By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
Updated 9:39 PM ET, Mon April 18, 2016
New Orleans (CNN) It begins with a simple fender bender. Two SUVs speed off. Three blocks away, the drivers exit and argue. Within seconds, shots are fired, and ex-NFLer Will Smith lies dead in the street.
Welcome to New Orleans.
To the world, the Big Easy is a place to cut loose, rich in culture, music and cuisine. A city that lives its motto, "Laissez les bon temps rouler," and draws up to 9.8 million tourists a year.
But peel back that glittery exterior and you find a place that's broken and violent in many ways -- a place where deaths such as that of a favorite New Orleans Saint don't terribly surprise anyone.
"For all its love of life, it also seems to lack a respect for life," said Father Bill Terry of St. Anna's Episcopal Church. Outside his church hangs a white plastic board that lists the names and ages of all those murdered -- an eerie monument to the city's fallen residents.
To be sure, this has been a better year than most so far. The city has had 34 murders, which is actually on track for the lowest murder rate in decades.
But it was only five years ago New Orleans held the dubious title of Murder City, and weary residents will tell you a sudden surge never feels far away. Terry has some theories why. Most New Orleans residents do. "The story here is not so much about Will Smith," Terry said. "The story is about violent reactions and behavior that's so beyond the pale of reason and sanity." Ask young people from one of New Orleans' seedier neighborhoods how many friends and family members they've lost to gun violence, and the answer is astounding.
So went the conversation with Kendall Santacruze, 23. That's just counting acquaintances, friends and relatives, he says -- not the strangers he's seen bleed out in the street.
"It scares me because I know that at one point in my life -- and I hope that it doesn't -- it could be me," he said.
Saints, family bid farewell to Will Smith
One of the first deaths he remembers is that of his cousin, 19-year-old Ersheka Quinn.
A strapping fellow, Santacruze's contagious grin fades and a tear rolls down his nose as he recalls her death. He was 7 at the time.
"Her boyfriend got into it with some other guys, and they came for him and she just so happened to be in the car with him. They shot them both multiple times and burned the car," he said.
A Celebration of Death
Young people in New Orleans are simply introduced to calamity at far too early an age, says Trenice McMillan.
"There are 7-year-olds who have been to more funerals than I've been to in my entire life," the 33-year-old McMillan said. "Death is normal. Living isn't. If you make it past 25, you weren't a real thug or you weren't a real gangster."
McMillan and her husband, Bryan, run a full-service printing shop, Platinum Graphics, which they opened about a decade ago.
"When we did get into it, I thought it would mostly be happy moments, kids' parties, birthdays," she said.
Not in New Orleans.
"Sadly, T-shirt shops and funeral homes are big business here," said Bryan McMillan, 45. "Every once in a while, we'll get a funeral for an old lady or old man who died of natural causes. But 70% of the time, it's someone who has been murdered."
It's gotten to the point that the McMillans have stopped cultivating friendships with customers.
"Something might happen to that person, and you're developing a relationship with them, and we might lose them one day," Trenice McMillan said. "I can't do this anymore."
This is nothing new. Four years ago when CNN visited, criminal defense attorney George Gates wondered if the way New Orleans celebrates death alters young people's perceptions of passing away.
The brass band plays solemn dirges en route to the cemetery before a lively show of funk, jazz and Dixieland as mourners leave the burial grounds. The second line dances, steps, flags handkerchiefs and pumps umbrellas in honor of the person just laid to rest.
"They don't see death. ... They see a celebration in death that that person never had in life," Gates said at the time. "They see a huge party and what they think about is that party when they die."
Easy Access to Guns
Santacruze lives in Marrero Gardens, next to the now-razed Calliope Projects, once one of the roughest in the city.
Ask him how long it would take to find a gun, he estimates 15 minutes: a five-minute walk and 10-minute negotiation.
"I think it's mainly because a lot of people are scared," Santacruze said. "They want to mask that fear with a tough exterior of being hard, of being fearless. They find weapons to exercise that."
Al Boese, 78, has lived in New Orleans all his life. A lifelong Saints fan, he showed up at the Smith memorial last week and began chatting about football and his hometown. It didn't take long for the talk to turn to crime.
New Orleans has always had its fair share of it, he said, but things feel differently these days.
"Seems like everybody has guns," he said. "When I was growing up, it was nice. People would talk and sit out at night. You don't see them sitting on their porches. You've got to watch where you go."
