Ubinas: Philly braces for more gun violence as Memorial Day nears

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Street memorial at the corner of 49th Street and Westminster Avenue: Harbinger of things to come? HELEN UBINAS/staff

O UR NEIGHBORHOODS, our front porches, are staring down the barrel of a gun. Memorial Day weekend approaches, and so does the warm weather that usually brings increased gun violence.

By Thursday afternoon, Philadelphia had clocked 445 shootings, 24 percent higher than the 358 recorded this time last year.

How do you prepare when escape is not an option? How do you carry on when you can see the chaos coming straight at you and your loved ones?

"Let's take a walk," Denise Carey says when I stop by the West Mill Creek Recreation Center in West Philly. Carey, 56, runs the activities and summer camp program. But mostly she volunteers all her time and money.

Like many rec centers in the city, the one on the 5100 block of Parrish Street has had better times. The floor is missing more than a few tiles, the roof leaks, and Carey - everyone calls her Miss Neicy - is losing a war with an army of ants trying to make their way into the "kitchen," a sink and stove shoved into a closet. And don't even get her started on the baseball field, full of holes and dog feces.

And yet, imperfections and all, the center is a safe haven, she tells me as we make our way outside.

"Right there," she says, stopping just outside the doors to point to the corner. "That's where they were shooting." The spot she's pointing to is right by the water spouts the kids play in - when the spouts work - and the swings in the playground from which she routinely has to chase people shooting up or having sex.

It was Easter weekend when the shots rang out, so plenty of people were around, kids included. A car came barreling down 50th and Parrish, stopped only by the concrete barriers near the playground - and then someone inside the car started shooting at a guy on the street.

Carey grabbed some kids and shoved them inside the center. She yelled to the ones she couldn't grab to run home. It wasn't the first time she'd done that; it won't be the last.

She listens politely when I tell her about the number of shootings being up and how that doesn't bode well for the summer. She shakes her head in disgust a few times at all the mindless violence. She cries when she talks about the kids in the neighborhood who think they can't escape it. "You can," she tells them. Her two children did. On that Easter afternoon, she says, some of the kids stood, frozen, watching the gunfight.

"It's their entertainment," she says, sadly. She tells them that there is a world outside their neighborhood, and when she can, she takes them to nearby places that might as well be another country. She covers the cracked walls of the recreation center with positive messages:

Imagine success.

Create Success.

Believe.

She doesn't need me to tell her that shootings were up. She knows by the increased sound of gunshots and police helicopters, by the way her elderly neighbors lock themselves away earlier than usual, sometimes hours before the sun goes down. "They can't even enjoy their front porches," she says.

Charlotte Murphy-Collins is sitting on her front porch around 49th Street and Westminster Avenue when I stop to talk. She won't give me her age, but eagerly says she once danced with the Manhattans.

That was a long time ago, she says. Before she moved back to Philadelphia from the South. "Before I got poor and got stuck," she says.

When I ask her about the street memorial near her house, she asks: "Which one?" There was the one across the street, the one to the right of that one, and the one right around the corner.

She knew the young man whose memorial is across the street. He died in January, she thinks. She does remember that he was shot "more times than was necessary." His family still comes to the shrine, to sit for awhile, add fresh candles and pray. Sometimes Murphy-Collins watches from her porch and silently prays along with them.

The things you see from some of Philadelphia's porches will break your heart. The things you hear from them do, too.

This woman, who says she once danced in front of crowds, says that when the sound of gunfire gets too close, she takes her dogs to a room in the middle of her rowhouse and lies on the floor.

That's partly why Carey says that police and politicians and reporters love numbers, but numbers don't do much for her.

"What does it matter if they are up 2 percent or 20 percent?" she asks. It all means the same thing: People are dying, and those who aren't are living amid the chaos.

"You prepare, you plan the best you can," Carey says. "And you never let your guard down."

ubinas@phillynews.com

215-854-5943 @NotesFromHel

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