BY JEFF DEENEY The Next Mayor blog has a couple substantial posts talking about Showdown on Hurley Street. I would suggest reading them and getting involved in the larger discussion about poverty, crime and violence that’s bound to get louder as the change over to the Nutter administration draws nearer. I figured that the article would spark some strong responses both positive and negative; a lot of what I’ve written has. Let me address some points raised.
Blogger Phil starts out by saying, “An article from today, The Showdown on Hurley Street, struck me as hysteria.” In the larger context of his post it doesn’t appear that Phil is accusing me of inciting hysteria, but I would like to state for the record that inciting hysteria over our violence problem was not the object of the article. There’s arguably an overabundance of press coverage and editorializing regarding guns and murder right now. When people start writing about something just because it’s the topic everyone else is writing about, there’s certainly a potential for distortion and even dishonesty. However, I think my article dug a little deeper than most; I think it gets beneath the surface and shows how easily violence erupts, and how cheap life can be in the most socially isolated and impoverished parts of the city. It’s an ugly piece, but an honestly ugly piece and I think also a necessarily ugly piece.
There are too many people talking about this stuff, be they writers, bloggers, politicians or simply interested citizens, from a comfortable distance at an office downtown or a suburban enclave. I wanted to take the ugliest situation I’ve ever had the misfortune to watch unfold in this city and put it in your lap. I want you to look at it, and I want you to see it the same way I did. I was affected by it deeply, and I think you should be, too. I don’t want to incite hysteria but I also think there were some things at work on Hurley Street during its collapse that are representative of larger issues in the city that won’t get resolved until they are adequately addressed.
While Phawker readers know, other new readers and the bloggers at the Next Mayor might not know that the abundant time I spent in Kensington, among other neighborhoods, this past year was as a social worker. I’m not a poverty tourist and I wasn’t on Hurley Street looking for a sensational scoop. I have put in a tremendous amount of time and effort, and even at times compromised my own safety, to help poor families. In doing so, I’ve gotten to know the area pretty well.
For example, Eva Caraballo comments on TNM,
“After living in Kensington 16 yrs and witnessing first hand what it has now become, I was fearful for my life as well as my children. My last place of residence D & Indiana right on the corner up the street from Hurley. My children were not allowed outside for many reasons, my neighbors were and probably still are drug dealers…”
I can confirm that, yes; they still are drug dealers, Eva. I know this because I had a client until very recently on D & Indiana who constantly complained about them. She doesn’t let her kids outside, either. She said guns are going off around the clock. A lot of my clients complained that there were guns constantly going off; Kensington, West Kensington, Fairhill, Frankford, West Philly, Southwest Philly…on and on.
Eva also says, “Oh, how I often wish I could share this peace with the GOOD people who still live in my beloved Kensington, especially the children.”
Me too, Eva. Especially the children. I can’t attest to what it’s like to live there, but I know what it’s like to work there and wake up every morning reading the most recent homicide stats and praying that one of my kids isn’t one of them.
Eva raises the point that there are good people in still in Kensington; in fact there are lots of them. There are lots of good blocks; even Hurley Street on the other side of Westmoreland, between Ontario and Tioga, is a nice, quiet stretch of well attended row homes. The character of North Philadelphia changes from block to block, and some good blocks and bad blocks tend to switch back and forth depending on who is currently residing there. I saw blocks go from good to bad almost over night. If one crackhouse or speakeasy opens, if one set of squatters takes over an abandoned building, if one troubled family moves to the neighborhood then the character of a whole block can change for the worse. This constant flux makes policing hard, which brings us to the next point.
“…the reaction of the cops in this story could lead the reader to think that we need to re-think a lot of what we know about policing.” He’s referring to the fact that the responding officers that night according to Shawn preferred to talk about Golden Girls reruns rather than break up an impending riot.”
In all fairness, though, I think the urge to scapegoat law enforcement needs to be resisted. There are lazy cops, cops who don’t give a shit and cops who are actively hostile towards citizens. But as a social worker I encountered a lot of good cops. Later in the story when Shawn returned to get her belongings I was there, as were two police officers who responded promptly to my request for their presence. They were extremely patient, sitting with us for more than an hour as Shawn gathered her things. The tension on the block ran high that morning and would have flared again if they weren’t there. The officers at the 25th District building were helpful in arranging this, and were also helpful to me on a number of other occasions during the past year.
There is surely a greater need for community policing, “beat cops,” as Phil puts it. But the hostility goes both ways, and a bridge needs to be built to the community, by community members, before this will work. Police I’ve talked to in Kensington tell stories about kids spitting on them and throwing rocks at their cars. Community members say they’re hostile because cops sit in their air conditioned vehicles all summer, letting crime happen. Cops and poor people need to stop talking past each other, and start talking to each other.
But again, this shouldn’t be isolated to law enforcement. In my last year as a social worker I’ve encountered a need for reform in just about every branch of city services. Homeless services, the Department of Welfare, the Department of Human Services, the prisons, the courts, schools; the list just goes on. At every level you find public servants who are actively hostile towards those they serve. I’ve listened to lawyers and judges talk with disgust about other judges that they feel go out of their way to clog the system and make it ineffective. I’ve stood in living rooms with contracted SCOH (Services to Children in their Own Home) workers and marveled at the fact that the city’s child welfare apparatus put someone there who is so clearly not qualified for the job.
Mr. Nutter certainly has his job cut out for him. This isn’t just a question of Stop and Frisk; it’s a question of a total institutional overhaul. The bar in Philadelphia is set so low and I don’t know why. I don’t know why all this is acceptable. Hopefully the next mayor will be bold enough to accept that the way we’ve been doing things isn’t working, and that bold, big ideas are needed to approach the situation in a way that will lead to real change.
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.