opinion

Let's take a closer look at that Brewerytown clash

Ronnie Polaneczky, STAFF COLUMNIST

Updated: Wednesday, June 21, 2017, 8:51 PM

Steelworks Strength Systems on Girard Avenue.

So you’ve probably heard about the melee that went down on May 11 outside Steelworks Strength Systems at Girard and West College Avenues.

In good weather, Steelworks Strength Systems often opens its big, garage-style side door. Ronnie Polaneczky
In good weather, Steelworks Strength Systems often opens its big, garage-style side door. Ronnie Polaneczky
In good weather, Steelworks Strength Systems often opens its big, garage-style side door. Ronnie Polaneczky
Photo Gallery: Let's take a closer look at that Brewerytown clash

Neighborhood kids entered the Brewerytown gym and were cursed at by Kobie Xavier, a Steelworks trainer, for trespassing. Chaos soon erupted outside on the street, with rocks and punches allegedly thrown, and a bat and a chair allegedly swung.

A pregnant gym member named Cate Furman was allegedly punched by a teen named Naji Tribble, who wound up with a fractured skull.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the alleged assaults. I’m calling them “alleged” because there are now so many conflicting accounts of what happened that I’ll leave it to the courts to figure this out.

What has been frustrating, depressing, and troubling is how this incident is being characterized as a racial one, even though Xavier and Naji, the alleged (sigh…) inciting players, are both African American. But it played out in a gentrifying neighborhood where change is making some — not all — longtime residents feel nervous, or wistful for the old days, or resentful of the new days, or dismissed by strangers. Or all of the above.

Can you ever really uncouple race from an incident that occurs in a neighborhood whose ethnic and economic makeup is rapidly changing? Maybe not, but in this case, we have to try. Because it’s too convenient to blame race in this case for what looks to be have been, overwhelmingly, bad behavior by an adult — Xavier admits to cursing at Naji and his friends — and certainly non-angelic behavior from Naji.

If we insist that race is the big component here, we mock victims of assault cases in which race is a factor. That doesn’t help anyone. And it’s a lazy way to express displeasure that the racial composition of Brewerytown is changing dramatically as gentrification brings new businesses to Girard Avenue, its main commercial corridor.

Steelworks – a cross-fit-style gym that charges members upward of $200 per month – is one of them. It joins new brewpubs and eateries, some of which have pricey menus. But other newcomers are still more affordable than the avenue’s excellent longtime mainstays, Like Butter’s Soul Food, for example, and Deborah’s Kitchen. And for every high-priced pie at trendy Pizza Dads there’s a delicious, cheaper pie to be had at Uncle Nick’s Pizza and Italian Express, which have rabid devotees.

So it’s not like Brewerytown has become Rittenhouse Square. Girard Avenue might have a new yoga studio and a soon-to-open doggy day-care place. But it also has a new Aldi supermarket and Dollar Tree. That looks like economic diversity to me, not economic trespassing.

Speaking of trespassing, it’s misleading for Steelworks employees to characterize Naji and his friends as trespassers for entering the gym on May 11. Steelworks has a gigantic garage-style entrance that is left wide open on nice days – the same way that restaurants open their own floor-to-ceiling, garage-style doors. The gesture is seen as a way to invite outsiders in and to push the indoor experience out.

Maybe Steelworks owner Brian Terpak, who would not comment for this column, didn’t understand the dynamic he unwittingly created by opening that door. Hey, if he didn’t know, he didn’t know. But he could now remedy that by hanging a barrier-style braided rope – the kind many businesses use – to let passersby know where they’re allowed and where they’re not.

I know what you’re thinking: He shouldn’t have to. Well, we shouldn’t have to lock our doors or cars, either, but we do, even though not every passerby is a would-be burglar or car thief. I’m just saying that for every kid who might wander into Steelworks looking for trouble – and we don’t know yet if Naji and his friends were – I bet there’s 50 who are just curious about the muscle mania inside. Not every intrigued kid is a monster.

But kids who throw rocks are sure acting monstrous. If the Brewerytown kids were doing that, as initial reports indicated, it’s unconscionable. And if Naji clocked a pregnant gym member, as he has been accused of doing, it’s no wonder the woman’s husband came to her defense.

His name is Kevin Furman, he’s a Philly police officer, and he was off duty when his interaction with Naji allegedly resulted in the teen’s fractured skull. Much is being made of that, and Internal Affairs is looking into it.

But in closing, I’ll say this: I’ll defend any man’s right to protect his pregnant wife from a punch, whether or not he’s a cop – and no matter who throws it.

Ronnie Polaneczky, STAFF COLUMNIST

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