My Mt. Airy Block Has Been Attacked

What can a neighborhood do?

My flashlight fit in the palm of my hand. Dave’s was bigger. It was 2 a.m., last Thursday night. We were patrolling our block of rowhouses in Mt. Airy. Up and down our street, through the alleys in back. There had been some trouble.

I’ve lived here almost three years, with no problems to speak of. I did leave my son Nick’s bike, which had flat tires, out back along the alley a couple years ago, unlocked—but that was really a test. I wanted to see how long it would take for it to get stolen—about 10 days.

This was different, a recent litany: A car parked at the end of the block had the wheels taken off it. One day, a guy was sitting at the other end of the block in his car, masturbating. A house that had been empty for a month or two got broken into—an inside job, it was thought.

And then the clincher, right across the street: A couple weeks ago, my neighbor was home midday. She wasn’t feeling well, and when her doorbell rang, she ignored it. A few minutes later, she heard a noise, the sound of wood cracking, then snapping. She ran downstairs. Somebody was ripping out the air conditioner in her dining room, trying to get in. She screamed; he fled.

The next night when I came home from work, Walt, our block captain, was holding an ad-hoc meeting, about eight men: We would start night patrols, from 9 to 3. Guys would buddy up. Each team would take an hour.

We had to do it, Walt wrote in an ensuing flyer: Our neighbors depended on us. Carol, next door to me, a woman of some years who lives alone, told me she’s all closed up now, her windows shut. I felt it too—I barricaded a basement window that faces the alley with a homemade wood frame screwed into the wall; I put a dead bolt on the door next to it.

So there we were, me and Dave, 2 a.m. last Thursday night. It was a nice night, warm and starry and still.

It’s odd, how the neighbor thing can go: Nick, who’s 18, has been friends with Dave’s son Andrew, a year older, since we’ve lived here, and Andrew’s been in and out of our house all that time. He’s a tall, wry kid who seems to watch the world from a much older perspective than 19. Alas, he also mailed Nick cigarettes last summer when Nick was in Vermont for a month, but I don’t hold that against him. Anyway—I didn’t even know his father’s name until we walked together.

As we poked through the allies behind either side of our one-way street, Dave told me a little about himself:

He’s from Boston—at 49, Dave’s still got a trace of the accent. He’s got a business as a sort of customs middle man—if you want to bring bulk stuff into this country, he’ll help you deal with regulations and paperwork. It’s a business his father started. His father died when Dave was 19.

There were some neighborhood break-ins a few years ago, Dave said, and that time some guys patrolled by car. He remembered driving around, smoking, listening to Flyers games—he grew up playing hockey, and now he coaches it. He doesn’t smoke anymore.

We wondered if walking around late at night would do anything except deprive us of sleep, especially given that the trouble on our block happened during the day.

At an open space where our street hits Emlen, we looked up:

“Is that a star?” Dave wondered. “I think it’s a star.”

“Venus,” I said. The only sound we heard was katydids, pulsing close—a harbinger of fall, which is Dave’s favorite time of year.

We shared how tired we were. No, we agreed, our patrols wouldn’t really have any effect.

“But this is Walt’s idea, and we should honor it,” Dave said. Walt’s always out on our block, talking and laughing, organizing block parties, checking in on folks. I agreed—solidarity with Walt, with each other, was the way to go.

Sunday night, Dave and I had the 1 a.m. shift. When I went out at 1, Walt, who lives across from me, was getting into his car, going off somewhere. He rolled down his window.

“We’ll meet tomorrow night,” he told me, “to decide what’s next.”

Dave didn’t come out, Sunday night. I waited until 1:15, then went in. I didn’t feel like walking the alleys alone, and I haven’t heard any more about our patrols.