High school basketball star Tayshana Murphy was well known on courts across the city by the time she was entering her senior year in September 2011.
She was a star point guard—ESPN had ranked her 16th best in her class in the nation—and she had a killer crossover. She was already thinking of college and of playing professionally.
But Tayshana, who was lovingly called "Chicken" by her friends and family, lived in the Grant Houses public housing complex, and those dreams of basketball fame ended in the early morning of Sept. 11, 2011, when she was gunned down in the hallway of her building.
She was shot by two young men from Manhattanville Houses—a victim in a four-decade long conflict between youth crews from the two projects.
"That night is still a blur to me," her father, Taylonn Murphy, said. "I'm striving to put it in the back of my psyche."
In July, Tyshawn Brockington was convicted of second-degree murder and is serving 25 years to life in prison. The other accused shooter, Robert Cartagena, is awaiting trial. His next court date is in October.
Prosecutors said the young men were looking to take a life in retaliation for an earlier street fight with Grant residents. Even though Tayshana wasn't involved in the specific dispute, she was from Grant, and that was enough for them.
Two years after Tayshana's death, Murphy and other community activists who have also been personally affected by the violence are working to make sure she's the last person killed in the turf war.
'If the doors locked...'
On that night two years ago, Tayshana and some friends were dancing in the courtyard outside her building. Brockington and Cartagena chased her inside, where they cornered her in a stairwell and shot her as she pleaded for mercy, according to prosecutors.
The front doors to 3170 Broadway were supposed to open only for residents and lock when they closed. That didn't happen, as security footage showed.
During the trial, "I sat the whole month of June looking at the tape, watching it over and over again," Murphy said. "The doors closed. If the doors locked, none of us would have been sitting there."
The locks still haven't been fixed. Murphy visited the building again last Wednesday, on the two-year anniversary of Tayshana's death. He lit a candle in a vigil prepared by Tayshana's friends. He pulled one of the doors open and stared at it—anyone could walk right in.
"It's insult to injury," Murphy said. "When you have a murder here, and two years later you still haven't fixed the doors, what message are you giving to the community?"
But the broken locks are hardly an anomaly for Grant Houses. According to a report published this summer by New York City Public Advocate and mayoral frontrunner Bill de Blasio, Grant is the most neglected public housing development in the city. Requests for repairs in the complex go an average 344 days before they're resolved, and the current number of outstanding requests totals 6,203.
In 3170 Broadway alone, there are more than 800 outstanding requests that date as far back as July 2009.
A New York City Housing Authority spokesperson said in a statement on Wednesday that NYCHA staff is "currently working to make the necessary repairs." The spokesperson didn't specify when those repairs are planned to happen.
Grant Houses Residents' Association President Sarah Martin, who has lived there since the complex was built in 1957, said that the buildings have been in a poor state of repair for decades. And the doors had long been an issue, she said.
"They're not safe," she said. "Grant Houses is not safe. And the whole thing is one word: accountability."
'We need some things to do'
Murphy is joining forces with Full Circle Life Enrichment head Derrick Haynes, who grew up in the Manhattanville complex, to try to find jobs and other opportunities for youth in the houses.
Forty years ago, Haynes' brother, Eli Haynes Jr., was shot and killed while trying to break up a fight. He was 15.
"My brother was the first young person to be killed in this conflict, and hopefully his daughter will be the last," Haynes said of Murphy.
The two came together over their shared loss.
"I know from my experience, when that happens, you shut down," Haynes said. "Your first thoughts are of revenge."
But instead of revenge, the two are working to make a difference.
They held a rally to condemn violence in July along with Arnita Brockington, the mother of Tyshawn Brockington, and Stacy Collins, the mother of Terique Collins, who was accused—but later acquitted—of providing the murder weapon.
Murphy has also given speeches around the city and has talked with youth crews at other housing projects.
"I never thought that that's what I'd be doing," he said. Before his daughter died, he was driving trucks and promoting shows.
Now, Murphy travels to Grant and Manhattanville "every other day" from Williamsburg, "to check on the young people, talk to them about their situation."
"They say, We need some things to do,'" he said. "Our young people, they're not animals—they lack opportunities."
He and Haynes are trying to extend the hours of a nearby community center for kids in the projects.
"A lot of this violence breeds from poverty, the lack of jobs, the economic situation up here," Murphy added.
The two also introduced about 20 young people from Manhattanville and Grant to Columbia administrators and construction officials last month in an attempt to get them jobs working on the University's campus expansion, located just across Broadway from the Manhattanville Houses.
The kids "participated in a session on workplace competencies where they reviewed options available for GED preparation, local private employment, and how to obtain information on jobs at Columbia University," Columbia spokesperson Victoria Benitez said in a statement.
Attendees at the session included staff from Columbia's Office of Government and Community Affairs and officials from construction firm McKissack & McKissack, which handles hiring minority-, women-, and locally run firms for the University.
"Some who attended the workshop will be participating in follow-up programs at the Columbia Employment and Information Center," Benitez said.
'A bad dream I can't wake up from'
Friends and family gathered at 3170 Broadway last week, lighting candles in front of the building and sharing memories of Tayshana. "RIP Chicken" was spray-painted across the ground in front of the building's entrance. Murphy hugged and chatted with passersby who knew Tayshana.
Her cousin, Jovell McDaniel, came to Grant Houses from Brooklyn with a laminated photo of Tayshana hung on a string around his neck.
"It's still a bad dream I can't wake up from," he said. At 5:01 a.m. two years ago, he said, "I got the call, and my heart dropped."
McDaniel remembers playing basketball with Tayshana on the street.
"She was a talented ball player," he said. "She didn't bother nobody. She was going to school, going to go to college. They cut her life short over nothing."
Jalique Mazyck, who went to high school with Tayshana, said he was trying to move on from his friend's death, but he credited her with improving his life and encouraging him to continue with his education.
"She was like, 'Without school, there's nothing for you,'" said Mazyck. "She was trying to get me on the right path." After she was killed, he thought about what she had told him. "And now I graduated this year," he said.
"It's a hard day today," said Wilfredo Morales, who dated Tayshana. Morales, who still lives in 3170, remembered "going through panic attacks" when he heard about her shooting two years ago.
"She was always laughing," he said. Now, Morales is going into professional boxing, and he too credits Tayshana for this. "She always kept me motivated."
Meanwhile, the violence goes on. "Kids are getting shot left and right," Morales said.
One memory of Tayshana that Murphy said "still lingers in my head" is a text conversation they had not too long before her death.
She texted him and said, "Dad, I'm going to make you proud."
"I texted her back and said, 'OK, I'm already proud,'" he said. "And she texted me, 'We're going to change history.'"
"And she did make me proud, I'm proud to this day to be her father," he said. "She's right here with me, and we're definitely going to change history."
'Nothing has changed'
But Murphy and Haynes have an uphill battle ahead of them. Residents of the projects, whose towers dominate the skyline in the blocks north of Columbia, say that stories about gang violence have become a fact of normal life.
"It's just something I'm used to," said Hassan Abdullah, who has lived in Grant Houses for 29 years.
"Children are getting killed," said Carol Williams, who lives in Manhattanville Houses. "They still come and fight. Manhattanville goes to Grant, Grant goes to Manhattanville. A lot of fighting, drugs, shootings, stabbings—for nothing."
"We hear everything that goes on," she said. "Some of the things I've heard, I've been trying to get rid of them, get them out of my mind."
Grant Houses resident Kelly Fitzgerald, whose daughter played basketball with Tayshana, said "nothing had changed" since Tayshana's death. She pointed to a lack of opportunities for young people as one of the reasons behind continuous violence.
"They're bored," she said. "They don't have after-school activities or events, there's nothing they have to do with their time."
Martin, the Grant Houses Residents' Association president, said fighting among the gangs was also a larger, deeper problem than just Grant and Manhattanville, and was partially a result of parents not taking enough responsibility for their children.
"Gun violence is gun violence," she said. "It's bigger than my community. ... It crosses neighborhood lines, crosses state lines."
"I'm not going to allow my kid or my grandchild to live with me and be in any gang that has to do with weapons," she added.
For some residents, the constant violence drove them out of the housing projects.
"The buildings here represent tombstones," said Daniel Rosado, who left Grant Houses when he turned 18. "It's like walking in a cemetery."
'She's here with me'
Last week, after talking with locals and lighting a candle for Tayshana, Murphy and Haynes went to a Community Board 9 meeting to talk about establishing youth programs. While waiting for the meeting to start, Murphy walked out onto the seventh-floor patio of the apartment building where the meeting was being held. The sun was setting in brilliant pink hues, and the Hudson stretched out below.
"Today was a great day," he said. Last year, on the anniversary of Tayshana's death, he escaped New York and went to Atlanta. But this year, he said he decided to spend the day with her friends and family, and with the young people he's committed to helping—and that made him happy.
"That doesn't mean I don't miss her," he said. "She's here with me all the time. She's telling me, 'Dad, you've got to keep pushing.'"
Rachit Mohan and Sophie Neiman contributed reporting.
email@example.com | @caseytolan