The Schuylkill River Trail Attacks: Can We Keep the Trail Safe?

After a rash of crime, a group of runners is determined to keep our city's newest gem safe.

Photo | M. Edlow for Visit Philadelphia

Photo | M. Edlow for Visit Philadelphia

The scene on the Schuylkill River Trail looked like something out of a tourism director’s Kodachrome dream: pockets of people of different ages and races dotted the path’s elegant curves, all happily doing their thing in perfect harmony under a cloudless sky.

There’s a serenity to this place that can make you forget you’re in the city for a minute, much like Spruce Street Harbor Park and some of the other unquestionably New Philadelphia attractions that have taken root in recent years. Yeah, you know that giant sandcastle looming on the horizon is really the Art Museum, and the skyscrapers are just a stone’s throw away, yet the trail feels isolated from it all, a refuge for runners and bikers and lovers of a good, lazy stroll.

But the discussion among some of the happy people on the trail on a recent morning focused on whether they still feel safe out there — women especially — after a spate of sexual assaults and robberies were reported last summer and fall, and then again during the dead of winter. On Thursday afternoon, a man followed a woman, then inexplicably slashed her forehead with a sharp object on a stairway leading up to Walnut Street from the trail.  That conversation is decidedly Old Philadelphia, one that city officials and tourism people don’t want associated with the trail, a sprawling 60-mile gem that USA Today named the best urban trail in the country just a year ago.

The bad headlines could have given way to frustration and apathy, the usual ingredients in what-can-you-do sandwiches that have long been a Philly staple. But not this time. At least, that’s what Jon Lyons said to himself when he decided to mobilize a group of citizens to take ownership of the trail. 

This was more than some temporary bravado; runners and bicyclists have followed through on a promise to establish a town watch team, and are going to begin patrolling the trail later this month. And if Lyons has his way, this is going to be the first step in a larger effort that is as much about rethinking the way Philadelphians respond to quality-of-life issues as it is about making sure the trail remains a national and local treasure.

Lyons, 29, runs the 6,000-member-strong RUN215 Facebook page, which is where reports began to surface late last summer that problems were starting to crop up on the trail. “Somebody posted that they’d encountered an incident on the trail,” Lyons says at a coffee shop in Center City in late May. “A woman was inappropriately touched by someone. And then, all of a sudden, it snowballed. It just blew up the Facebook page. There were hundreds of comments, with a lot of identical accounts.”

Some allegations revolved around teens on bikes who slapped female runners on their butts. One woman was knocked off her bike and bloodied and had her bike stolen, while another was surrounded by a group of young men, harassed and groped. The stories were unnerving; the attacks were brazen, and the unspoken fear was that they could grow more violent.

But Lyons, who is a member of the river trail’s steering committee, was also troubled by other aspects of the ever-growing Facebook discussions. Some commenters complained that the police weren’t doing anything, while simultaneously acknowledging that they wouldn’t want to call 9-1-1 to report a crime and stick around until a patrol cop arrived. The suspects in many of the incidents were described as four or five black teenagers on bicycles; Lyons recoiled when the posts became racially charged, and implemented a strict commenting policy for the page. The hateful remarks also informed the response he’d soon help to craft.

The idea for the town watch was born out of meetings between City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, members of RUN215, the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, the Department of Parks and Recreation and others. “There are problems everywhere in this city. You have to step up. You have to act,” Lyons says matter-of-factly “If you’re truly a citizen, you have to have some accountability. You can’t just say, ‘Well, I pay taxes, someone should take care of this.'”

Captain Ray Convery, the commander of the 9th District, which encompasses a large chunk of the trail in Center City, increased the number of bike cops who patrol the trail. But there are limits to how much manpower the Police Department can devote to that specific area; the department’s staffing level is at its lowest point in 22 years, and the city is once again plagued by an alarming increase in homicides and shootings. So yeah: Trail users have to shoulder some of the responsibility for keeping the space safe.

