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.
The couple's eldest daughter, all of 5 years old, wears braids that sometimes unravel into a giant Afro that forms a dark halo over her tiny head. She wears tattered tank tops and frayed knee-length skirts that always seem to need washing, and prefers to walk around barefoot, even on the sidewalk, which rarely gets swept. She sucks on Fla-Vor-Ice, drinks Little Hugs and doesn't have a taste for much of anything other than sugar.
When she stands on the block squinting with the sun in her eyes, she looks like a 1930s photograph of a Dust Bowl prairie child.
The neighbors on Hurley across the street from Ramon and Shawn are the primary source of the block's insanity. Shawn says there's drug activity in and around the house, but it's hard to say exactly what happens behind the closed doors. Sometimes desperate-looking addicts come by to bang on the front window. If someone doesn't immediately respond, the addict will start to shout, calling up to the second story.
Living in the house are a mother and her two sons. The mother is an obese woman with unkempt hair who wears ill-fitting, filthy clothes. The boys are teenagers--14 and 16, though the 16-year-old looks 26. His name is Lamar.
The boys wear white tank tops that expose snaking tattoos memorializing dead friends. They have wide eyes that stare hard at anyone on the block they don't know. Shawn says they smoke dust and take Xanies on a daily basis. If you ask their mother why they don't go to school, she'll tell you they do whatever the fuck they want. Then she'll tell you to shut the fuck up and stay out of her business.
Hurley Street has a block captain named Mona. Mona's a tall, stick-thin woman who's missing one of her two front teeth. She eats barbecue potato chips from a bag for breakfast, and claims to run a recovery house for women. It's a doubtful claim, considering how high she looks most days.
|Jailbirds: Some recent Hurley Street residents are now behind bars.|
If you ask her what she does as block captain, her eyes roll back, revealing a sickly jaundiced yellow, and her knees dip, like the energy necessary to answer the question has sapped her strength. Then she'll lick salty red dye from her fingertips. "Excuse me," she'll say. "I am not right in the mind this morning."
It seems there's always a wild, frenetic energy on Hurley Street. Standing in the center of it is like being in the eye of a tornado. The chaos whirls around noisily before disappearing, only to touch down at the other end of the block moments later. Little kids on the block, seemingly oblivious to everything, throw footballs over the dealers, and then run them back past the addicts.
Between 10 and 4 in summer, the block is roped off as part of the city's Summer Food Service Program that alleges to provide "an average of 50,000 meals per day to recreation centers, playgrounds, playstreets, summer camps, parks, houses of worship, community organizations, schools and daycare centers throughout the city of Philadelphia."
A lot of narrow side streets in West Kensington get roped off in the summer. This aggravates the cops, who think the neighbors use the ropes to keep patrol cars out.
Mona serves lunches maybe three out of every five days. The lunches come in black plastic containers divided into sections like TV dinners. In each container is a sandwich and what looks like applesauce or vanilla pudding. On some days there are no lunches--only an Igloo cooler with juice boxes on ice. And some days there's nothing.
The block gets roped off anyway.
When Hurley Street is roped off, the only way to get on the block is to walk.
Walking the worst block in the city from end to end is an intense experience. There are dried piles of feces left by the feral cats and dogs that skulk everywhere. Flies rise up and buzz around your face as you walk past. There's shattered glass everywhere, long and jagged pieces, from house windows hit by projectiles.
Young Latin mothers blast salsa and reggaeton from living room stereos while their children play on the dirty sidewalk barefoot, wearing only diapers. They don't speak English and won't make eye contact. The black families won't either. They blast rap music from boom boxes in second-story windows.
If you keep walking, you see more children in diapers tiptoeing around the shattered glass and dried cat shit. The only one who regularly says hello is the old head perched on a stoop halfway down the block who drinks malt liquor from a brown bag for breakfast.
The first night Shawn and Ramon spend on the block their front window gets busted. Nobody claims to know who threw what, despite the fact the stoops are mobbed with people night and day. It would appear a case of simple jealousy.
The 2014 Philadelphia Spring Guide
PW's Winter Coffee Tour