[Photos by JUSTIN ROMAN]
BY JEFF DEENEY On Lippincott Street, just east of Kensington Avenue, the entire west-facing wall of one row home is dedicated to Andrew Strimel, a 19-year-old murdered almost a year ago today during what was an outrageous weekend of violence that left 10 dead citywide. His street name, “Ice,” rises balloon-like, as if the fat, graffiti-style writing is filled with helium, afloat above a tiny grass lot between houses. The same name is written everywhere on the surrounding blocks, as if his friends got carried away by their grief, tagging “RIP Andrew” on house facades and store fronts and street signs. This block of Lippincott is classic Kensington — when we arrive there’s a car up on jacks mid-block, being worked on by its owner; a middle-aged woman, leaning out her second story window arguing loudly with a younger woman on the sidewalk below; a pair of spritely, small black dogs running maniacally up the block and back, barking at nothing in particular, their owner nowhere to be found.
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.
In front of the wall dedicated to Andrew, there’s a collection of religious candles so sun-faded and weatherbeaten from their year of exposure that the Virgin Mary can barely be made out on most of them, and the saints have been washed away entirely on others. There are also an equally distressed-looking football and basketball, each with inscriptions in Sharpie marker from Andrew’s friends. While we set up to photograph the wall, the two tiny dogs surround us in a flurry of motion, yapping at us and then running off, only to return a moment later to yap at us some more. A Latino kid watches warily from across the street. When I make eye contact, his face softens a bit, so I wave him over. He says he was Andrew’s best friend, but doesn’t seem to want to say much more than that. When I press him — what was Andrew like, what did he like to do in his spare time, did he grow up on Lippincott Street — the kid points at a woman who happens to be passing by and says, “Why don’t you ask his Mom, that’s her, right there.”
The woman looks up, momentarily startled; that Andrew’s mom would happen past is an unbelievable coincidence that leaves me stunned as well. She’s a frail-looking woman, skinny and a little stooped, with white-streaked brown hair. She wears the sadness of her loss heavily on her face. She looks tired, weary beyond words, still clearly emotionally taxed by loss. She brightens a bit with the mention of her son and produces from her wallet a tattered Mass card bearing his picture. Andrew was a good-looking kid, a real picture of Kensington, with a pencil-thin mustache and manicured chin stubble, his hairline high and straight like he just got a shape-up at the barber shop. Mom notes that Andrew had turned 19 a couple weeks before he was killed. She says Andrew played basketball, loved Allen Iverson and wanted to be a 76er. Andrew was playing basketball at the Salvation Army rec center around the corner on Jasper Street last April when he got into a confrontation with some boys on the opposing team. These boys would later roll up on Andrew while he was sitting in a car on Jasper Street and shoot him in the head over the outcome of a neighborhood pick-up game.
“He was a good kid,” his Mom says. The way she says it is hard to describe; it’s not a statement, it’s a sort of a plea for understanding, as if she’s really trying to say: I know you downtown types don’t think we have good kids up here, but my boy really was one. Then Mom points over her shoulder at the El in the distance and says, “Listen, I gotta go to work,” and makes her way west on Lippincott to Kensington Avenue.
On Myspace there’s a page dedicated to Andrew, aka Ice. The default profile photo is that same Mass card, and there are pictures of Andrew snuggling sweetly with his girlfriend and posing tough with “his squad.” In one picture, Andrew wears a Miskeen t-shirt with “Free Ant-Bone” airbrushed on it; in another picture he stands next to Ant-Bone, who appears seated and clad in an orange jumpsuit, in what looks like a prison visiting room. A search of court records shows that Andrew was arrested on a minor trespassing charge in February 2007; there’s a previous motion to forfeit drugs attributed to an Andrew Strimel but the docket’s details are too scant to say for sure it’s the same guy. For whatever reason, though, Andrew was apparently concerned for his safety, at least according to a girl whose Myspace handle is “#1 Bitch,” and recently posted the following comment to a different friend’s page. The comment goes a long way toward explaining Andrew’s Mom’s heavy heart; she apparently lost her husband around the same time she lost her son:
“Hey you, how you been. Me good. Did you hear bout Andrew Strimel? I can’t remember if I told you. I think I told your sister. He was shot and killed the day after your b-day, last year. The crazy part about it is, Drew told my cuz Chris, a couple days b4, that he was gonna get shot. Isn’t that so crazy. Poor Janet, she lost her husband and her youngest son, could you imagine. I would be crazy.”
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.