[Photos by JUSTIN ROMAN]
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Valley of the Shadow is an ongoing series documenting how those in Philadelphia’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods publicly mourn and commemorate their dead. Jeff Deeney knows these neighborhoods well from his days as a social worker. The hope is to shine a light on the city’s untouchables, brighten the darkest corners and gather-and-share ultra-vivid and all-too-real stories of loss, grief and remembrance.
BY JEFF DEENEY The air around the Norris Apartments — the high-rise housing project on the eastern fringe of Temple University’s campus — is thick with blunt smoke on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The skunky aroma wafts genie-like through the air, down the street and beneath the bulbous red nose of an oversized Sylvester the Cat, propped against a black iron fence. Tied to the railing to the left of Sylvester’s head are two red bandannas.This the street memorial for 22-year-old Kevin Parker, who was gunned down in the early evening of Easter Sunday.
While we shoot the scene, a group of three project boys sitting on another low-slung railing closer to the front doors start looking over their shoulders at us. One is wearing a white hoodie and bright red Phillies cap; he stares at us hard, then gets up to walk inside, waving over his shoulder for his friends to follow. I pretend to take notes while watching out of the corner of my eye as they duck in the front door. They linger there, cracking the door open and peeking out at us until deeming it safe to return the railing. They fire their blunt back up and continue passing it around.
Around the corner on 10th and Diamond, there’s red-painted graffiti on the concrete pilings supporting the train tracks overhead. One scrawled piece reads, “Got Red Bull?” Another says, “Red Bull gives you wings.”
The bandannas, the graffiti and possibly even the brand-new Phillies caps that the project boys seem to favor are ominous signs that the national Bloods gang continues to make inroads in Philadelphia. In this instance the phrase “Red Bull” is a play on the term “young bull” that kids in the neighborhoods have used to reference an up-and-coming hustler. A search on MySpace including the phrase “Red Bull” and keywords relating to the Bloods brings up scores of pages decked out in virtual red bandannas. One Philadelphia teen with the Red Bull phrase referenced on his page states his Blood affiliation boldly; he has a picture in his profile of red bandannas knotted together to look like a pot leaf and a picture of a man wearing red pants and red Chuck Taylors standing on a blue bandanna – that’s the Crips’ color. There’s also a picture of a blue bandanna cast on the ground and set on fire. The burning blue bandanna picture is captioned, “This iz how I feel aBout U if U fuck wit a cKraB.” cKraB being Blood slang for a member of the Crip gang; the letters “cK” stand for “crip killer” and B’s for Bloods are always capitalized.
Back in January the Inquirer reported that the Bloods were taking root in Southwest Philly; two months later there’s evidence that the gang is in North Philly, possibly operating out of a high-rise public housing tower two blocks from the heart of Temple’s campus. Philadelphia has historically resisted the spread of national gang franchises, for reasons most people I’ve asked can’t quite put their finger on. Philly’s gang culture has always been a fractious collection of cobbled-together elements representing different blocks in different neighborhoods. Whatever the reason for this resistance to national gang franchises, it seems to be disappearing, and the Bloods are putting down roots that seem to be spreading.
Last summer a former client of mine got locked up. He was a longtime streetwise hustler and drug addict who had spent a number of years clean and getting his life together. He relapsed on heroin and crack and within weeks was locked up on a possession charge. When the police ran his name through the system, an old warrant from when he got arrested in Trenton decades ago popped up (“No joke,” he told me, “this warrant was for stealing somebody’s Betamax, it was that old”). He was shipped over to Jersey for a stay in the Mercer County jail. What he saw there terrified him.
“It’s all Crips and Bloods in there,” he told me, “and they’re wild, man, wild. Packs of these young boys are runnin’ the jail, 18-19 year olds, and the second I got there they were up in my face, ‘What gang you wit’?’ I was scared for my life the whole time. They all had weapons, it was like everyone but me had a shank. I never slept for more than 20 minutes, walked around with magazines taped around my chest for protection, the whole nine. It was ready to pop off any second with all these gang kids roamin’ around.”
The New York Times reported in 2006 that a statewide sweep in New Jersey netted 60 gang members. They were all Bloods, and all sent to Mercer County jail. Bloods-related prison violence has been on the rise in Camden, as well.
It’s not just Bloods making their way into Philly; on Lena Street between Church Lane and Armat in Germantown the graffiti is blue. The phrase, “BYM CRIP” is painted next to the Star of David, a symbol long ago co-opted by the gang. BYM stands for Brickyard Mafia, which was the gang’s name before Philly began embracing colors from California. Apparently the Brickyard Mafia, like other Philly gangs, has aligned themselves with a national organization.
Did the Crips and Bloods make their way to Philadelphia by migrating through New Jersey from New York? Or did they come from down south and take New Jersey first? At this point, I don’t think there’s enough intelligence to say for certain how the Crips and Bloods got here, though I feel fairly certain that this won’t be the last memorial adorned with red or blue bandannas that I’ll see this year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in PW, City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture.