Peace and quiet rarely visit Kensington.
In one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, cars rumble down narrow streets with rap and salsa booming through open windows. Tidy rowhouses struggle to maintain their dignity, despite sharing walls with abandoned wrecks. Families simulate suburban backyard life, setting up lawn chairs and swings and outdoor grills on tiny front porches enclosed like bird cages with curved, close-set, white iron bars.
And rebellious young men, driven by anger, boredom, and testosterone, career through the streets like Steve McQueen on dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles.
The danger is real and pervasive, says Rick Santiago, a community organizer and block captain on Malta Street. Two weeks ago, the riders nearly cost a man his life.
Police are preparing warrants for three ATV riders suspected of running down a 29-year-old man and landing him in the hospital. The victim, whom police have not identified, was driving along the 400 block of East Ontario at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 14 when he got into an argument with a group of eight to 10 men on ATVs. The riders attacked his car; the driver tried to escape on foot and was knocked down by the bikers. He was seriously injured and spent more than a week in Temple University Hospital.
But violent incidents like that are uncommon, police and community leaders say. Although most of the time the bikers aren't malicious, neighbors are afraid to anger them for fear of retribution.
"This is their playground," Santiago explains, giving a tour of a vacant lot popular with riders.
In the backyard a few doors down, he points out a red ATV with fenders flaring like nostrils, chained to a chain-link fence. Another ATV is locked to a front porch across the street.
"Look," he says, as a little girl scrambles down front steps and darts down the sidewalk. "Imagine if one of those bikes came down this street."
Residents throughout the city, particularly in Kensington, Juniata, and Port Richmond, have complained for years that ATV riders destroy property, disrespect residents, and endanger children playing on the sidewalk.
"I've tried to talk to them," said Adriana Medina, a 29-year-old mother of seven who lives on H Street. "But for the safety of our families and our kids, we try to avoid confrontation."
Medina lives catty-corner from a dirt lot that was the site of a major fire two years ago. The blaze destroyed an entire block of homes and a warehouse. With assistance from the nonprofit group Simpleway, the community cleaned up the lot, planted grass, and planned to create a green space. But ATVs and dirt bikes have since torn it up, leaving a field of dust and rubble strewn with broken bike parts and old tires they use to create obstacle courses.
Santiago, 38, says a lot of the riders live in the area and are just looking for thrills.
In their pursuit of vroom-vroom entertainment, however, the ATV hotshots recently ripped through the mulch piles he and his neighbors were going to use for their community garden. Over the summer, they dodged past wooden barriers that parents set up so children could cool off by running through sprinklers. And they repeatedly have laughed at Maria Rivera, a 71-year-old grandmother, when she pleads with them to find somewhere else to ride, because the dust clouds they create aggravate her asthma.
"I try to be nice, but they talk back," said Rivera, whose house faces the north end of the H Street lot. "They make noise so I can't sleep at night. It's so bad that I can't leave my door open. The dust gets in my house."
The problem is worst during summer, said Sandy Salzman, executive director of the New Kensington Community Development Corp. "Having kids riding around the streets is so dangerous. In our area, they go to Palmer Park and rip up the grass. It's not like the packs, but it's part of the same disregard for people."
Several men who have ridden ATVs said they sympathized with the riders and wished there were safe, legal places for them to go.
"They're wrong for being out here," said Ralph Arroyo, 29, who has been riding an ATV since he was 12. "I never go on streets. If it ain't touching dirt, I ain't going. I ride around Whitaker [Avenue]. There are trails over there that go all the way to Little P.R." Little Puerto Rico is a neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia.
Police say they are caught in a bind regarding ATVs and dirt bikes. If officers give chase, riders trying to escape may be even more reckless and cause an accident.
"The only time you can get them is if they stall out," said Officer Jason Czarnecki of the 25th District, where the ATV attack occurred.
In an e-mail, police spokesman Lt. Frank Vanore said regulations restrict vehicular pursuit so that officers can chase only riders who "are believed to have committed a forcible felony and/or are in possession of a deadly weapon."
Pennsylvania designates sections of parkland for ATV trails, but none is in Philadelphia, and few are in the surrounding counties.
"I don't think it's just the kids in the city" who are riding illegally, said Vince Sanginiti, owner of Philadelphia Cycles in Port Richmond. "I grew up in the city, and you could ride these things on Byberry State Park in the early '70s. It was kind of a good outlet. What has changed is land-rights issues. There's nowhere to ride them, so you have kids riding around the streets of Philadelphia like bandits. Even as a retailer, I don't want them riding up and down the streets in front of me. The city should find ways to open up lands for these guys."
Perhaps. But as Andrew Rodriguez, an avowed former ATV thrill-seeker, explained, "Part of the excitement is going where you're not supposed to." Rodriguez, 24, who works for a moving company, says he's wary of ATVs whenever he leaves the house with his two young children.
"It's all really discouraging," Salzman said. "It is a problem, and I don't know what you do about it. With everything that's going on in the budget, people will be lucky to have police to take care of the really important things."