While the law-enforcement aspect of Mayor Nutter’s strategy to combat youth-mob attacks and other violence has been on prominent display around Philadelphia the past month, the other crucial element of his plan—keeping at-risk kids occupied with more positive pursuits—has thus far mostly amounted to keeping recreation centers open a few extra hours at night.
At a cookout in Southwest Philly’s Eastwick Park on Saturday, Republican mayoral candidate Karen Brown insisted that when it comes to the latter solution, the mayor has little to tout. She blasted Nutter for slashing funding to recreation centers and youth programs, claiming that’s what’s led to the recent problems.
“We let government take all their resources away and we drove the kids to that violence," said Brown. "We shouldn't be putting our youth down—we have to find places and things for the kids to do."
As Brown shook hands and handed out campaign fliers, she fumed over the payout to ex-school superintendent Arlene Ackerman. "That million dollars would have covered a lot of kids' projects," she said. "It went to that woman's purse. She didn't need to rape our people. [Nutter] should have gave that money back to the kids."
But state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, standing in the middle of the park in his shorts, shades and polo shirt, offered a more diplomatic perspective. "I know the history of some of these parts of West and Southwest, what happens when you don't have activities," he said. "So thank God we were able to step in where government couldn't this year and saved some programs."
The cookout—which drew more than a thousand people to Eastwick Park—was Williams’ doing. It marked the end of his Neighborhood-to Neighborhood (N2N) "Summer of Peace 2011" initiative, which provided grants of anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars to nearly 50 different organizations and programs throughout the senator's 8th District—which includes areas of West, South and Southwest Philly—that mentor kids, provide activities or work to create safer neighborhoods but have recently suffered from city budget cuts.
Beneficiaries included the Philadelphia Youth Network (which provides job training for high schoolers, dropouts, and court-adjudicated minors), the Point Breeze Performing Arts Center, Girls Inc., the South Philly Rebels youth football squad, and Concerned Men of Cobbs Creek, among others.
The roughly $125,000 distributed via the initiative—money raised through corporate and private donations—was originally earmarked for his annual N2N Street Festival, the popular Labor Day event along Baltimore Avenue that Williams had sponsored for more than 20 years, bringing in big-name performers over the years like Mos Def, Musiq Soulchild and Chaka Khan. Williams said that due to the city's economic struggles, he suspended this year's fest because the money was better spent elsewhere.
"I thought we needed to refocus our values, so we came up with the idea of dividing up the money and working with these smaller groups,” he said. “It's less flash [than the N2N Street Festival] but hopefully more impactful.”
Leaders from many of the groups that received funds through the "Summer of Peace" initiative were on hand to talk about how they've spent the money so far.
"We donated football equipment to one of the youth teams, we donated trophies to a playground where they have a basketball championship, we had cookouts, we take kids places like the zoo and museums," said Eric Holmes of the mentorship outfit Tasker Elite, which also works with at-risk youth at Charles V. Audenried High School in Grays Ferry. Anthony Williams (no relation to the senator) of the Wyde Bodi Truck Club said that as part of his mentoring and community service focus he's led youth volunteers in cleaning up cemeteries throughout Philly this summer. And Eastwick Bike Patrol Lt. Luther Chiles said his group's $5,000 grant went toward purchasing new road bikes and uniforms for the more than 20 youth cadets they signed up this year.
Holmes said the efforts, and the grants, pay dividends. "I have 27 kids [he mentors at Audenried] and I've seen real, lasting changes in at least 13 of them," said Holmes. "It doesn't happen overnight but if you show them love and you listen to them and you are constantly there for them, it makes a difference."
Williams, widely speculated to be entertaining a run for mayor in 2015, had other reasons for hosting the cookout. Like Mayor Nutter, who walked around Center City last month with members of youth-led advocacy/entertainment group DollarBoyz as a show of unity against crime, Williams said that Saturday's festivities—as well as all the sports leagues, arts programs and other events funded by "Summer of Peace"—also represent an attempt to show Philadelphians that despite headline-grabbing incidents like the Kingsessing Rec Center shooting two weeks ago, the majority of youth in disadvantaged neighborhoods are doing the right thing.
"The truth is, the community at that basketball game was enjoying themselves and not causing problems," he said. "One kid walks in who, for whatever reason—not given enough attention, maybe he's just out of control, who knows—destroyed the atmosphere. Overall, violent crime in the city is down. But it's like anything— if there's a corrupt politician then all politicians are corrupt. If a minister does something inappropriate, then all ministers are bad. [A shooting] like that happens and people write off the whole community. We've got to keep trying to change that perception."
But Brown said it’s the mayor that needs to be leading the efforts, not Williams. “[Nutter] should have been here today. Where is he? He’s not out there encouraging positive things or participating in the positive things. This is nonsense. He needs to go.”