Events on what may be the city's worst block provide a stark glimpse into a Philly many Philadelphians never see. One former resident survived to tell the tale.
Photographs by Jeff Fusco
Hurley Street--a tiny West Kensington side street between C and D just north of Allegheny, where residents park their cars halfway on the sidewalk--is so narrow you can stand on one side and spit on to the other.
The margin of error on streets this size is razor thin, and drivers here tend not to take much care. A lot of cars on Hurley get clipped, which is why so many are missing side mirrors. There's no reason to drive down Hurley unless you're here to cop a bag of wet, weed or Xanies. But then most of the buyers are locals on foot looking for nickels and dimes.
Hurley Street, say cops who work North Philadelphia, may be the worst block in the city. Most of its 100 or so residents say they'd leave if they could.
Most Hurley Street residents rent the squat two-story brick row homes they live in. The houses are worth about $13,000 each.
You can rent a three-bedroom on Hurley for $500 to $600 a month. Today five properties on the block stand empty with "FOR SALE" signs hanging from their facades. Many have been on the market for months, and some for longer. There are five boarded-up abandoned properties on the block too, one of which is tagged with scrawled black graffiti that reads "SMOKE, SMOKE."
The racial makeup on the 3200 block of Hurley skews black, but there are Latin and white families too. Because people live on top of each other here, their lives spill onto the sidewalk, particularly in summer, when the treeless block heats up like a brick oven.
Few people on Hurley work. Most live on supplemental security income or welfare, or share in some kind of black-market revenue. People hang out 24/7. On Hurley Street, one family's drama is every family's drama. In fact drama may be the only thing on Hurley that's not in short supply.
The most recent Hurley Street drama begins with the arrival of a new family--a young man from North Philadelphia named Ramon, his proud roughneck girl Shawn, their two daughters ages 2 and 5, and Shawn's younger brother Hakeem.
|Mental block: A recent fracas left Hurley Street looking like Beirut.|
They've come to Hurley because they want to get out from under Shawn's mother.She "irks her life," Shawn says. Ramon doesn't get along with her either.
They've also come to Hurley Street because all they can afford is Hurley Street. The house they're moving into has been vacant so long the landlord is grateful for any rent. Shawn and Ramon know the block is rough, but rough is all they've known. "Ain't nothing here I ain't seen," Shawn says.
Ramon and Shawn are no saints. Ramon has priors for holding weed, having guns without permits, forgery, bad checks and drug dealing. Still, he's soft spoken and good looking with a big, disarming smile, and you want to like and trust him despite his past. He's now working construction for a relative.
Shawn struggles with anger that can flare into blind rage. She's lanky and long-legged, and sucks on the knuckle of her index finger in between blurted hard-to-follow rapid-fire sentences.
Shawn also likes to fight--and she's good at it. She says her mother used her like a trained attack dog on the streets as a kid, siccing her on troublemaking neighborhood women. When you tell her fighting is bad, she smiles slyly. She got fired from the Checkers at Second and Lehigh for fighting on the job, but hopes to start soon at the McDonald's next door to it.
Ramon and Shawn's children are little dollops of smiling sweetness. They like to splash in the kiddie pool Ramon has set up on the small square concrete slab that is their backyard. Shawn has a tattoo of a Hershey's Kiss on her right forearm--a tribute to her daughter. A banner bearing her oldest daughter's name waves from the piece of candy. She thinks her daughter is like a little piece of chocolate delight.