Lyons says 80 people have already volunteered to participate in the town watch, an encouraging start for a brand-new effort. What he didn’t want, though, is for the town watch members to be fixated on chasing away young kids — particularly young minorities. “I don’t want us to walk in here like, ‘We’re the white gentrifiers, and we’re going to clean up this trail.’ I don’t believe in that attitude. It’s fucked up,” he says. “These are kids. What they’re doing isn’t right, but people forget that teenagers can be awful sometimes.”

What Lyons does want to do is engage young people who turn up on the trail and offer them something to do — skate competitions, group runs, yoga, whatever piques their interest. He knows some will think his ideas are a bit Pollyannaish. “We’re going to hold people accountable if they’re acting up, but throwing a kid into the system is not the goal here,” he says.

But Lyons isn’t the only one adopting this let’s-turn-a-negative-into-a-positive approach. About three dozen town watch volunteers piled into a room normally used to house potential jurors on the first floor of City Hall in late May to receive training from Anthony Murphy, the executive director of the city’s Town Watch Integrated Services. The crowd was diverse, a mix of old and young, black and white, Philly transplants and lifers. Murphy listed some do’s and don’ts (Do: Contact police if you see a crime being committed. Don’t: Carry any weapons.) and ran through drills with the crowd, testing their ability to describe identifying features and recall a split-second’s worth of a glimpse of an accident unfolding. “That’s the type of engagement you want in this city,” Murphy says of the volunteers.

Convery was at the meeting, too, describing ongoing efforts to add more mile markers to the trail and, ultimately, surveillance cameras. He noted that one man had been arrested for exposing himself on the trail earlier that week, and another man had reportedly done the same thing but hadn’t been arrested. In a phone interview, Convery says he and his bike cops are continuing to explain to teens they encounter on the trail that harassing women runners and bicyclists isn’t the laugh they think it is. “People who use the trail get scared,” he says, “and while these kids might think it’s funny as a teenager to slap a woman on her behind, it’s a sex crime, and then you have to report [as a sex offender] for the rest of your life. We’re not tolerating it.”

So how safe does the trail feel these days? Four teens were arrested in February after a handful of armed robberies were reported on the trail. The men who were caught exposing themselves added a disgusting chapter to the trail’s history, but Thursday’s slashing  is the kind of incident — violent and seemingly random — that could put doubt in someone’s mind about using the trail. One runner, Olivia Napoli, 23, says she uses the trail five days a week, and typically tries to stay close to Center City. “I used to go running past the Art Museum, but I always felt that it was a little sketchy there,” she says. Kayleen Avery, 32, avoids hitting the trail at night. “I usually come out during the day when there are a lot of people here,” she says. “It feels safe.”

A handful of the town watch volunteers who attended the City Hall training session in May were fired up at the prospect of getting out there, establishing a visual presence (New Balance is providing shirts for the group), and giving people a little peace of mind. Lauren Estilow, 54, of Elkins Park, says she encountered men who flashed her when she was running back in the 1970s. The reports of sexual harassment on the trail didn’t surprise her — “This has been happening since the beginning of time,” she says —  but she was infuriated when she realized the bad headlines had scared her daughter from visiting the trail with her grandson. “It’s like that movie Network — we’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore!” Estilow shouts.

“You don’t want to see something escalate where something really bad happens and then people stop showing up. And then we’ve lost,” says Krishna Narine, 53, who uses the trail with his wife, Rennie, 49.  “What’s happened in this city is so great compared to so many other urban environments across the country. This is our chance to shine. Some of the kids who have been causing problems, maybe we can help them to find positive outlets.”

Town watch groups aren’t a new concept, but there’s something striking about the trail watch volunteers’ focus on making the space safer by engaging with people, and not just building a wall around their favorite running path. Lyons tells a story about getting heckled by two teens who were trying to impress their girlfriends by mocking his brightly colored running gear. He responded by challenging one of them to a race. If he lost, he’d owe the whole group water ice; if he won, they had to stop busting his chops. He wasn’t sure how they’d respond. One of the kids accepted his challenge, confident that he could leave the neon man in his dust. Lyons won, of course.

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