Strolling down East Third Street one afternoon in the summer of 1996, Chico Garcia glanced in the door of what had been the Lopez Deli, just off Avenue C in Manhattan. The place was a wreck, deserted since a shootout nearly a year earlier. A drug gang tried to stick up the shop and a young cop, Keith Prunty, was shot and paralyzed. One of the robbers was killed.
By September 1996, no longer a drug market or a deli, the shop was a tomb of year-old horrors. Mr. Garcia saw a woman nosing around inside. Her name was Carol Shapiro.
“What are they going to do here?” Mr. Garcia asked.
“We need to do some things to help the neighborhood change,” Ms. Shapiro said.
“Can I do anything to help?” Mr. Garcia said.
He was a muralist in the street graffiti style. She had spent years working in the city jails, and wanted to try out an idea: to build a net of help for the families of drug users who have returned from prison, seeing the crime of one person as an unmistakable warning of other troubles at home.
And in the miserable ruins of the Lopez Deli, Ms. Shapiro’s idea came to life as La Bodega de la Familia, or the Family Grocery. Mr. Garcia designed a mural on the front gate and had kids from the street color it with spray paint. They produced an image depicting a girl and a boy frozen in a joyful dance.
This week, La Bodega de la Familia is going out of business. The experiment is finished. The results are in: Among former prisoners served by La Bodega, drug use was cut in half, a study by the Vera Institute of Justice showed. Recidivism among former prisoners involved with La Bodega dropped by 30 to 50 percent compared with those who were not.
Ms. Shapiro, who is the president of Family Justice , the agency that created La Bodega with government grants and private donations, said she wanted to focus on getting other people to set up and run programs like it around the country.
“In a time when people have no money or less money, you want to think creatively about what you have,” she said. “Families are an untapped resource. At Rikers Island, when I was a deputy commissioner under Mayor Dinkins, I saw that there’s more than one person in most of these families that is involved in drugs.”
The breadth of those problems was described in a report on La Bodega by the Vera Institute of Justice, a leading criminal justice research organization.
“The average age at which study group members first used a drug other than marijuana was 15,” the report said. “Drug use and dealing were frequently taught by one generation to the next, and often put family members in physical danger. Arrest and incarceration had become so routine among users in the study that almost two-thirds considered their present legal problems to be ‘not at all important.’ ”
At age 37, Rodney Gordon came back to the Lower East Side in 1996 after serving 10 years for a robbery.
“I heard about it from people in the community saying, ‘There’s a place down the block that will assist you people when you come home,’ ” Mr. Gordon said. “The most important thing they gave me was the moral support. They had a sort of unique approach. Here’s someone concerned about me getting home, getting on my feet.”
HE got help looking for a job, counseling for his family, appointments with social services. “With my record, it was not easy getting a job,” he said, but he found work as an administrative assistant.
Mr. Gordon was one of hundreds of people who signed petitions asking that La Bodega continue in some form. The struggling neighborhood he had come home to has long since shed most of its ragged edges, as most of the Lower East Side has become a colony of the young and well-off. But the new wealth has not erased the social problems for people living in the Jacob Riis and Lillian Wald housing projects.
“The community is a lot safer now,” Mr. Gordon said. “But I think the need is greater than it was when I came home. A tremendous amount of people are going to be released from prison. Where is the help going to come from now? They didn’t cater just to the ex-offenders — it was families and job searches.”
Ms. Shapiro, who made the decision to shut the program, said Family Justice hoped to work with neighborhood agencies that want to fill in the spaces left by La Bodega’s closing.
On Wednesday, as the group packs its files, the glowing mural by Chico Garcia on the front of La Bodega will be painted over. The landlord wants to offer the space unmarked by its past.