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People Lived Here

The colorful noise scrolled by on the screen, humor and politics, and useless information chattering in my eyes as I worked on my first cup of coffee. A slash of grey broke the mosaic with terminal force, I gasped and stared.

The grainy image gives it such a vintage appearance, it looks like one of the cities in Europe after WWII, decimated and left abandoned to die.

Not twenty-odd years ago, not within my lifetime. Not yesterday.

The more I stare at it, the more that comes back. Flashes of muted colors, crackling radios, and sweat. The vacant windows stare back like an eyeless skull – I remember when they had glass in them, or bars on them. Summers where people were hanging out of them at random intervals, yelling down or at each other, trying to catch some fresher air or just seeing what was going on in the savage little ecosystem that this design had created for them to exist in.

The parking lot in the photo is empty, giving the illusion of space and access. Total lie. You see, that was the first hint of the insidious nature of Sheffield Drive.

There was only one way in and therefore, only one way out.

The Christopher Columbus Homes (aka Sheffield Drive) were another shining example of the housing project solution. These are some of the big “bricks” in Brick City. Let us take thousands of people and cram them into a one-block radius, stacked 12 stories high. Add poverty, drugs, and violence and what started as “affordable housing” deteriorated into a war zone. Issues here were not about class or race, just good and bad people. People living in cramped, poor conditions either went above it or contributed to its decline.

I can remember one of the first times I had to respond there. Working nights on BLS it was guaranteed. Joe turned the lights off a few blocks in advance, entering the drive quietly and without fanfare. He navigated the choked parking lot and pulled in front of the open entryway to one of the buildings. It was late and things were relatively quiet. I went to get out and he stopped me, telling me I should always look up before I step out. Always. And of course, I, the epitome of naïve in my 19-year-old suburban white chick self, ask why. He tells me matter-of-factly while pulling on some leather gloves, “Because sometimes they like to throw things off the roof.” I stop, “Like what, bottles?”

“Like refrigerators.” He gets out of the truck.

I follow his lead because damned if I’m going to be left alone here. The handful of standing lights in the parking lot do not reach the top, swallowed by the darkness of the upper floors and causing these buildings to appear even more monstrous. Looming over you on all sides, it is simply too much to watch at once.

The entryways are through open arches, blackened maws that you have to walk into to access the stairwells. Yes, there were elevators but just like the elevators in any of the housing projects it was a total crapshoot – not only on whether it would work, but whether or not it would be full of crap, as in human waste. Really.

Well that, and when they tried to have security for the elevators the residents drove them out. The last of them ended up with a butcher knife impaled in his back requiring a multi-floor facedown carry, but that’s another story and not mine to tell. But yeah, no more security.

Joe doesn’t even bother with the elevator, we were only going a couple of floors up. He stops at the base of the stairs. He pulls his flashlight out and bangs on the metal banister several times, it echoes like a gong up through the cement stairwell, he yells. “Ambulance!” I stand quietly, trying not to lean against the walls. I can hear noises above us. Footsteps, murmured voices, laughter, fire doors scraping open and slamming. Then it grows quiet. I look at him quizzically. He shrugs, “The dealers are usually working in the stairwells. If you give them the opportunity to clear out then they generally don’t give us a hard time.” He kept his flashlight out and began climbing the stairs.

Generational gaps can be hard to bridge anywhere, but a city evolves or declines just like anything else and very often what is an operational norm for one generation doesn’t exist for the next. Newark remains a violent city, you can dress it up as much as you like and we will always love it just the same, but it has poverty and violence and drugs and every bad thing that comes with those. With the destruction of the high-rise housing projects the playing field changed. Not the players, just the venue. It is very hard to explain to the current generation of EMS providers just how we managed to do what we did with the resources we had. You just learned.

You learned that lights and sirens were not your friends. You coasted quietly into the courtyard. A few minutes later another ambulance would slide in behind you, unbidden. We did that then, just to have another set of eyes or hands at the ready. When you left safely, they followed suit and went about their business.

You learned that sometimes the denizens of the stairwell would keep their not-so-nice dogs on the lower floors, but if you were polite and patient they would put them away and disappear from view until you were gone.

You learned that they really did throw things from the upper floors.

You learned that your voice could carry to the 8th floor if you needed to yell instructions to a frantic son.

You learned to always know where your exits are.

You learned that gravity is your friend, so eventually the piss and shit and crack vials in the elevator didn’t faze you. It would pool to the center or the corners anyway, so you just step carefully. With experience comes the willingness to get in anything that will go UP.

In the end, you also learned what one of the most important lessons is in urban EMS or any EMS – you learned that they were people.

That these were single mothers and sick fathers, tired grandmothers, and jaded children, and they did not get to come in and go away. They lived this all the time.

One night we were in trouble, Sarah and I were alone on the 5th floor and we had a combative patient. This was a big gentleman and he was completely altered. We had gotten him into the reeves and out into the hallway, but he was a hot mess and mindlessly struggling to free himself. Help was coming, but it would take some time and things were escalating. The fire door scraped open, and the denizens of the stairwell came out to investigate the yelling. They were big and they were intimidating, and they were every stereotype of a ghetto drug dealer you can think of. They were pushing each other and laughing, some mocked the flailing guy on the floor. The man at the front looked right at us and said, “Do you have help?”

Sarah took a breath, pushed her hair back and said, “We do now.”

He grunted and nodded, they pushed past us and all grabbed a handle. Sarah and I didn’t stop to think about it, you just have to go with it sometimes. We followed them down the stairs. It may not have been the neatest carry, but they got him down to the courtyard just as our ALS was arriving. We thanked them and they faded back into the stairwell.

People lived here.

I cannot stare at the picture too long, because it takes me back to the very last time I was in Sheffield Drive. That was long after it was closed, and it was scheduled for demolition. It was right before they blew them up that it claimed its last victim.

In fact, it looked just the way it does in this picture.

We had been called to the site by the demolition crew for a pronouncement. They discovered a body during their final walkthrough. I was a medic now and had not been there in a couple of years since it closed.

It was daytime and in the unforgiving light, the buildings did not look as monstrous as they did shabby derelicts. The foreman led us through the archway, heading for an infamous stairwell, sunlight poured in over the rubble. At the top of the first flight was a pile of sand. I stopped. There was an impression in the sand, somebody had been thrown down there, and you could see the outline of a head, an arm. There were darker patches of sand, where blood had pooled.

Leading away from the pile of sand, were bloody footprints and droplets. Andy and I carefully stepped around them. The foreman was the only one to accompany us back up the stairs, he was shaking his head as he moved. The doors were all gone, as were the windows, dust, and debris sparkled everywhere. About halfway down the hall he stops and indicates one of the abandoned apartments. He steps back so we can look in.

She was young, probably in her 20s. Her head was turned to the right side, her long-vacant stare turned toward the sliver of sky that could be seen out of the windowless frame. Dried blood was on her face, out of her nose and mouth. Not black-dried, but red-dried. In fact, most of the blood had enough color to it … she hasn’t been here all that long.

Her arms were out above her head as if they’d flopped back where she was thrown. Her shirt was dirty but still intact, I can’t remember what color it was because everything was covered in dust and debris from the site. I can tell you that she did not have pants on.

I know that because she had been impaled, a metal fence post from the chain link surrounding the site had been forced up her vagina and that is where this girl died. She lay silent in the streams of dusty sunlight like a macabre stick puppet tossed aside because it was broken.

We found out later that a BLS crew the night before had been called to the street outside of the site. He was hysterical and bleeding from a head wound. He and his girlfriend were on their way out to dinner and were stopped at the traffic light. The car door was yanked open, he was pistol-whipped and his girlfriend was dragged away toward Sheffield Drive. The police had come and searched but had found nothing. Her attackers were never found. The denizens of the stairwell were good like that.

The buildings came down soon after.

People lived here.

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