[Photos by JUSTIN ROMAN]
BY JEFF DEENEY Near the corner off 11th and Tioga is a memorial set up around the base of stop sign for Tim Haines, aka Boosa, a 24 year old who was gunned down here one early Saturday morning late last month during a violent weekend that left five dead citywide. This is a neighborhood I know fairly well; as a social worker I had a client who lived nearby and longtime readers might remember that around this time last year I got caught in the middle of a daytime shoot out around the corner on Old York Road, about two blocks from Temple Hospital. The most disturbing detail that I still vividly remember about that incident was the smile the young shooter had on his face as he passed within arm’s reach of my parked car, like throwing bullets around a busy street corner was fun and games. The incident highlighted for me how casually weapons are wielded in these most desolate stretches of the city, and how cheap life is to the kids wielding them.
It was a warm Saturday afternoon when we pulled up to photograph the memorial; the smell of barbecue from a smoking grill on the porch of a nearby row-home filled the air. A woman with a long braided weave in nurse’s scrubs and a man with salt and pepper hair and beard wearing freshly pressed jeans and a long sleeve t-shirt were standing near the memorial, chatting when we approached. They initiated a conversation, asking curiously what we were up to. As I explained the series the woman cut in saying, “Y’all just missed his family, they were just here. For real, like five minutes ago. They been keeping it up real nice.” She pointed at the fresh crop of helium filled aluminum balloons tied to the stop sign’s metal post. She continued, saying, “They had a big vigil for him last week, there was kids dancing, music, it was real nice.” When I asked her what Tim was like she stopped to think for a second before generalizing, “You know, he was just a real nice young boy from around the way.”
The newspapers didn’t give any details about Tim’s death beyond vital statistics, but a clue as to what he might have been doing on Tioga Street at almost three in the morning the day he died sits near his memorial. Juxtaposed against a backdrop of stuffed animals inscribed with loving messages from friends and family and a votive candle bearing the image of Jesus sits a deliberately placed tiny glass vial with a black plastic screw top. These vials are used on the streets to sell powder cocaine, usually in forty to fifty dollar quantities. There’s no way to tell whether Tim liked to sniff coke, sell it or both, but the vial was clearly placed here as an object to remember him by.
Research reveals a picture of Tim that’s hard to square with the neighborhood woman’s appraisal of him as “real nice young boy from around the way.” He was charged with a variety of drug and weapons related crimes over the years. A Myspace search turns up pictures of Tim in a Muslim’s thick beard proudly brandishing a 9mm pistol in each hand. In another picture he shows off two tall rubber-banded bill stacks together in one hand like an overstuffed sandwich he just finished making; he gives the camera the finger with the other hand, like someone asked if they could have a bite of it and he didn’t feel like sharing.
Tim was associated with the local drug set Erie Avenue Mob, many of whose young members use photographs of him as wallpaper for their Myspace pages. There are upwards of 100 kids claiming membership in the gang; many of them use the phrase “Join Da Mob” in their online handles, perhaps as a recruiting tool, and all flash an “E” at the camera made by curling the index finger under the thumb and straightening the other three. The gang has its own designated group on Myspace, which has more than 150 members, many of whom are local girls supporting the boys. The gang has an official symbol, consisting of a black background with the city’s skyline etched on it in white. An image is superimposed over top of this, a set Uzi’s crossed like an “X” and two clenched hands grasping dollar bills. There’s succinct message underneath that boils down to three words what the Erie Avenue Mob is about: Drugs. Guns. Money.
The ages of the members of the Erie Avenue Mob are astonishing; many look younger than the 15 years they registered as their ages on the website. These are babyfaced ballers, young teenagers who mingle pictures of themselves on the corner after dark flashing gang signs and money stacks with pictures of themselves at school functions in their photo albums. Some proclaim to have the block on lock in the comment section of one friend’s page and then talk about how excited they are for prom night at Simon Gratz in another. In a Youtube video embedded in his page one member raps about how he’s a 12 year old original gangster. His hard edged delivery is believable and a crew of older boys cheer him on as he performs, backing up his tough talk, verifying for onlookers that this mere child is in fact one bad mother fucker.
This is who runs many of the cocaine markets in North Philly: rag tag conglomerations of teenagers like the Erie Avenue Mob. At the age of 24 TimHaines was clearly a senior member of the neighborhood drug hierarchy, praised unanimously by the young boys he left behind. Of all the youngsters proclaiming allegiance to the group online, there was only a small handful of others that were even 21 years old. These are the little kingpins who run Eleventh Street, many of them barely old enough to drive, but all of them old enough to fire a gun at a crowded street corner through busy midday traffic and then run away laughing about it. It’s a lost generation, these kids who are already so far gone, at such young ages. Their futures seem so tragically preordained, the minutes remaining before their sudden deaths or life-without-parole ticking by with a sickening velocity.
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. He is currently working on a book about life in the crossfire of poverty, drugs, guns, and the bureaucracies designed to remedy them, all of which informed his experiences as social workers in some of the city’s most dire and depleted neighborhoods.