[Photos by JUSTIN ROMAN]
BY JEFF DEENEY The intersection of Cambria and Amber streets is a good six blocks away from the endemic drug violence of the Badlands — sometimes that seems like six miles, and sometimes like six inches. It sits east of Frankford Avenue and a full five blocks from the El, far enough away that you can’t even see the hulking steel skeleton that straddles Kensington Avenue from here. Crime and violence has seeped north and east from West Kensington over the years, slowly and steadily creeping further and further into the surrounding neighborhoods of the Lower and Great Northeast. One doesn’t need to do much research to see how bad things have gotten here. There are not one but two memorials on the corner of Cambria and Amber; a fading graffiti tribute on one wall reads, “In Memory of Jizzy Black,” and a pile of stuffed animals with a plastic-wrapped Koran placed on top sits against another. The latter memorial is for recent murder victim, 15-year-old Khalif Leslie. Maps on the Inquirer website show four homicides and 11 shootings in this neighborhood in 2007 and 2006.
This stretch of Cambria Street used to be heavily industrial, and there’s still an aged power substation and a sprawling scrap yard full of junked cars around the corner where Trenton Avenue dead ends into Somerset Street. There are more vacant, overgrown lots here than working factories now, and on the adjoining streets there’s no shortage of boarded up and abandoned row houses. When we arrive and set up to shoot the memorials, a man in filthy clothes is rummaging through a nearby garbage can. He’s pushing a shopping cart containing empty cans and a folded-up baby stroller. When he shuffles past, I ask him if he can give me some impressions of the neighborhood. “Nah, man,” he replies, “I don’t know nothin’ about nothin’.” When he speaks I can see that he’s missing both his front teeth.
The Daily News did an extensive follow up with Khalif’s family after his murder, in which his hard grieving mother takes the blame for dropping him off in Kensington after taking him clothes shopping instead of taking him home to Southwest Philly, and there was a tremendous outpouring of support for the family from friends and neighbors in the wake of his death. The article alludes to troublesome signs that were already brewing in young Khalif’s life; he had recently returned from a six-month boot camp stint after failing to do the community service he was assigned for fighting in school. The overall sense you’re left with after reading the article is that while there’s evidence that Khalif may have been on his way to the bad apple cart, he was tragically taken before he might have had a chance to find a different direction in life.
There’s some graffiti around the memorial site that matches messages left in black marker on some of the stuffed animals. Khalif’s friends praise him as a fallen “BMC soldier,” and across the street the letters BMC are carved into the sidewalk concrete and tagged over the fading memorial for Jizzy Black. BMC stands for Bellmore Crew. Bellmore Avenue is a narrow side street four blocks to the north, and apparently this neighborhood is their territory. A ride down Bellmore Avenue proved it to be a rough little stretch directly off Frankford Avenue in what is otherwise a fairly well-maintained area. Other blocks off Frankford in this neighborhood have houses with tended window boxes full of colorful flowers and swept sidewalks out front. Bellmore Avenue has windblown garbage piling up in the gutter and a lot of boards nailed to decaying facades. As I slowly cruised its length on a recent weekday afternoon there were grown men sitting on stoops in designer track suits and new sneakers; some gave me the familiar head’s up nod, as if to ask if I needed something, and others turned their heads away, jumping up to swiftly head indoors when they saw an unfamiliar white guy on the block.
On a friend’s MySpace page there’s a picture of little baby-faced Khalil standing in the middle of Trenton Avenue as if he owns the whole block and flashing the BMC gang sign at the camera. The sign is made by curling your index finger to touch the tip of your thumb, like you’re saying “OK.” The other three fingers are held stiff together, turning the hand into a lower case “b.” There are maybe fifteen other pages with kids flashing the same sign, all featuring photo albums displaying the same lifestyle signifiers we’ve seen on other gang-related MySpace pages — money stacks, thick clouds of blunt smoke, booze bottles, hand guns. This is the world Khalil was entering when he was killed at such a young age; he still needed a ride from his mom to get across town to meet with his crew. We’ll never know if he was just a rowdy teenager going through a phase, who would have come out the other side of street life and moved on to more constructive pursuits, or if he would have become another lifer North Philly gangster, hardened to the point of no return, bent on jail or death with no regrets about the destruction left in his wake.
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.
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