Scenes from West Philly
I met a woman recently who grew up here, right on this block, a side street off Race, about as deep in West Philly as you can go. A cop is parked at the end of her block, looking up it. It’s dusk. The cop is here so the kids can play.
The woman I met is a sophomore at Swarthmore College. She is husky, 20 years old, and favors sweatshirts. She has curly sprits of hair here and there and a gap-toothed smile, an easy laugh.
Kids are playing football on her block. A few doors from her house, a guy, maybe 30, heavy-lidded, nodding, half conscious, sits with a woman who murmurs in a voice cut deep, with cigarettes or booze or both. Across the street, there’s a boarded-up house. Trash is everywhere—you kick bottles and paper like they’re leaves. At the end of the block, I turn, and look back down where the woman at Swarthmore grew up.
A half moon is up halfway. Her block is gray. There are three trees. The kids yell in their game of football. One boy, alone on a bike, has followed me to the upper end. I ask his name, and he says, quickly, something like “Christopher. Christopher R. Jenkins.” Very official and unimportant simultaneously — just facts — as he pedals by. The kids playing are an island. Otherwise, the block is dead. The block is like the guy on his porch, with the woman, nodding off in a stupor.
I walk back down to the other end, to Mrs. K.I. Carter, the officer sitting in her cop car. She’s got gray hair, a few extra pounds. She’s been at this 24 years. She’s friendly.
“The area has a lot of problems,” she tells me. “The worst is drugs, crack and marijuana. Above 63rd, it’s pills and heroin. Crack is everywhere. Heroin is making a comeback.”
A few minutes earlier, at 61st and Race, a cop on a bike had handed me a small package to examine—it was crack, 29 chunks, each individual morsel in clear plastic maybe the third of the size of a sugar cube, 5 bucks a pop. He’d just taken if off of a guy a couple blocks east.
“I’m here,” Officer Carter tells me, “so that little people can play, with no fear.” Next to us is a police van, stationed there, she says, as another show of presence—and also so cops have a place to pee and eat their lunch.
I ask Officer Carter if she’s ever afraid. She says no.
“Today, everybody is in danger, including John Q. Citizen. I just happen to have a gun and backup.” She says the area isn’t really dangerous at the moment. “The good, the bad, and the ugly are coming and going now. After 9 or 10, that’s a problem.”
Drug use and violence has gotten worse, she says.
Three blocks west on Race, I had passed a woman, about 30, as she was heading west:
“Hey,” she said.
I turned and went back to her. She’s in her 30s, attractive, her top sweeping off of one shoulder. I asked her if she’s from the neighborhood.
“Grew up at 59th and Summer!”
“Where do you live now?”
“59th and Spring!”
“Do you have a family?”
“Two kids. 15 and 7.”
I asked her age.
“I’m 31. Had my first when I was 16. Had it young.”
I asked her what she’s doing.
“Trying to see if I can make some money.”
“Whatever comes up,” she says cheerfully, as if we were shooting the breeze about the weather. “You be good,” she added. “You be careful out here.” She moved west.
She was probably headed to 64th Street, the cop who showed me the crack said. That’s where the prostitutes hang out.
I ask Officer Carter what we can do about these problems.
“We should take care of it in-house,” Officer Carter says. She means that neighbors should care and be involved, there should be programs for kids, things for them to do. “But people can’t be bothered,” she says. She worries about the attitude of kids, too. “I don’t know what to call this generation.”
Officer Carter is like the rest of us; the front lines do not yield solutions. “As privileged as we are,” she says, “we don’t take advantage. This is America, the land of the free”—where anything is possible.
The horn of a double-parked SUV half a block away blares for the second or third time, as we talk. Each time, I jerk up. A lot of people mill around the SUV. It’s a minor dispute of some sort. Officer Carter stays put.
She unwraps a stack of Ritz crackers, peels a few off the top, and looks up the street of the young woman who somehow went off to a very good college. The kids are still playing touch football, before night closes in.
ROBERT HUBER is Philly Mag’s features editor.