I recently read an eye-opening article about the “tidal wave” of crime plaguing Northern Liberties. The article listed rapid gentrification as a likely contributor to the problem. “Criminals view Northern Liberties as an area where they can prey upon new residents,” said one resident interviewed for the story. “We’re on the edge of two worlds.”
The “two worlds” are Old City and North Philly, areas of the city that residents say keep cops at the 6th and 26th districts—the two districts that split Northern Liberties down Poplar Street—occupied. Matt Ruben, NoLibs neighborhood advocate for the last decade, was quoted explaining the problem.
“On the weekends,” Ruben says, “many officers from the 6th District are detailed to Old City and Columbus Boulevard—both swarming with popular nightclubs. Meanwhile, the majority of officers from the 26th District are deployed to rougher neighborhoods north of Poplar Street.”
In response to the crime wave, residents established a formal Town Watch.
The article was published in PW in August 2005.
The 2005 Town Watch, which was actually a resurrection of a 2003 group formed in response to muggings in which perps smashed victims in the head with a brick, petered out after a year or so. Now, after a rash of home invasions back in February, it’s been resuscitated.
Ruben, now president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, says the third time’s a charm.
“For me personally, [the home invasions] reinforced the need to get it together,” he says. “They were con crimes. They knocked on the door and conned people into letting them in. These seemed to be the sort of thing that if you had Town Watch, you could make people more aware.”
Although Ruben concedes these kinds of initiatives tend to be cyclical (“something happens and people get very on alert, they go out on a few patrols, things get safer, then things die down”), he believes there are several reasons this incarnation is more likely to stick.
For starters, it’s being run by a team instead of one volunteer who is likely to burn out. Secondly, previous versions focused on simple foot patrols, and this group is already doing much more than that— including cataloguing all the security cameras in the neighborhood, a project they say ultimately helped the 26th District arrest Donte Johnson, who confessed to killing resident Sabina Rose O’Donnell.
Thirty-year-old engineer Celine McGee, one of the architects of the new Town Watch (along with Steve Silver and Amir Tahvildaran) says she walks the ‘hood looking for cameras all the time. She’s found 50 so far, and says there are more. She adds that residents are requesting information about where to buy and how to install cameras.
“I would think people would be nervous about Big Brother, but [instead] people are like, ‘Let’s get more cameras up.’”
A recent weekend morning, McGee is sitting in the Random Tea Room with Katrina Mansfield, who handles most of the Town Watch’s digital presence. Mansfield worked as a graphic designer until she was brutally raped and assaulted in her Northern Liberties home by Derrick Cook in 2008. Mansfield had employed Cook, 15 at the time, to do odd jobs and she had let him into her house when he knocked and asked for a glass of water. Cook was recently sentenced to 20 to 45 years in prison for both the attack on Mansfield and for raping and beating (at gunpoint) a 23-year-old woman walking down Orkney Street. Mansfield manages the Town Watch’s Facebook and Google groups.
Mansfield, still suffering from extensive injuries, says it’s hard for her to speak to crime trends in the neighborhood even though she’s been a resident for 15 years.
“I think I was conveniently ignorant of crime,” she says. “I think a lot of people are ... who wouldn’t want to be? I can’t blame them.”
Now her goal is to illuminate that kind of dangerous blind spot, spreading awareness.
“We want to teach these young new residents about the crime that exists, how to stay safe. How to get involved in your community and why it’s a good idea,” Mansfield says. “Because that’s what NoLibs is. It’s not because Bart Blatstein built the Piazza,” she says, laughing.
“These criminals, these thugs, these scumbags have been holding up people sitting on their stoop at night,” she says. “That’s like breaking into my house. I love to stoop.”
“We need to stoop in groups,” nods McGee.