Northern Liberties Revives its Town Watch

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 10 | Posted Aug. 10, 2010

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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.

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Comments 1 - 10 of 10
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1. stepsonthings said... on Aug 11, 2010 at 08:48AM

“I agree with the comment of adding more cameras. The issue of cataloging them and also making them visible to the public are tied to their being more useful in not only catching perpetrators, but also discouraging their unlawful practices. Great article! Not what about South Philly?”

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2. confused said... on Aug 12, 2010 at 08:56PM

“Is there currently a crime spree in NoLibs? I've lived in the neighborhood for 4 years and things seem about the same. Am I missing something?”

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3. Gold, Guns, Gardens said... on Aug 12, 2010 at 09:31PM

“Tell you what, if a few trained and armed citizens turn the tables on these bastards, I mean really whack a few so that they wind up in body bags, the thugs will look elsewhere for prey. Sad, but true. Hey, I'm a peacenik at heart, but these are tough times. Cops are being laid off throughout the nation, and there's reduction by attrition - not hiring to replace retired officers. Time to start taking care of ourselves people.”

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4. Richard Mills - Victim of Crime said... on Aug 16, 2010 at 07:31AM




6. doodoobrown said... on Aug 17, 2010 at 11:06AM

“so whats to stop a thug from riding around on a bike at 3 am with a mask on preying on whoever walks by. i mean hipsters walking around armed with flashlights isnt exactly intimidating.”

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7. Anonymous said... on Aug 18, 2010 at 07:49AM

“The criminals(mostly Black) yes I said it and am not afraid because it's the truth and we keep our peacnik heads in the sand until we are robbed ,beaten or worse....we need a real local group to send thes vermin back to their own neighborhoods where the picking is not so good”

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8. Ryan said... on Aug 23, 2010 at 11:46PM

“I work with the townwatch in Port Richmond;we have been active for many years.In the years I have been involved we have given tips to the police that have ended with numerous arrest and have sent a clear message that the community will no longer be victimized by the small percentage of our society that has decided to make a living preying on others.I'm very interested in coming down to NoLibs and sending the same message.Evil only wins when good people choose to do nothing.”

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9. Emily said... on Aug 3, 2011 at 01:33PM

“Northern liberties crime is awful the last three months. I too have lived here about 1.5 years and recently things just continually get worse. Please email me for more info... Ive been informed by friends involved with local police of much more crime than available to the public, evidently a marketing effort to keep the area 'up & coming.....'. I've learned, however, you cannot build new condos and bring in middle and upper class citizens into North Philly and give it a new name and expect less crime. If anything, we are more vulnerable and a target and being put at serious risk due to a lack of knowledge as to the real happenings here. I have now five police reports, four of which are from this summer. I had a man kidnap me in my own home in the newer houses on 8th St between fair mount ave and brown St three weeks ago, it took four hours and at least twenty emergency phone calls, most of which neighbors and friends I texted for help placed, for cops to arrive. It was awful. Last”

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10. Emily said... on Aug 3, 2011 at 01:37PM

“  (continued from above) Last night, as with almost every night in the last two weeks, at approx 12:33 am, I called 911 due to having heard over twelve gun shots within close range, the last three of which were unmistakably semi automatic weapons. Please email me I'd really like to make the locals aware of what the media is trying to keep quiet, it's too dangerous for us who are ignorant without choosing to be. And PLEASE STAY INSIDE AT NIGHT. my friend was stabbed, resulting in 27 staples on 7/27/2011 he almost died. The incident occurred around 4th and 5th and brown. It is NOT safe here after nightfall. These few incidents I've mentioned are only few of dozens, all recent. Please warn your friends and neighbors.  Emily. ”


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