VALLEY OF SHADOW: Fear & Loathing In Francisville

deeneythumbnail.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY While everyone else was at City Hall for the press conference concerning the police raid of a Francisville building last Friday, I was on Ridge Avenue hoping to find my old friend Ms. Edna Williams, of the Mary Jane Enrichment Center. I wrote about Edna in a City Paper article about grassroots homeless services not long ago; she’s been serving the needy from her SRO between 16th and 17th streets on Ridge for about 30 years now. Edna’s seen Francisville’s fortunes rise and fall over they years, as it changed from a prosperous commercial hub in the 70s to a crack- and prostitution-infested ghetto in the 80s and 90s to a rapidly gentrifying magnet for developers more recently. She’s a loving grandmother to the hundreds of transients passing through the nearby Ridge Avenue and Somerset homeless shelters, who come to her kitchen for a meal. She’s a strong voice among local community activists, and she’s respected by social service providers as a tireless advocate for the downtrodden. On top of all this she’s the consummate neighborhood oldhead, the eyes and ears of Francisville, perennially tuned into the word on the street.

There were conflicting reports in the news regarding Daniel Moffat, owner of the building raided by police last week. Dave Davies reported that Moffat said graffiti reading “Kill the Pigs” was already on his property when he arrived inVALLEYOFTHESHADOWlogoCROPPED_2.jpg 2004. Dan Rubin later reported that Moffat said the police painted the slogan themselves as part of a frame-up. Moffat lied about his identity when the police first approached him, which is certainly never a good way to initiate an interaction with law enforcement, nor to establish credibility in the media after the fact. Yet the police allegations against Moffat revolved around a preposterous piece of terror hysteria about a supposed MOVE-style bunker being built on the roof. Astoundingly, a cop actually told the City Paper that he was going to “drum up some charges” against Moffat. The supposed terror bunker later turned out to be a greenhouse, whose produce was used to feed the homeless.

If anyone would have a good read on the situation, it would be Edna at the Mary Jane. She’s a do-gooder with three decades of charitable spade work under her belt, who’s been publicly honored for her dedication before thousands at the Wachovia Center. Edna’s word is pretty unimpeachable, and she knows everyone and everything that happens on her block, so I wanted to hear what she had to say about the Great Francisville Flap of 2008. When I arrived at the Mary Jane, Enda was helping a needy teenager who stood at the counter of her restaurant-style kitchen; he patiently waited as she wrapped bowls of food for him to take home.

“I see you’re still doing your thing,” I called to her. She laughed and responded, “Come on, now, what did you expect me to be doing.”

When I asked her about the building up the street, she became gravely serious and told me to get the word out that Daniel Moffat and the friends that lived with him were good people. “You need to get that out there,” she said, “these are good kids.” She took me outside and pointed at the new coat of whitewash on the facade of her old building. “They painted my building for me,” she said, “Look at how nice they did.” She continued, “They bring me produce all the time, good food for me to give away.” In the CP article I wrote about Edna and the Mary Jane, Edna stressed that she barely keeps her organization afloat financially, and is entirely dependent on private donations and volunteer efforts to keep her doors open. Paint jobs don’t come cheap, and without the help of Moffat and his friends her building would have gone without the facelift.

Regarding the police, Edna said she thinks recent efforts to “clean up Francisville,” as one officer put it, are overzealous. She’s not comfortable with the four surveillance cameras recently installed on the block, and said that local crackdowns by the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections have been too heavy-handed. I’ve spoken with Edna at length in the past about the changing character of the neighborhood, about how gentrification has spread from nearby Fairmount. It’s clear that she and some holdovers from the old Francisville are feeling cramped by “clean up” efforts that they feel target users of the nearby homeless shelters in what they feel is an effort to clear the neighborhood for takeover by developers.

I talked to several locals outside the Mary Jane, and each held the opinion that the raid on Moffat’s property was retaliation for a petition he circulated regarding police brutality. Also unanimous was incredulity that Moffat and his friends were part of some terror-mongering hate group. Edna said the police treated Moffat “like a dog” when they kept him cuffed in the back of a patrol car for hours as they searched the property.

So the word on the street in Francisville is that Daniel Moffat and his friends were an asset to the community, well liked by many who found them to be generous neighbors in a neighborhood that is feeling besieged by efforts to drive out undesirables for the benefit of gentrifiers. It’s clear as these details about Moffat emerge that the PPD is going to have to “drum up” some seriously compelling evidence to not be totally embarrassed about the outcome of their raid, let alone to get their wild allegations of homegrown terrorism to stick.[Photos by CHRISTINA MAZZA & ISAIAH THOMPSON]RELATED: Moscow On The Schuylkill 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *