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2 years after mass shooting, Danzig neighbourhood moves forward

The residents of Danzig Street don’t like to dwell on the deadly violence that thrust their typically quiet community into the national spotlight two years ago.

The east-end Toronto neighbourhood where children play in driveways and toys litter front yards isn’t a bad one, they insist. It just happened to be a place where something terrible happened.

Wednesday marks the second anniversary of a shootout between two rival gangs at a barbecue held in the community. The bullets sprayed into the crowd killed a 14-year-old girl and a 23-year-old man while injuring more than 20 others.

The incident — called an “unprecedented” episode of violence by Toronto police — stunned the country and rocked the community to its core.

Two years later, those who live in the area are eager to move past the night which made the street synonymous with gang warfare.

“It’s peaceful, it’s good, it still is,” 22-year-old Kevin Danquah says of the community he grew up in. “I never thought the neighbourhood was bad to begin with.”

Danquah now volunteers at a community centre which opened exactly a year after the shooting with the help of a grant from a local businessman. The converted townhouse is a place where kids participate in programs, get help with homework or use a computer lab, among other facilities.

The impact of the centre, called Our Space, is significant, Danquah says.

“When I was growing up, I had no one to help me,” he says of the neighbourhood which is home to a community-housing complex. “As a kid you get lost a lot, you definitely need someone for guidance and if you don’t have that you could easily make a wrong choice.”

The mentorship Danquah is helping provide to youth in the community is exactly the kind of effort Toronto police want to encourage.

“The biggest difficulty facing Danzig, I think like many areas of Toronto, falls back to the engagement of children and the services that are available to them,” said Staff Sgt. Peter Moreira, whose team deals with the neighbourhood’s issues on a long-term basis.

“Kids are always looking for something to do…those are the sort of challenges that appear.”

Danzig Street turned into a hub of police activity in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 shooting. Police tape crisscrossed laneways, cop cars were stationed in the area for days and four people, including two youth, were eventually charged in relation with the incident.

While a shocking event that wasn’t reflective of the community as a whole, it was a wake-up call, said Moreira.

“I think that people finally realized that minor things left unchecked, left unreported can lead to bigger problems,” he said.

“It’s not just a wake-up call for the residents in the area but also the Toronto police in respective of how we were going to approach it. Our emphasis is preventing those things from happening in the first place.”

Moreira said the community’s collaboration with police is arguably one of the largest changes that’s taken place over the past two years.

“We have parents who call us and talk about ‘my son’s running with the wrong crowd, can you talk to them?’ That’s powerful stuff,” Moreira said.

“What that does is that allows us to be proactive in our approach and surgical in our approach. So we’re only dealing with the people that are victimizing our community instead of casting a wide net.”

Like those who live in the community, Moreira is also determined to change the way Danzig is perceived.

“The aftermath of the shooting made it sound like war zone…Danzig is populated by families and good decent people,” he said.

Police have said the shooting on Danzig two years ago was triggered when members of the Galloway Boys, a local street gang who allegedly “took ownership” of the barbecue, turned away a member of the Malvern crew, a rival gang. That individual then allegedly returned to the gathering with a number of associates to confront the Galloway Boys, sparking the shootout.

Two years later, Moreira said street gangs in the area have been dramatically diminished, but for the families of the two bystanders who were killed in the shooting, however, it’s been harder to move past the violence.

In Remelinda Yasay’s Ajax, Ont., home, her son Joshua Yasay’s room is exactly as he left it on the day he died.

“We don’t want to touch it yet,” she said in a soft voice. “It’s really hard. Sometimes I’m OK, sometimes I’m not.”

Joshua wanted to be a police officer one day and had recently graduated with a degree in criminology from York University, which now has a scholarship in his name. He also volunteered as a youth basketball coach and had recently opened a barbershop with friends.

His mother doesn’t think the courts are being strict enough with those who were arrested in connection with his death.

“I hope one day the law will change,” she said. “I guess more lives have to be wasted.”

Fourteen-year-old Shyanne Charles, who lived in the Danzig Street community, also died in the shootout.

Her family moved out of the neighbourhood, but her grandfather wants her memory to live on, which is why he’s involved with setting up a scholarship at Centennial College in her name.

“I don’t just want to remember her by how she died. I want something good to come out of it…Even though she’s not here she can still contribute to other people who need help,” said Tyrone Charles.

“Shyanne was a child who loved to laugh. We’re not going to cry no more.”