That two football players who both stood at least 6-foot-3-inches tall needed to drive around with loaded guns -- and police say suspect Cardell Hayes was driving with two in his car -- speaks to the fear that New Orleans instills in young black men.
Attorneys spar over guns in Will Smith case
Saints coach Sean Payton has heard the argument that people need guns for protection, but he's not buying it.
"I hate guns," he told USA Today last week. "The idea that we need them to fend off intruders ... people are more apt to draw them [in other situations]. That's some silly stuff we're hanging onto."
No Place Is Immune
The Will Smith memorial is at a five-way intersection in the Lower Garden District. It's supposed to be one of the better parts of town. Jessie Nikole, who used to live around the corner from the shooting scene, said she was surprised to hear Smith was slain there -- but not too surprised.
In New Orleans, you don't have to walk far from any "good" neighborhood to get to a shady part of town. Residents and business owners along Magazine Street, where the confrontation between Will Smith and his accused killer began, say the hip stretch of local haunts is not immune to the violence plaguing the city.
In the last year, the area saw a Tulane University med student shot after a thwarted robbery and a shootout take place in front of a community health center.
The Will Smith killing, by the numbers
Trenice, the print shop owner, said she's considering moving out of New Orleans when her 8-year-old boy gets older.
"I'd rather move before he starts blending with idiots," she said. "I always tell him, 'Be kind to everyone, even if they step on your foot or spit in your face. Be kind because we want you to come home.' "
Her husband chimed, "They don't even get mad anymore. ... There is no escalation of anything. 'Such-and-said this? Oh yeah?' Here they come with a gun. They don't even argue or yell. 'What did you say on my Facebook wall? I'm coming for you.' "
It's a concern that's pervasive.
New Orleans native and Arizona Cardinal Tyrann Mathieu, who goes by the nickname, "Honey Badger," is fearless on the field. But he is markedly less aggressive when walking the streets of his hometown.
Mathieu loves his city, he told "The Rich Eisen Show," but he flies in and out to avoid the troublemakers.
"They will try to start any kind of altercation with you. The first thing they think about is to take your life," he said. "They don't want to ask any questions. They don't want to talk about anything. They just want to let loose with their gun," he said.
Indeed, New Orleans is a strange beast.
Former police Superintendent Ronal Serpas once told CNN that people killed each other "for just the damnedest of reasons" in his city.
A group of researchers examining a year of homicides in the city concluded the same thing.
"In reading the narratives of the offenses, one is struck by their ordinariness -- arguments and disputes that escalate into homicide."
The murders disproportionately target black males and occur in residential areas outdoors, the U.S. Department of Justice study found. Most people died over drugs, revenge or arguments. Road rage and heat-of-the-moment conflict were regular variables.
Many young men in the city seem to be making a choice when they get into a confrontation: Admit their fear and be deemed weak, or pull the trigger and have others fear you. Too many choose the latter.
Darryl Durham is the arts director for Anna's Place NOLA, a church arts program that teaches at-risk kids to express themselves through creative outlets.
Last week, two boys -- good students who generally follow the rules -- began calling each other names. It escalated. One boy spat in the face of the other, who in turn threw a punch.
Durham used Smith's death as a teaching moment.
He pointed out all the instances where either Smith or Hayes could have de-escalated the situation. They could've called the police during the first or second fender bender. What if one of them had apologized?
Durham pointed to the murder board outside St. Anna's Episcopal, which shows the victims, ages and the manner in which they died: Shot, shot, shot, shot, stabbed, stabbed, shot.
"He's 10 years old and already worried about being tough and not being seen as weak," Durham said about one of the boys. "He said he had to defend his honor. Are you kidding me? You're 10 years old."
Dearth of Role Models
To Father Terry, violence becomes a succinct solution to a disagreement in New Orleans because "much of the community is not equipped with alternatives," he said.
Money and schooling are in lockstep, and the deplorable behavior has to be viewed in that context, he said.
Role models are hard to come by, and kids worry about things kids shouldn't fret over: mama and her boyfriend are fighting; the kids are scared or hungry, they're distraught about getting evicted or worried about their little sister.
Timeline: Will Smiths' final hours
It's like their brains are bowls and all the drama they're witnessing is like a pile of oranges filled over the brim, Terry said. When they get to school, you can try to put more oranges in the bowl, but they'll just tumble off.
The key is changing the kids' perception of normal.
