VALLEY OF THE SHADOW: No Prayer For The City

deeneythumbnail.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY My interest in Chester’s gang problem that resulted in this week’s City Paper article “Home Turf”  began a couple months back when I stopped to gas up a rented U-haul at the Sunoco station on 9th and Kerlin Street on the city’s Westside.  I had just moved some stuff into a storage facility off I-95 in nearby Chester Township and was on my way to return the truck.  I pulled up to the pump and went to pay cash at the register.  In the two minutes that I was gone some punk came along and spray painted the letters “DPG” real big across the truck’s backdoor.  I had noticed DPG tags elsewhere around town while passing through.  I had a hunch about what I would find when I plugged the letters into Myspace when I got home.

When I returned to the rental place the middle aged Delco mom behind the counter was aghast that someone would vandalize her truck.

“What do you think DPG means,” she asked me, thoroughly confused and dismayed.

“It’s gang related,” I told her.

“How do you know that?”

“I don’t know for sure yet, but you can trust me on this one.”

“Sheesh,” she said, “we’re going to have to figure out some way to get that off there.”

When I got home it took all of two minutes to find the Dogg Pound Gang; a simple Myspace search pulled up the group members’ pages where they announced their affiliations to the city’s William Penn projects.

The first thing that struck me about the rash of homicides in Chester that started in early August was that most of the murders happened in the same general area. Detectives said the killings weren’t related, but I wasn’t convinced. I went to the neighborhood on Chester’s Westside where much of the shooting occurred and the first thing that hit me like a punch in face was the gang graffiti. There were tags everywhere; Bloods related tags (Piru, Krab Killer, Fuck Crips), and also the paw print representing the same DPG gang who tagged up my U-Haul. I did a search for Bloods in Chester on Myspace and it pulled up a long list of kids decked out in red, often with bandannas covering their faces, pledging allegiance to the gang.The dailies had covered the homicides that happened on these same street corners claimed by the Bloods. Didn’t anyone notice that the whole place was covered in tags marking it as gang territory? Better yet, did anyone even go down to Chester and look?  It’s possible that there was no mention of gangs in the papers because the Chester Police Department, for whatever reason, doesn’t think that gangs exist in Chester. Maybe a reporter had asked about it, but took the CPD’s word without investigating further.

Now, it’s important also to state that no connection has been made to gang activity in the CPD’s investigation of any of the murders that happened on Bloods’ territory. However, the suggestions of a connection are powerful. For instance, an execution style double homicide happened in an alleyway covered in Bloods graffiti; a memorial for the two victims still stands there (pictured above). The corner where this alleyway empties onto Pusey Street was also covered in Bloods graffiti. Both the corner and the alleyway can be found on Google Street View; at the time Google captured their images the alleyway and corner were graffiti free, suggesting that this territory was recently claimed.

An execution homicide isn’t like a random street corner shooting. Perhaps there was some intention in choosing a recently marked gang hangout for the killing. Was the location chosen to send a message to the community? To other gangs in the area?  Of course, this could all be purely coincidental. While I’m no homicide detective, it seems like these are valid questions worthy of further investigation. I didn’t get the sense from the CPD that they were interested in pursuing them.

Gangland neighborhoods and drug corners are filled with symbols of coded significance. Graffiti tags often mark narcotic distribution points, name the corner crew that works there or advertise the name brand of drug that can be bought there.  Often graffiti tags loosely outline a gang’s territorial boundaries. The value of these signifiers used to somewhat be limited; unless you knew someone in the neighborhood who could decode the graffiti’s significance for you, it didn’t lend very much intelligence about what was going on in the neighborhood.  But in the age of Myspace it’s all too common to find corner drug crews advertising their affiliations on the Internet.  It’s easy these days to track down a wealth of information about gangs. For whatever reason, be it fearlessness or plain stupidity, gang members are serving it up on a plate to anyone who knows how to locate it online.

In the case of Chester’s gang problem, the code wasn’t very hard to break; in spray painting “BLOOD GANG” all over the place, local gangbangers left behind pretty obvious clues. Hopefully the reporters covering these neighborhoods will start to tune in a little more to the coded signifiers that fill this type of environment; there’s a lot to be gained from simply reading the writing on the wall.

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