The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

On the morning of September 2, members of the St. Joseph Baptist Church had to step over bloodstains on the sidewalk as they entered the church for Sunday morning services. Only hours earlier, two young men died and two others were critically injured in a hail of automatic weapons fire just feet from the church's front door at 40th and Sansom streets. The men, who were about to drive away after taking in a movie nearby, were apparently the victims of a gangland hit. But churchgoers didn't miss a beat. Instead of reacting with outrage, shock or grief at this murder at its doorstep, many members of the congregation shrugged the incident off. "It wasn't unnerving for them," said Reverend Walter Thompson. "They have been exposed for so long to so many crimes in the neighborhood that it wasn't a shock in that they have seen it before. It was just in a different setting." Crime, it seems, is a fact of life in West Philadelphia. · For the vast majority of University students, Philadelphia's crime problem is only of temporary concern. Those who are bothered by the constant threat of crime remind themselves that they can leave it behind after four years. But the full-time residents of West Philadelphia are faced with a very different problem -- how to live a normal life and provide a safe environment for their families. In recent years, these tasks have grown increasingly difficult. Police say it is impossible to patrol every street corner. The 18th Police District covers a total of 3.4 square miles, from the Schuylkill River west to 69th Street. In that area, police are assigned to protect over 88,000 people. The figure does not include University students living on campus. Making matters worse, police said, is that many more people travel to or through the University City area to work. They estimated the area's daytime population to be about 150,000. Last year, police had to respond to over 100,000 calls in the district. There have been more than 20 homicides in the district already this year. Contributing to the rising crime rate is a high incidence of poverty in the area, a city education system that many say is failing its students, and an ever-growing drug problem. Ed Ryals, an 18th District community relations officer, said the drug problem is "the key to it all." He said 75 percent of all convicts in the city test positive for drugs when they report to jail. He said addicts commit crimes both to obtain money to buy drugs and because they lose the ability to reason while they are high. Drugs, he said, often lead to the more violent crimes. "Violence has become a way of life," he said. "You have an argument over a cup of coffee in the parking lot and you get shot now," he said. "The impact on the mind due to drugs -- people have no fear of the consequences of committing a crime." "The only thing you care about is the drug," said Bruce Price, an 18th District crime prevention officer. "You don't care about anybody or anything." Both Price and Ryals said there are several areas within a few blocks of the University where drug sales take place. They said 45th and 48th streets are the scene of many drug sales, just a few blocks north of Market Street. Members of the Spruce Hill Community Association said they have tried to push drug sales away from 46th and Walnut streets and 46th and Woodland streets. The University itself has been the center of local drug trade on at least two occasions. College and Dental School graduate Larry Lavin ran a multi-million dollar cocaine ring near the University in the early 1980s, and Wharton student Alexander Moscovits was convicted in 1988 to 17 years in prison on 18 drug charges. "Drug sales are everywhere," Ryals said. "You can go to any institution in the area and someone can get you what you want." · "Bill," who has lived 10 blocks west of campus for 40 years, says he is feeling the effects of this problem. Strange characters stalk victims on his block, he said, and he suspects that a few nearby houses are centers of drug trade. Bill, who declined to give his full name or his address, said he has been the victim of several crimes. His mother was robbed three times, once receiving a severe beating. One of his aunts was attacked by a group of men who broke into her house on the 4200 block of Pine Street several years ago. He himself was slashed on the hand when he tried to protect someone from a knifepoint robbery and beating at a West Philadelphia train station. "We've got some real problems out here and I'm afraid it's not getting any better," he said. "We're very, very scared. My mother is afraid to carry a handbag. Some of the characters see a bag and they're just like a wild dog looking for food." "Unfortunately, our family has suffered a lot of crime in the West Philadelphia neighborhood," he added. For years, Bill said, he has watched his neighborhood deteriorate. A small community group for his block has been able to do little to thwart increasing crime. For years, he said, he remained in the neighborhood because he had older relatives nearby. Now he'd like to leave but can't afford to. "It's too late," he said. "The value of our property has fallen too low. The further west you go, the value drops. When you get out past 