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My earliest memories of Shelltown are those of a chaotic and scary place. I was an impressionable and tender ten years of age when my family moved into the impoverished Southeast San Diego neighborhood, which lies awkwardly sandwiched between Logan Heights and National City.

Vividly, I recall my mother innocently driving by the "wrong" park on Ocean View and our beat-up station wagon getting surrounded by a sea of red shirts; Bloods gang members cursing at our intrusion. In those days, it was not an uncommon sight to witness shotgun-toting thugs running past our house on Logan Avenue or to observe their late-night scuffles on our front lawn.

Some might argue that staying out of gangs is an easy choice, but in retrospect, I counter that membership became inevitable for me and my friends. Well before any of us became affiliated, we'd all been victimized by random gang violence. Two of my homeboys were unlucky enough to be matriculated in Memorial Junior High, where they were jumped nearly every day by hoodlums, for the crucial infraction of not residing in Barrio Logan. I was similarly harassed on the school bus to Point Loma, which dropped off at both Correia Junior High as well as Point Loma High, until I wised up and conned my way onto another bus. Even so, I witnessed two Shelltown boys jump from a moving bus to confront rivals, one brandishing a Bowie knife with a six-inch blade, and another time, our late bus was attacked by a gang of Crips in front of King Elementary. One Crip held the driver at bay with a gun, while several others stalked the aisle and struck anyone wearing gang attire, black or Hispanic.

One of my closest friends made the mistake of riding his new bike to the liquor store in order to buy his mom a pack of cigarettes. He was assaulted by a carload of National City boys. While the first two loaded the bike into the trunk of their car, the third chased him down the street and stabbed him a few times on the back and shoulder.

Naturally, this degree of animosity breeds hate, and by the time we were in our midteens, we'd all had enough. Gang graffiti from other neighborhoods incensed us, and whenever we caught somebody from another gang, well, as the saying goes, payback's a bitch.

For some time, our ragtag group of wannabes aspired to be recognized by one of the established gangs in Shelltown, specifically 38th Street. Even without their support, we still rolled 6 to 12 heads deep. The "wrong" park became "our" park, and we also laid siege to the area around Baker Elementary, and to the couple of blocks where most of us lived on Logan Avenue. We were proud of Our Alley and Our Dead End.

Most nights found us camping out at one of our haunts, guzzling down forties to show off our machismo, or otherwise passing around joints and shooting the breeze. Sometimes, however, things were a bit more tense, as when unwelcome trespassers deliberately riled us up, and we were all up in arms, or when we'd set fire to a stripped-down car. In a strictly tribal sense, we outlined and marked our territory, repelled invaders, and boasted of our exploits in order to attract the opposite sex.

Thus, our neighborhood defined us, and in turn, we defined our neighborhood. Shelltown became our kingdom, our pact, our badge of honor, a place we felt compelled to defend and risk our lives to honor. This is what most people will never understand: gang members hold their neighborhoods to be Sacred Ground, and all other rules and laws come secondary. Brutality and criminality are acceptable means to an end. Similar to many other aspects of our lives, i.e., affluence, politics, the underlying principle of gangs is Might Makes Right.

For a number of years, our small group was committed and tight-knit, but hard drugs, recklessness, and the constant threats we faced eroded our unity, and eventually we drifted apart. Some of my homies succumbed to drugs or violence, some moved away to live more anonymous lives, some stayed in the neighborhood and went on to join 38th Street. For me, the inability to murder in cold blood and the increasing risks to my family convinced me to walk away.

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