Violence denies Philly children their summer rituals

Melissa Taylor , a mother of five, has dreams of opening a community center at 57th and Malvern. (HELEN UBIÑAS / DAILY NEWS STAFF)

THE TWO MEN argued loudly inside Tustin Playground in Overbrook. One accused the other of ogling a young girl. The other denied it and said people needed to mind their business. They went at it for several minutes. Everyone in the park watched and waited to see what would happen.

The guy who eyeballed the girl stormed off, but paused on the street overlooking the park to yell once more. Standing by a memorial for a man who had recently been shot 13 times while children played and swam nearby, he warned:

"This ain't over!"

That's when I noticed the grandmother. She looked tense. Her 8-year-old granddaughter stood by her.

She usually didn't come here, the grandma said. It didn't feel safe, especially after 42-year-old Steve Chestnut was executed in front of the crowded playground on July 17, sending all the children running.

But it was a sweltering summer day and her granddaughters just wanted to swim and, man, can't a kid just be a kid in this city? That's me talking, not the grandma, who feared giving me her name.

Everything was fine, she said, until the men got into it, and the one guy said those words:

"This ain't over."

"Everyone knows what that means and I want no part of that," said the grandmother.

I'd been at the park a couple of days earlier with a small group of city residents participating in a "Summer Peace Tour" anti-violence campaign.

I wasn't the only one who noticed that there were more people in the park than there were participating in the anti-violence event.

"Some stuff you just get used to, so you just go on with life," said Lupino Jenkins, a pool maintenance worker who was working the day Chestnut was shot in front of the park.

But the small group that walked the half mile or so from 54th and Berks to the playground at 60th and Columbia were not discouraged. Melissa Taylor, a mom of five, said she was prepared to make life better in her West Philly neighborhood even if she had to do it herself. Jenkins said that while people had mostly ignored Michael "OG-Law" Ta'bon's anti-incarceration project when he first brought it to the park, but he noticed that after a few days people were pausing to listen to his message.

At the end of the rally, when the group joined hands for a final prayer, I noticed that a couple of kids who had been playing ran over to clasp hands with others, close their eyes and pray for peace.

After the peace tour, I made plans to reconnect with Taylor, who impressed me with her plans to make the corner store she's running at 57th and Malvern into a community headquarters of sorts. But before meeting with her, I found myself back at the park because, honestly, I was searching for something new to say about the growing number of shooting victims in the city.

Another summer, another finger in the dike holding back the ever-growing tide of violence. Another message of what? Despair, anger, hope. Maybe all three.

What struck me as I watched the argument between the two men pierce the joyous clamor of summertime park sounds was how kids are denied the simplest summertime rituals.

The kids who witnessed the shooting on July 17, who've witnessed more trauma than adults twice their age, just want to be kids, free of worry and fear. Free to be kids.

Except that's a luxury for kids who live in many of Philly's neighborhood. That's why Taylor and others are trying to carve out safe havens for them.

Taylor started a petition to get the PAL program back. She started some basketball teams. She's also set up a card table outside her store so kids with nothing else to do can at least play a game of Uno. She was as inspired, she says, by her own children as she was her own childhood.

"I was on my own my whole life, practically," she said. "A lot of these kids have no one and nothing."

She's got a lot of dreams for her neighborhood, including opening a more permanent community center. Because every day is a reminder of how safe havens carved out on street corners or neighborhood pools can be shattered in seconds. The other day, she said, a car sped by a bunch of kids crossing the street and someone started shooting from it.

But kids in Philly are nothing if not adaptable. So they play cards on the corner under watchful eyes, they swim until an argument breaks out, and if you're the sweet 8-year-old in the flowery outfit, you wait patiently to see if your grandmother lets you go back into the pool.

When the men started yelling, the grandma hustled her out and now she was scanning the water looking to do the same with her 11-year-old granddaughter.


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