50th Street, the value's just not there." · Despite its crime problem, Bob Behr likes living in West Philadelphia. Behr, who has lived in the area for over 20 years, has had his house broken into twice and has witnessed a handful of muggings. But the crime hasn't forced him out or caused him to give up hope. "We'd be happier if there weren't any crime to deal with, but we like it here anyway," he said. "We can really envision this area being crime-free someday," he added. "We really can. It's going to take big changes in society but we can see it happening." Behr shares his vision of an improved West Philadelphia with the 600 members of the Spruce Hill Community Association. The group draws members from the area just west of the University -- from 40th to 46th streets between Market and Woodland streets. For the past two years, Behr has served as the group's president. The group, Behr said, has been together for over 30 years. In the last few years it has put together a town watch program in the area. But crime is not its only focus. This group, like many others in the city, is based on giving residents a way to make a difference in their community. The group also concentrates on zoning, education and city planning. Ryals and Price said groups like Spruce Hill have sprung up throughout the community in recent years to band together against crime. They said Spruce Hill is more tied to the University than most. "They work near the University and they live near the University," University Police Captain John Richardson said. "They want to change the image, the profile of the surrounding community." In dealing with any topic, the main thrust of the group is empowering residents. Behr said when residents join, they feel that even small efforts contribute to a larger whole and will make a difference. By learning ways to handle crime, Behr said, residents feel they are in control and not at the mercy of thugs hiding in the shadows. "If you never think about it or you're scared all the time, you're not going to know how to handle yourself," Behr said. "I think a real remedy for that is getting involved in this. Once I'm involved I feel very much empowered. I feel like I'm able to handle myself and I'm doing everything I can to make myself secure." · To a certain degree, the crime problem Spruce Hill residents face is different from that at the University. This fall, armed robberies have been the major problem for students. Behr said his members are less worried about armed robbery than burglary of their homes. He said burglaries, stolen cars and vandalism are the most common problems, but assaults do occur. "Most of us put quite a lot of effort into making our houses safer and protecting ourself," he said, explaining that unprotected houses are easy targets. "You can really invite something. Thieves, in particular, go for places that are easy to get into." Residents have learned to walk in the middle of the street, not on the sidewalk. Walking there, he said, gives them more room to escape and gives neighbors a clearer view of the pedestrians. The group has also worked with the city police on an anti-car theft program called Project Save. Police give out special stickers to residents to put on their cars. The stickers give police the authority to stop the driver of the car between midnight and 5 a.m. to see if it has been stolen. Without having to establish probable cause that the car is stolen, the police are freed of restraints by the owners that would normally prevent them from making arrests. Behr said the threat of crime comes from different groups. "Whenever you get an idea of a stereotype in your mind -- either racial or geographical -- there's always something that changes that around here," he said. · Rev. Thompson, like Behr, believes there is still hope. He said he's not willing to resign himself to crime like many members of his congregation. He said they need to understand the problem and work to stop it. He added that he regularly uses his sermons to "sensitize people to the senseless murders and crimes that are perpetrated." "This is what I'm trying to do -- to get the people to not be callous to crime and to be sensitive to the fact that it's close to home," Thompson said. "We should be so outraged to the point where we're moved to make some sacrifice to deal with crime in the city." Not all of his congregation needs prodding, he stressed. About half of its 500 members do some kind of charitable work. The church shares the same ultimate goals as the Spruce Hill Association, but it approaches the problem from a different perspective. Whereas Spruce Hill is geared toward protecting residents from crime, Thompson said the church puts its efforts into solving the "root causes" of crime -- worldliness, false role models and a lack of hope for success. He said the church tries to provide education to its younger members, to give them a positive self-image and to offer support if they falter. "If we can reach these individuals, show them that we care, that they do count, then we can reduce the crime in West Philadelphia," he said. But he is also realistic. "I don't think we will ever stop crime," he admitted. "But I think we need to find ways to do something."

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.