Yeah, that’s how you respond to a neighbor upset that your dog is squatting and dropping doo on his lawn. You shoot him.
Six times. Maybe eight times, maybe even nine. The witness accounts differ.
That’s the boggling scenario that has Tyrirk Harris in a bind at the moment, charged with murder and accused of aiming his 9mm pistol at the head of Tacony neighbor Franklin Santana and blasting away during a Feb. 14 argument about Harris’ two defecating dogs.
Of course, the judicial process ahead will permit him to mount his defense and tell his story. But for now, in the reflective aftermath that is sharpened by sitting in jail, you have to think Harris is wondering whether Chihuahua crap was worth all this.
In a banner year of head-shaking violence around our city, the Valentine’s Day massacre of Franklin Santana is just another episode of insanity even more “senseless” than the last, but also an episode of insanity picked up by media outlets far beyond Philly’s boundaries because, well, people typically don’t kill other people over Chihuahua crap.
It doesn’t say a lot for Philly. But then, what does it say for Northeast Philly?
Probably that here’s affirmation once more that the Great Northeast is becoming just an illusion. A swiftly fading memory of rowhouse kinship and recipe swaps and nice lawns and stickball in the street, of a nirvana known for so much courtesy and so little crime. It’s a faded picture still clutched way too tightly by old-timers who are loath to peer out the window. To accept reality.
This tarnish is a source of particular dismay in the Lower Northeast, in venerable neighborhoods like Frankford, Mayfair, Wissinoming, Oxford Circle, Holmesburg — in neighborhoods like Tacony, which deserves better than to be mentioned in headlines about a fatal squabble over Chihuahua crap or, just four months ago, in the widely reported story of four mentally incapacitated adults — malnourished and abused — who’d been held captive in the cruddy basement of a Longshore Avenue apartment building by schemers stealing their government assistance checks.
The reality is this: The Lower Northeast continues to grow poorer, a transforming region being reshaped by lower-class homogeny, and demographics of the past two decades have charted the world of difference in these communities.
Critics of this slide — in particular, residents lamenting an eroding quality of neighborhood life — have targeted their own culprits. In recent years, they’ve looked unkindly on the federal Section 8 program for low-income housing, but lately their ire has been directed at so-called absentee landlords, for the most part real-estate investors from other areas who’ve heard opportunity knocking in the midst of falling prices by purchasing single-family homes in places like Mayfair and Tacony and converting them to rental properties.
Local civic associations and city politicians have joined the chorus, assailing these landlords as veritable slumlords, their rental attitudes introducing squalor and lower-class tenants to neighborhoods that once epitomized the beauty of life in the Great Northeast.
But much of this outcry won’t amount to more than hollow posturing. The Times’ archive already has plenty of stories from recent years on the topic — residents mourning their sliding Northeast neighborhoods, politicians delivering their get-tough rhetoric, local City Council hearings on property neglect, non-enforcement of fines and ordinances already on the books — and now we have the city’s recent debut of “blight court” and the battle plan called Bad Neighbor Initiative from spunky new Councilman Bobby Henon, whose 6th District is part of the Lower Northeast’s blight heartland.
Sure, you have to try to thwart these problems. But the changing demographic landscape of the Lower Northeast — seismic shifts in diversity and ethnic populations, lower standards of living, the transitional struggles of new immigrant pockets — will ensure the existence of low-income housing. Carpetbagger landlords specialize in that. But it is demographic reality, not necessarily the attitudes of landlords, that more people must acknowledge as the force reshaping their neighborhoods, often not for the better.
It’s a given that the intrusion of lower-class values — or, more precisely, the lack of values — can severely alter the neighborhood landscape when it comes to crime, appearance and neighborly cooperation. You don’t simply get petty crime; you get unfathomable crime like the so-called “Tacony dungeon” discovery or Tyrirk Harris accused of slaughtering his neighbor for complaining about Chihuahua crap.
Our own crime coverage here at the Times leads us to believe that life, indeed, is getting grittier in the Lower Northeast, notably in Tacony and Mayfair. Last week, we ran a story about widespread and costly vandalism. In just the past month I have received four e-mails from Mayfair residents concerned about violent crime — including one woman whose 16-year-old nephew was hospitalized after a gang beating on Jan. 7 at 8:30 p.m., and a parent whose 16-year-old son was robbed of his cell phone and wallet by two gun-toting thugs at St. Vincent and Battersby streets at 8:50 p.m. on Jan. 11.
“I would like to bring it to someone’s attention that gang violence is happening again in Mayfair,” wrote the first woman, recalling a Times story during the summer on the neighborhood gang issue. “This is unacceptable human behavior that needs to stop.”
Whatever perception existed that the Northeast’s population has been undergoing a radical racial and ethnic shift was validated last year with a broad study by the non-profit public-policy organization Pew Charitable Trusts — an analysis of 2010 census figures to probe those trends in Philadelphia over the past 20 years.
As the study observed, nowhere in the city has this change been more pronounced than in Northeast Philly, and the Lower Northeast in particular. Of the pages and pages of statistical data, the bottom line is that in 1990 Northeast Philadelphia had 409,902 residents — and 92 percent were white. Twenty years later — with an increased population of 432,073 residents — whites had plummeted to 58.3 percent, as an influx of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians offset the departure of white residents and even increased the Northeast’s overall population, according to the Pew study.
Of the five city ZIP codes that saw the most dramatic increases among Hispanics and Latinos, three of them — Fox Chase, Oxford Circle/Mayfair and Frankford — were in the Northeast.
