BREAKING & EXITING: Why I’m Leaving Fishtown

crimewave_1.jpgBY STEWART EBERSOLE I woke up at 3am to the sound of something crashing downstairs. My roommate Rob is a night owl, so I assumed it was him making all that noise and rooting loudly through my toolbox. When my alarm finally woke me up at 7 a.m., it occurred to me for the first time that Rob actually had not been home that night, and that those noises were of a different ilk than the using late night roommate rattle and hum. And then I saw that the hallway window, the window that leads onto the back porch roof, was standing wide open. And then I knew: We had been broken into AGAIN; the second time in just over a month.

A quick survey of the rest of the house found my toolbox open in the living room, minus my Estwing framing hammer and one screwdriver. The toolbox usually lives in the basement, so why was it in the living room? And why didn’t the intruder(s) take the entire box instead of just my framing hammer and screwdriver? Adrenaline shot through my body as it occurred to me that my tools could have easily been used by an attacker to kill me in my sleep. After the panic attack subsided, I went down to the basement for a look. Nearly falling down the stairs, much to my surprise I found nothing of note missing. Instead, my basement was vandalized in a different way; graffiti-ed with a can of my own fluorescent green spray paint. LOSER was sprayed on one wall, HAHA on another, and a big smiley face sprayed onto my dryer. The washing machine had received a near total color change, while a number of my oil paintings, works in progress as it were, had been given a new burst of an out-of-place color.

Although they only stole a couple tools, I lost a lot more that night: my capacity to feel safe and secure in my home; my faith in my neighbors; the desire to own nice things. I felt like giving away everything I owned that anybody might actually want to steal. After calming down a bit, it occurred to me that my home wasn’t just vandalized while I slept, rather we were being fucked with for the umpteenth time since me and my two out-of-towner, artsy, music-playin’ roommates moved into the Fishtown area of Philadelphia some two years ago.

Does this sound familiar? It should. It happens more than anyone in this town cares to admit.

Ten years ago I was a bike messenger working for a company called American Expediting. AmEx, as it was called, had a few Fishtown clients, and I can remember as though it were yesterday the apprehension that I felt when I had to pick up or deliver to these clients. Fishtown, while just a hop, skip, and a jump from Old City and Northern Liberties, was Philadelphia’s Irish/Polish/Albanian Beruit. As we used to say, “Stay on Girard Avenue and you are golden. Venture off onto one of the many side streets and you are going to be identified by dental records alone.” Though none of us really knew how good or bad Fishtown was in reality, none of us lived there, and none of us were in a hurry to prove the long-standing perception wrong.

I moved out of the city and into the burbs in 1999 and began hearing the din of tiny voices speaking of Fishtown’s comeback. Artsie folks, having been priced out of Old City after reviving it, were buying burned out homes in Fishtown (and there were many) and rehabbing them. Buy at $30,000 and sell at $120,000? Fishtown? Are you fucking kidding me? It took one friend, a part-time computer draftsperson that was helping another friend redesign Fishtown shells, to set me straight. By 2004 Fishtown had gone from Land That Time Forgot to Hipster Central, but not without its share of majorly fucking gnarly old school gentrification woes. Nobody in the city really cared much about Fishtown since 1970 and then, all of a sudden, here come the freaks demanding cheap space and a voice in the community. Doesn’t matter if it’s a big-time downtown developer or dirty hipster artists, gentrification is an invasion of the Johnny-Come-Latelies in the eyes of the locals that weathered the hard, lean years. Their slice of the American dream might be maggot-infested, but at least it is their slice, AND THEY PLAN TO KEEP IT THAT WAY.

So you can imagine my surprise when I found myself signing a lease to a rehabbed home in the Riverside section of Fishtown, or the Heights as we like to call it. Owned by a Fishtown local and being marketed by his pushy and poor-speaker-of-English Albanian wife, the house was over a 100 years old, but we would be the first tenants since the rehab. We would quickly come to find out that a 100-year-old virgin was still, um, 100-years-old, and had its share of problems, but the price was right and we were in no position to pay more. A year went by without a hitch. Besides losing the water in the kitchen for much of the winter, the house was a nice place in which to live, operate, and host gatherings. The back yard was a nice touch to our entertaining. And, not surprisingly, we got along with our older neighbors quite well, mostly because we weren’t pushy and would invite them to our functions. They were nice to us and we were nice in return, but we never really made nice with their kids, and that turned out to be a BIG mistake. Moms liked us and dads liked us, and so the kids not liking us seemed a reasonable trade-off. Wrong.

