Killer Hill

Park Hill, Staten Island. Image by Rain Rannu on Flickr. New York, 2006.

Staten Island is home to the largest number of Liberians outside of the country. Eight thousand are reported to live here and the Park Hill projects are the hub of Liberian life on the island.

Nine months out of the year many of the youth in the neighborhood go to school, but it’s summer — the time when the young and able-bodied take to the streets to chat, unwind, show off and drink their idle days away.

Most of the Liberians I encounter in Park Hill escaped Liberia during the 14-year civil war. Many never got an education as schools were closed. Some were forced to fight in Charles Taylor’s army. Others for the rebels. And still others in self-defense, just to survive. America was considered the ultimate escape — the place where money was found on the streets and life was easy.

Welcome to Park Hill — the place where the realities of life as a refugee collide head on with the American dream.

I’m standing in the parking lot behind building 201, where clusters of young people while away the hours. It takes time for me to learn the ropes. This group doesn’t talk to that group. Residents of 205 don’t enter building 60. Some don’t wear red. Others blue. These are “the rules,” I’m told. And then I’m given a warning: “These are the good Liberians — those are the bad.” Yet I don’t see the difference. All are standing in the same parking lot, smoking the same marijuana, and drinking the same brandy — counting shots, instead of sheep, to fall asleep.

The group of young men I’m spending the day with all hang out in Apartment 4 O, owned by an older Liberian woman who allows the boys to stay around to keep her company. A conveyer belt of young men roll through the apartment, constantly bringing new recruits and taking the tired and drunk with them when they leave.

*All names and identifying details have been changed to protect the subjects.