[ reclamation ]
A long-abandoned building at 16th and Oakdale, in the heart of North Philly, is the humble epicenter of a renaissance. Down a cramped flight of stairs sits Express Ur-Self Incorporated, a high-tech basement recording studio owned by Terry Starks, a former prisoner bearing four gunshot wounds.
Express Ur-Self offers young people something else to do in a neighborhood that suffers more murders than any other in Philadelphia — this year, the 22nd Police District has been the site of 28 killings and 111 shootings as of July 17. It is also the operations center for a group of men trying to keep black youth away from violence and prison.
On a recent afternoon at the studio, as house band Press4tyme (gospel, R&B, rap and soul) wound down a practice session, other musicians stopped by to visit, including local singer VIP and a young DJ from the neighborhood.
"If I ain't have no way to record, I would be doing the stuff I used to do," said Deejay DaSinger, 19.
Row houses in every direction are boarded up and interspersed by vacant lots, and almost every wood-affixed door and window is emblazoned with a spray-painted elegy: "RIP G-Bull" or "In Loving Memory of Andi 5000," the latter marking the spot in front of an empty lot where a fleeing 19-year-old named Albert Purnell was shot and killed by police in May. They claimed, contrary to witness accounts, that he pulled a .357 magnum.
"We don't want more teddy bears," says Atiba Kwesi, aka Jesse Johnson, released 19 months ago after 27 years behind bars for armed robbery. "You see that? R.I.P. That's the slogan in our community."
These men are not exactly a Kiwanis Club composite sketch: three former prisoners, age 25 to 51, and Gunnery Sgt. Jamal Robinson, a Marine. But thanks to their presence, drug dealers have left the block, and a homemade wooden basketball hoop that kids are taking shots on has been built along the street — right where Purnell was killed.
"We're geared to getting the violence down. Our building is like the rec center for the community," says Starks. But, he says, "We're not getting much help from the city," with most funds going to what Starks calls politically connected "poverty pimps" rather than neighborhoods.
Block captain Eartha Jennings is thrilled to see the men at work. She needs the backup. For example, she has been fighting since September to keep the burnt-out house at 1546 Oakdale boarded up. According to the Mayor's Office, it took Licensing & Inspections 77 days to board it up, and then another 85 days after Jennings called to have the boards reapplied after they were torn off.
"L&I responded quickly and thoroughly to both requests," says Nutter spokeswoman Katie Martin, noting that city rules require a first inspection, a second inspection and finally the clean-and-seal.
"Look at the danger the kids play in," sighs Robinson. Years ago, an off-duty policeman gave him a Marines recruiting card while he was dealing drugs, setting him on a new path. He points to piles of rubble littering vacant lots and clogging a small alley: wood, glass, couches, mattresses and a white car that has sat in the grass for an estimated seven years.
"It's just an eyesore for those people who are trying to work to maintain their homes," says Jennings, exasperated. And the city tells her there is nothing to do about that white car.
"And they wonder why we're angry," laughs Kwesi.
The fire-hazard alley is on a block already hit by three fires this year, but the Mayor's Office says that L&I "cannot clean up the alley" because it is "private property." Jennings can request a cleanup, though it "will be billed to the homeowners." It's unclear how the many absent or nonexistent homeowners figure into this.
Cars speeding down 16th Street make street basketball a dangerous game. But with no park nearby, this is a relative oasis: a corner free of gunslingers. Even better would be using the empty lot to build a court.
"There are, like, eight to 10 gang cliques" between the corner and the closest park near 15th and Dauphin, says Kwesi. "I want to give them a playground instead of making them feel like they're in Beirut."
Brandon Jones, 25, who just finished serving four years for attempted murder, says there are at least 20 drug corners nearby. "I used to cop there," says Jones, who bought drugs wholesale in the neighborhood to deal in Montgomery County. "We better know where they are."
Starks puts on "Education Over Incarceration," a musical collaboration between Michael Ta'Bon and neighborhood kids that asks: "Uncle Sam, is your plan to arrest the whole nation?"
"We're out here doing battle," says Kwesi. "We don't have guns. We don't have bulletproof vests."
"We don't have life insurance policies," says Johnson.
Kwesi interjects: "But we've got community support."