A week before Halloween they fired their first shot across the bow: A big black bike belonging to roommate Max escaped its chain moorings out front and vanished into the night. Max and I often locked our bikes to lamppost in front of the house when we didn’t feel like lugging them into the house and up the stairs. The lamppost seemed sturdy enough, but one night while we slept somebody cut his lock and stole his bike. It was not an expensive bike, but it was his sole mode of transportation. Now it was gone. We didn’t report it stolen but we made a point of telling our neighbors. Most of them responded that it was probably crackheads or passers-by, but nobody suggested that it might have been local tuffs. The local kids were deemed angels and ANGELS DON’T STEAL. OK, fine, it was crackheads dammit. Crackheads stole Max’s bike. And that was our story for quite some time.

On Halloween night I unwisely elected to lock my bike to the same post and sure enough my bike disappeared, too. Fucking crackheads! Now, this one was a very expensive bike. Sure, I shouldn’t have left it locked outside. I was mad at myself, of course, but way more angry when I went out front to find that the thieves — instead of cutting my lock or sawing through the chain — completely dismantled the entire lamppost and lifted the bike over the top at a time when most of the neighborhood kids were getting ready and leaving for school. The crackheads were getting brazen, and boy were they crafty. Damn crackheads. Again, it never occurred to me that it could have been anybody else besides crackheads that were stealing our bikes. In fact, our neighbors not only agreed but they stated this as fact. Damn crackheads stealing two bikes AND the top of our lamp? What were they thinking? Obviously that we were a bunch of stupid kids for not learning our lesson the first time, right?

The entire winter came and went without incident. No thefts. No break ins. No nothing. Then as spring sprung and summer was on the rise it happened again. Roommate Rob had left for a meeting in the city at 7pm and I returned from work close to 10pm, and in the interim we had been robbed again. This time they entered through a window overlooking our back yard, and robbed us in broad daylight. The crooks seemed to hone in on our computer gadgets with an insiders understanding of our home. Stolen were two laptops, a 100-year-old violin, a backpack, an iPod, all of our DVD’s, and two piggybanks full of change. The crackheads now seemed to know our house and our movements pretty well, not to mention how to find Rob’s well-hidden computer without disturbing anything else in his room. After a police visit, and after Rob searching every pawnshop in the city for his computer, two items emerged on the next-door neighbors roof; the violin and a jar of pennies. Apparently the crackheads don’t like pennies or the sound of violins, but they love Apple computers, backpacks, and iPods. From that point on we locked our doors and windows at all times (which sucked in the heat of the summer). As our fears relaxed over time, we began cracking the windows, and then opening them all the way when we were home. Nobody else on the block, besides the Puerto Rican family three doors up the street, had reported any burglaries so we figured that we were safe as well. We could open the windows again.

Last night, they came again, breaking into my home while I slept, moving my tools, spray painting my belongings, and violating my cozy basement studio. It wasn’t crackheads, it was the kids — the kids whose parents smile and wave to us from their stoops, who come to our parties. And the message of the kids is simple: GET THE FUCK OUT OF OUR NEIGHBORHOOD. Okay, I get the point and I will most likely be leaving very soon. However, let the record show, that for the next month or so I will be sleeping with my 12-gauge. That is not a threat, it is a promise. Nothing personal, just being neighborly, yo.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: In 1980, Stewart Dean Ebersole stumbled upon DEVO and his life was changed forever. Currently a disgruntled Philadelphia city employee, Ebersole was previously employed as a research Geologist and high school science teacher. He articipated in the evolution of the early 80’s American Hardcore Punk scene, and has been a dirty bicycle messenger more times than he cares to recall. Among Ebersole’s recent artistic endeavors are the LIBER-8 ME street art initiative and Barred For Life, a multifaceted research project documenting the worldwide phenomenon of the Black Flag Bars as tattoo fodder. Ebersole reluctantly lives in the Fishtown area of Philadelphia, roughly 100-miles from his ancestral home of York, PA, with his two cats Frannie and Hades.

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