Deandre Kelly grew up with Xavier Granville in the Beach 41st Street Houses in Far Rockaway - a cluster of public housing apartments along a desolate stretch of Queens near the shoreline. They began hanging out in elementary school, bonding over X-Box video games and basketball.
They soon became inseparable. And when the pair was in high school, they both became members of the 40 Boys, a street crew also known as The Flamer Gang. Like many local crews, the gang was a draw for other youths living in and around the complex.
"Whatever he had, we had," Deandre said. "Whatever I had, they had. That's how it was . . . If I got $4 in my pocket, they got $4 in their pocket."
So when Xavier, 17, was shot in the head and killed by a masked gunman last December as he was leaving a birthday party for Deandre's girlfriend - in rival territory - his loved ones knew it was no accident.
"I think it was a setup," said Tanisha Mewborn, who was celebrating her birthday and threw the party.
The NYPD estimates that, unlike more traditional gangs like the Crips and Bloods, there are about 300 of these crews operating in and around the city's housing projects. Police say they're responsible for 30 percent of the shootings citywide. And, if the past is any guide, the summer is when tensions between crews are more likely to boil over.
Experts say most active street crew members are black and Latino youth ages 14 to 25. Membership can start much earlier, with kids as young as 8.
Two suspects were arrested in Xavier's shooting, but authorities won't confirm what his friends and family say they're certain of: that they are members of a rival crew.
(Photo: The Beach 41st Street Houses, one of the public housing buildings in the city claimed by street crews as turf. Courtesy of Stan Gaz)
Much of the violence stems from disputes between crews like The Flamer Gang, which has a long standing beef with crews from nearby projects such as Redfern, Edgemere and Hammel Houses.
Last year, 42 percent of homicides were motivated by retaliation, according to the police department.
Those conflicts often play out on social media and can be a harbinger of violence to come.
In a YouTube video posted the month Xavier was shot, Deandre speaks directly to a rival Crew: "I'm gripping my Glock, 2012 is crazy now we're beefing with the Flock."
As he raps, he's surrounded by fellow crew members who take turns in front of the camera, sharing derogatory rhymes against the backdrop of the crimson elevators and the sterile cinder-block hallways of the Beach 41st Street Houses.
The Flock, the rival gang, posted its rebuttal on YouTube in video that uses the same beat as the Flamer Gang's song and cooly references Xavier's murder.
"When you see my face you better take your last breath/I didn';t really want to do it/but I had to. Put myself in your shoes, I'd be mad too," a member raps.
(Photo: Deandre Kelly and Tanisha Mewborn, both 18, in Far Rockaway. Courtesy of Stan Gaz)
The NYPD has stepped up its monitoring of social media platforms in a strategy called Operation Crew Cut and it recently doubled its gang division.
A take-down in April led to indictments of 63 members of the Air it Out, Whoadey and True Money gangs in East Harlem. Officials monitored them for several years before pursuing charges that including murder, assault and gun trafficking.
These groups are a huge draw for youths living in economically depressed areas who feel marginalized, according to professor David Brotherton, chair of the Sociology Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who's been studying gangs for two decades.
"You want to be somebody, and yet in daily life you're a nobody," he said. "You live in the projects . . . in a sense, you're visible due to your marginality... yet if you're in a gang or some deviant group you're very visible. And, in fact, you strike fear in the very people who want to make you invisible."
Beyond visibility, some kids say they have little choice whether to be a part of a crew because the lines are already drawn depending on where they live.
"No one should be able to tell you where you can and can't go," said Tanisha Mewborn. "It shouldn't be like that. You should be able to go to your grandma's house."
(Photo: The 40 Boys marked its turf inside the Beach 41st Street Houses. Courtesy of Stan Gaz)
Two Sides of the Street
In the South Bronx, the St. Mary's Park Houses community center was buzzing with youths playing pool or getting ready to the watch a basketball game on a recent afternoon.
A tall black teen with a baby face was one them. He declined to give his name but said he's a been a member of the crew known as the Jackson Avenue Gunners for about a decade, since he was 10.
His is one of two crews at St. Mary's who claim opposite sides of the street.
He said he joined by simply befriending other members and said the family-connection synonymous with the mafia was a draw.
"If something happens to me, they'd go out of their way," he said. "Like if I don't have money, they give me money."
The teen said he feels a deep connection to the Gunners and loves the adrenalin rush he gets when he's with them. But when pressed, he admits that an ongoing beef with a rival crew has resulted in a death on each side.
(Photo: Beefs between crews often play out and escalate on social media. Before he was shot, 17 year Xavier Granville posted a picture of himself outside a rival's housing complex. Courtesy of Facebook)
In spite of the danger, he admitted he doesn't want to leave the crew. But the young man said he also wants to find a way to finish school and get a job so he can help his family move out of St. Mary's, calling it a "bad environment."
Abdul Malik Talib 40, is a mentor with a program called Arches. He's been trying to motivate young adults in the South Bronx to expand worlds made chokingly small by these ongoing conflicts. But he said it can be tough because grudges often last years.
"They've been doing this (beefing) since their mothers and fathers were kids living in the projects," he said of two rival Bronx gangs. "But in the same mention they still have passion and compassion and want to be loved and curdled and all that stuff too."