Drug transactions on street corners are not normal. Having your electricity turned off is not normal. Seeing friends and relatives die from shootouts and stray bullets is not normal.
Lack of Safe Spaces
Of course, there are many who are trying to change these kids' normals, but resources are thin.
Lisa Fitzpatrick, a 2013 CNN Hero, has already shuttered one APEX Youth Center. APEX, which stands for Always Pursuing Excellence, provides a haven where kids could have a snack, swing on swings or shoot hoops -- you know, the simple things kids are supposed to be enjoying after school.
She and her husband, Danny, sold their home, and with the help of a local church opened a new center in rough-and-tumble Central City in 2013.
On this past St. Patrick's Day, shots rang out nearby. Everyone on the playground and basketball court was ushered inside, the doors were locked and police called.
During the perimeter check to make sure everyone was inside, Fitzpatrick's fear soared: It was a young man from APEX who had been shot. He was limping, hopping, running toward the center.
The young man, who had just turned 20, collapsed in front of the fence encompassing the playground. She applied pressure to his foot, which was bleeding profusely.
"Ms. Lisa, they might be behind me," he told her.
"Baby, I'm not leaving you. They're going to have to shoot me first."
The young man survived. But what if, Fitzpatrick posits, there hadn't been a safe place to which he could flee?
"At any given moment, we could shut the doors," Fitzpatrick said, explaining she sometimes struggles to pay one staff member and had to let her program director go.
Anna's Place NOLA is in constant jeopardy of shutting down as well.
"We have to go out and literally beg to get barely enough money to employ three people to keep 60 to 90 kids off the street and educate and pay for their mental treatment," Father Terry said.
The other day one of the kids told Durham, the arts director, she didn't want to go home because there was no food. As Terry recounted the incident, he nodded to the oak-dotted median cordoned off with construction tape in front of the church.
"We're going to get a very nice jogging path right out front," he said. "It'll be beautiful. I've got a kid who can't get food to eat. I can't get money to employ two more people to exponentially expand [Anna's Place]. If you want to have a sense of value, you have to be raised in a community that values you."
Some Lives Devalued
Some in New Orleans are aggravated the national media showed up only when Will Smith died.
Why didn't they come running when 34-year-old Arthur Victor was shot late last month? Or when 19-year-old Aaron Thompson was shot? Or Kendol Mutin, 25, or Sean Jefferson, 21, or any number of young black men?
"What about my cousin? Because you were a Saints player, you get this publicity?" Trenice McMillan, the print shop owner asked. "But what about kids who didn't make it to 5 or the grandma who was sipping lemonade on her porch?"
She worries that for those outside the city, New Orleans is all about football, Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and murder.
Fitzpatrick feels the same way. When CNN visited the center in 2012, Fitzpatrick introduced this reporter to Rakeem Holmes, who had just lost his 1-year-old daughter to a flurry of stray bullets unleashed into a courtyard of the Calliope Projects.
Holmes didn't speak much during the visit, his sadness visibly weighing on him.
Rather than seek revenge like so many of his peers, he took the gifts he planned to give his daughter for her upcoming birthday -- along with dozens of stuffed animals donated by the community -- and handed them out as Christmas gifts to 100 kids that year.
Fitzpatrick took Holmes in. He called her mom; she called him son. She arranged for him to get out of New Orleans, to live with relatives in Arkansas, but the Crescent City has a magnetism for its sons and daughters. He found his way back.
Less than two years after his daughter died, he was gunned down. His murder was never solved.
"He was every bit as important as Mr. Smith," Fitzpatrick said. "He was every bit the hero to not retaliate. ... The moment we devalue even one of our children's lives for whatever reason, we devalue all of our lives."
Will Smith, a force on and off the field
Mayor Mitch Landrieu concurs.
While he believes his city gets an unfair rap when it comes to violence, he conceded it's a tale of two cities. The reality for New Orleans' wealthier residents and the tourists who spent $7 billion there last year is in stark relief to the reality of its poorer residents, especially African-American males.
"There's been a lot of attention paid to this particular case," he said about the Will Smith incident. "The next day there was another young man that was killed in the city that nobody's talking about and there are hundreds of people that have been killed before that nobody seems to know or care about, either."
The man killed the day after Smith was Bryant Brastfield. Brastfield was found dead under an overpass with multiple gunshots. There's no indication what led to his killing. He was 31.
Follow CNN's Eliott C. McLaughlin on Twitter.
CNN's Martin Savidge contributed to this report.