BY JEFF DEENEY “Today I saw…” is a series of nonfiction shorts based on my experiences as a caseworker serving formerly homeless families now living in North and West Philadelphia. I decided not long after starting the job that I was seeing so many fascinating and disturbing things in the city’s poorest neighborhoods that I needed to start cataloging them. I hope this bi-weekly column serves as a record of a side of the city that many Philadelphians don’t come in contact with on a daily basis. I want to capture moments not frequently covered by the local media, which tends to only cover the most fantastically violent or sordid aspects of life there.
Today I saw a cluster of people gathered in front of a rowhouse just off H Street in Kensington, not far from the Allegheny El stop. It’s a narrow block and I approached driving slowly, with my windows down. I could clearly hear agitation in the voices of the women, mothers with rambunctious children gathered around their knees. They were pointing to a house across the street; I assumed they were talking about the abandoned house with boarded-up windows and a graffiti tag on the facade, maybe gang-related, that was painted over by L&I. Once I got within earshot I heard them talking about a wild dogs, vicious pit bulls — apparently, someone got mauled when one got loose. The talk was of a callous drug dealer and residents wanting to get off the block.
“That dog came tearing out the house, my boy barely got away.”
“That other boy wasn’t so lucky. This ain’t the first time that dog attacked nobody, neither. They need to put him down.”
“They need to do somethin’ about these crack houses is what they need to do. Things was fine until they took that spot over. Now it’s crackheads in and out all day and night and pit bulls runnin’ loose attacking children.”
I stepped out of my car and into the circle; I had been on this block before and knew one of the neighbors. After introducing myself I asked: “Which house is the crack house? The abandoned one across the street that’s boarded up?”
“Nah, that house is just empty, the crack house is the one next door.”
The house next door to the abandoned house looked like a perfectly normal North Philly rowhouse. Its windows were intact, the door was on its hinges and it looked recently occupied. There were shades on the windows, pulled down against the daylight. Most people expect a crack house to look like a haunted house from an old horror movie; rusted iron gates creaking in the wind and a front yard full of zombies. But a lot of drug houses are just like this one — you’d never be able to pick it out from the other houses on the block until after dark, when the customers start to come and go like it’s a busy corner bodega.
“Who owns the house?”
“Don’t nobody own that house. It stood empty for a while and then some squatter moved in and turned it over to a dealer. The whole block done changed since then; this was a good block, now it’s crazy.”
“What happened? Was somebody hurt?”
A big woman in beige nurse’s scrubs and black Croc clogs stepped forward and started to talk, getting excited as she recounted the tale. Her 5-year-old boy was playing with a ball in the street last night before dark, while she watched from her porch. The ball got away from him and bounced onto the porch of the abandoned house across the street. When her boy went to retrieve the ball he startled one of the pit bulls who are kept in the house to sic on uncooperative customers. The crack house screen door wasn’t fully shut and the dog bolted, charging down the steps at the boy with the ball. The boy panicked and threw the ball, which momentarily distracted the dog. This gave the boy a chance to get away, and he ran back to the porch where his mother scooped him up and took him inside.
But there was an 11-year-old also standing in the street, and once the raging pit bull lost interest in the thrown ball it went after this other boy. The dog lunged and locked onto the boy’s elbow, biting down hard and shaking his head. By this point the whole block was watching, stunned, panicking. The boy’s mother started hitting at it, screaming at it. Somebody whacked it with a slab of wood, but the dog held on. A man came from up the block; he owned dogs and knew how to handle a pit. He straddled the dog, grabbing it by the ears and pulling back, hard, until the dog finally released the boy. The boy’s mother led him away by the other arm, running off to her house to wait for an ambulance to take him to St. Chris’s up on Front Street and Erie Avenue.
Not long after that the police were there. Then the news crews were there too, swarming in to get the pit bull attack scoop. A helicopter circled overhead for the rest of the night.
The neighbors said crack house was still there the next day, though somebody official looking, maybe from L&I, stopped by to serve the owner with papers. The owner had his dogs back from animal control not long after they were seized. The boy was still in the hospital; the doctors sewed up his torn-open arm but couldn’t cast it because the dog shattered his elbow so badly they couldn’t find enough bone to set. The neighbors talked about moving.
How could people live like this?
Working people, who pay their rent, don’t cause trouble and mind their own business?
Wild crack dogs, running loose in the streets, attacking children.
Lord have mercy, what is this world coming to?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer who has contributed to the City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture. He is also a caseworker with a nonprofit housing program that serves homeless families.
[Photo by Rachael Shirley]