Two years ago, I sought to mount a significant Times project to elicit residents’ views on life in Northeast Philadelphia. Our published questionnaire explored myriad topics — key issues, the Northeast’s appeal, ethnic diversity, crime, city services, neighborhood preservation — but in the end I decided the roughly 190 responses, as insightful as they were, proved insufficient for an accurate analysis of attitudes or pinpointing key issues in our neighborhoods.
Just the same, I’ve held on to those responses. Generally, there remains strong loyalty to the Northeast, even enough pluses for many to stay, but there is little doubt about the unnerving winds of change. There’s a sense that the region is at a make-or-break crossroads.
• Mayfair is now getting the same lower-level people that would be found in the worst sections of the city. My roommate has seen drug deals go down in front of the house, and abandoned cars are in front. We told police, but they’d rather run red lights after people at night than investigate these things.
• I will continue to live in Wissinoming. We have been here for many years … raised a family here … we are close to everything … neighborhood traditions still mean a lot to many of us. Much about the Northeast is becoming undesirable, but it also has given us a wonderful life.
• A lot of neighborhoods have to unite. We have people of different backgrounds that need to become “neighbors.” A lot of low-lifes and drug dealers have been corrupting Tacony for years. It has accelerated the breakdown of our families and the total neighborhood structure. People are afraid to speak up because they don’t have the support from their neighbors or the police.
• I don’t think it’s racial. But look at Frankford, Wissinoming, Juniata Park, Oxford Circle, Northwood … these were beautiful at one time. All you have to do is take a good look at how they have become undesirable neighborhoods.
• I think what still keeps me content, or still remains appealing to me here in the Northeast, would be the familiarity of neighborhoods, streets, businesses, people. If you’re from the Northeast, especially if you grew up here, no matter where you go you always somehow wind up back in the Northeast.
• The people of different ethnic backgrounds here are not the same as the people who came to America before them. The attitude is that they should be accommodated and that it is we who were born and raised here who need to change our ways. They think we should understand that they like loud music, cursing is a way of life, pushing and shoving is allowed because they don’t understand, and that throwing trash and spitting on the ground is their culture.
• I live in Parkwood. I have lived in the Northeast for thirty years. I grew up here and wanted to stay here. I did live in a Tacony apartment for a few months and it was horrible. Living on Torresdale Avenue was a little scary, with me and my daughter alone. I didn’t feel safe. I will live in the city until the trash moves up this way. If I move, I will be going toward Abington, where I work. They have a great school system.
It’s also worth noting that, in the recent Pew study, Northeast folks were the most pessimistic of all respondents when asked how Philadelphia has changed over the past five years. Only 15 percent thought the city is better today; 48 percent think it’s worse. Roughly 35 percent have seen no change in the city’s betterment.
When you debate the quality of neighborhood life, especially here in the Northeast, immigrants and other minority factions have been tapped for its downfall, but they’re easy scapegoats. Even though strong growth in the Russian population here over the past 15 years has been overshadowed by the arrival of other ethnic settlements, Northeast residents remain wary of immigrants — a noteworthy point in another Pew survey of general attitudes about life in our city.
As to whether immigrants help strengthen Philadelphia, 44 percent of respondents in the Northeast said no, while 40 percent think they do, yet it was by far the most negative view among five Philly geographic regions that encompassed the survey.
If you undertake an analysis of demographic numbers compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau, another reality worth noting is that a population tract composed of Mayfair, Tacony, Wissinoming and Oxford Circle is growing poorer. During the decade ending in 2009, the number of people living in poverty under federal guidelines (household income of less than $22,050 for a family of four) had increased by 110 percent, with the latest estimate that, of a regional population of 114,287 in those neighborhoods, nearly 21,700 people were poor.
What’s behind this erosion of the good life? Foremost, it seems, a predominantly white middle class is being supplanted by relatively poor blacks and Latinos, along with more older people retiring to fixed incomes. High unemployment has been compounded by an expanding base of low-wage jobs in service industries for folks who do find jobs.
By most assessments, neighborhoods of the Far Northeast haven’t felt the tremors of this demographic quake. However, in the neighborhoods of the Lower Northeast, I do believe that the rise of minority populations has had two notable effects: There is a palpable decline of that “Great Northeast” elitism, as well as an easing of overt racism, an observation I base simply on the Times being used as less of a sounding board these days for vitriolic callers or letter-writers who want to discuss their “problems” with blacks, Hispanics or immigrants.
That’s the unfortunate aspect of this changing Lower Northeast. Whether it’s a community meeting charged with distress over disintegrating neighborhoods, or a Times reader’s letter lamenting the erosion of community pride, it’s easy to stereotype that single black mother or that recently arrived Brazilian family as reasons for Northeast Philadelphia’s vanishing charms.
It’s also unfair. I’ve been reminded of this during phone chats now and then with struggling families who want others to know that they share the same community pride, or want the same safe schools for their kids, but that they also need the assistance of Section 8 housing to work toward their dreams.
What all this comes down to is that the challenges facing the Lower Northeast are far bigger than chasing after absentee landlords. People have reason to worry about deteriorating neighborhoods, crime, diminished home values. But these also are the byproducts of a demographic volcano that has been simmering for years, rumblings that are far more formidable than persuading a bad neighbor to get his act together.
As the numbers show, the real challenge will be to address profound issues and trends that are transforming the Lower Northeast in ways that so many could not have envisioned during those happier times two decades ago. ••EndFragment