and stumbled down street, leaving pools of blood as he struggled forward until he collapsed on the corner and what blood he had left flowed out onto the street. The violence was so pervasive in everyday life, he told me, it felt like a necessary part of it. “If there wasn’t any violence, you felt like you weren’t alive.” The bright street and calm atmosphere made it hard to imagine the spot where we stood as somewhere that could be true.
Eventually, we reached a task that would consume the rest of our time together that day: an abandoned moped propped up against a fence. The owner of the fence, also the owner of the adjacent car repair shop, asked Carlos if he could have it removed as he was worried other residents might complain under the impression that it belonged to him. Carlos gathered some information from the scooter’s identification plate, and rolled it down to the corner to await a tow truck. It was there that we stood for almost 30 minutes longer before I had to depart.
The second day was similar to the first. We began with some quick stops into various businesses along Washington Street that had had relatively frequent interactions with Carlos in the past. First was the McDonald’s in the old bus depot, where we popped in to ask the manager if there was anything that they thought Carlos should know about. As we entered one of the patrons waved to Carlos, and Carlos waved back. The assistant manager came to the front to greet us and responded that no, there was nothing that they thought he should know about, all had been quiet for a while. We followed the same general route as the day before, heading south from Egleston Square along Washington Street toward the police station.
We stopped in to two liquor stores; the first owned by a a couple whom Carlos had known since they took over the business. They had nothing that needed to be addressed. The store was understandably quiet for 8:40 in the morning. The second store was the more active of the two, a few customers were browsing the aisles. Carlos struck up a conversation with the owner who was working the register, who he then explained was a childhood friend. They had both grown up in the area and gone to school together. The owner had nothing pressing to talk about, so we continued on our way.
When we reached the corner where Carlos had recounted the time he watched a man die on the street, there was a new occurrence to take note of. Large chunks of tar paper littered the sidewalk and small flakes of the stuff fluttered down from the roof of the building next to us, the building where Carlos had lived as a child. His immediate assessment of the situation proved to be correct: the roof of the building was being redone without proper safety equipment or precautions. We walked around to the back of the building while Carlos called in to request a supervisor. The supervisor arrived about ten minutes later, and got out of his car. Carlos reiterated the situation to him, and our newly expanded party went back over to the building to investigate further. We walked around to the back of the building, and discovered that the construction company had placed a large dumpster there for waste collection. It was also apparent that the workers had been throwing the material they pulled up straight off the roof with the hopes of getting it into the dumpster. The plentiful tar paper littering the ground made it clear that they had not been entirely successful. Both the supervisor and Carlos agreed that the next step was to find the back entrance to the building’s interior stairwell, and go up to the roof to talk to the workers. We found the entrance a few meters farther behind the dumpster, a nondescript white door. The stairs inside were almost completely unlit, and felt like no one had put any time into maintaining them since the building was finished. They were oddly ornate however, but even less well lit and dripping with dust instead of water. About three quarters of the way up, the platforms of the stairs switched from aged, pitted steel to seemingly even more ancient wood slats. Carlos and the supervisor had a relatively short, but audibly terse one-sided conversation with the workers on the roof. We descended the stairs after the officers felt like their point had been made, and the supervisor returned to his car to call for an Inspection Services vehicle to come out before departing to return to his other duties. Once again, Carlos and I were left to wait for a third party. They did not arrive before I had to leave, so Carlos gave me a ride back to Stony Brook Station where we said our goodbyes once again.
Though the majority of the actual time I had with Carlos was spent waiting for support personnel to arrive, the interactions I observed between him and community members were far more memorable. Carlos seemed to know everyone we spoke to, though as he described it, that is an important part of his job. But he seemed to know people on a level above just checking in to see if there was anything they thought he should know about; he spoke to everyone as though they were long-time friends, which in several cases he clarified that they were.