For more than three decades, Lisa Witomski has watched Chester change. The 61-year-old's vantage point: the front doors of T. Frank McCall's, a family-owned distributor and corner store that she and her younger sister, Marcie, have been running since the 1980s.

From its perch at Sixth and Madison Streets, the business itself has witnessed even more of the city's transformation — from a rural outpost that needed T. Frank McCall's grain and feed, to a center for manufacturing, to the Chester of today, an impoverished shell of its former self, struggling to quell violence that shows no signs of ceasing.

In 2017, the city logged 29 homicides, eclipsing the previous year's total of 26, according to Chester City Police Department data. And Chester's homicide rate per 100,000 was higher than that of any other U.S. city of any size, according to Inquirer and Daily News analysis.

Chester Police Chief James Nolan IV said in a recent interview that his goals for 2018 are not only reducing that number but also increasing the rate of closed homicide cases from about 30 percent to at least 50 percent.

Seen in a photo from around 1920, T. Frank McCall’s at Sixth and Madison Streets. The store is a few blocks removed from downtown, closer to the Police Department than the area’s most violent pockets, and Lisa Witomski herself lives near Brookhaven.
Photo courtesy of Lisa Witomski.
Seen in a photo from around 1920, T. Frank McCall’s at Sixth and Madison Streets. The store is a few blocks removed from downtown, closer to the Police Department than the area’s most violent pockets, and Lisa Witomski herself lives near Brookhaven.

From behind the counter, where the store still packages grain and feed in the warmer months, Witomski paused for a few moments when asked about how she has seen the city change.

The State Correctional Institution-Chester, which was founded in 1998, and Harrah's Philadelphia Casino and Racetrack, which opened in 2006, she said finally. Both brought jobs and helped the city economically.

But as far as poverty and violence,  Witomski said she hasn't noticed much of a difference.

Two blocks away, at the Police Department,  Nolan gets frustrated by perceived stagnation. He knows the homicide numbers haven't gone down, and only eight of the 29 cases last year were closed. But it isn't for lack of trying.

Officers are up against recurring issues — such as a "no snitch" culture, uncooperative witnesses, and even uncooperative victims, Nolan said.

Take a stabbing case this month, for instance, Capt. James P. Chubb said.

In the early-morning hours of Jan. 8, a man was stabbed and initially discouraged a female companion from calling the police, Chubb said. When police were finally called, the victim would not discuss what had happened. And when he was later treated at Crozer-Chester Medical Center, the man became combative with hospital staff and wanted to leave. The victim did not want to press charges, Chubb said.

In about 90 percent of 2017's unsolved homicide cases, police were fairly certain who committed the crime, Chubb said. But they didn't have enough evidence to press charges, in part because of uncooperative witnesses. Many of the homicides were related to turf wars, Nolan said. All but one of the victims were men, between the age of 16 and 57.

To work to restore trust, police have been going into the schools more often, trying to connect with residents from a younger age.

T. Frank Mccall’s at Sixth and Madison Street, where it has been near downtown Chester since 1876.
TOM GRALISH/
T. Frank Mccall’s at Sixth and Madison Street, where it has been near downtown Chester since 1876.

"We're trying to get the community to understand that the Chester Police Department is not their enemy," Nolan said. "It is obviously the enemy of crime, but not the enemy of individuals. … We're there to help."

Anthony Morelli, director of off-site programs for Peter's Place, a Radnor-based grief-support agency, said he hears some children he counsels at Chester city schools discuss what they perceive as police injustice. But others, he said, talk about positive feelings toward law enforcement. It all depends on their family's personal experience.

However, distrust is not the Police Department's only stress. It is also understaffed.

Near the end of 2016, the department lost a large number of officers, who retired in advance of a new collective-bargaining agreement, Nolan said. Including officers in training and in leadership, there are now 91 people employed by the department. It still needs 15 more officers to get to the budgeted allotment.

Throughout 2017, state police were periodically paired with Chester police officers for joint patrols, thanks to county funds that former Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan helped set aside. Nolan said that the extra staffing did help but that the effort's future in 2018 was unclear.

Chester City officials did not respond to multiple messages requesting comment.

Annual Homicides in Chester

Staff Graphic

In 2017, Chester, a city of about 34,000, recorded 85.2 homicides per 100,000 people, more than Philadelphia's 20.2 and Camden's 29,  according to an Inquirer analysis.

Nolan said he sees the strides made across the river in Camden, which in 2017 logged its lowest homicide rate in 30 years, and is hoping to implement some of its initiatives, such as installing sound-activated cameras. But he knows the reality, too: that Camden is a different, larger city with more police officers.

Chester police would ideally like to have four to five foot patrols, as well, Nolan said, but "manpower has dictated." Right now, the force has one officer assigned to a regular foot beat in the business district, which is now full of empty storefronts.

For Lisa Witomski, one of the problems is "if people succeed living in Chester, they want to get out," she said.

But the Witomski family's store contradicts that notion. While they don't live in Chester, their business has thrived. And it's still here.

In the more than 140 years since the business opened its doors, the store has expanded to become perhaps the Delaware Valley's largest distributor of janitorial, sanitation, paper, and safety products — including a snow and ice melter that flies off the shelves in the winter, making for the company's busiest days

Lisa's father, Charles Witomski, and his brother Edmund bought the company from the third generation of McCalls in 1957. Charles had run a bar in Essington, she said, but he didn't think that was the kind of environment in which to raise a family. So instead, Lisa and Marcie grew up running around and playing games amid McCall's basement storage.

"I really liked playing inside the trash cans," Witomski recalled last week as she walked a reporter and photographer through the store, warehouse, and offices. From basement to attic, every inch of the building — both the original section and its more recent additions —  are put to use, with boxes of products filling shelves that stretch from wall to wall, ceiling to ceiling.

Getting into this business wasn't something the Witomski sisters had planned, but "my father gave me an offer I couldn't refuse," Lisa Witomski said.

Her father and uncle have since died, so the job of keeping T. Frank McCall's running has become a two-woman show, with Marcie working in purchasing in-house and Lisa out visiting customers every morning. The sisters are aided by their 18 employees — hardworking people whom Lisa described as the company's backbone. Some have been there almost as long as the sisters have.

Five-year employee Paul Amato carries out a bag of calcium chloride pellets, used for de-icing, for a retail customer at T. Frank McCall’s.
TOM GRALISH/Staff Photographer
Five-year employee Paul Amato carries out a bag of calcium chloride pellets, used for de-icing, for a retail customer at T. Frank McCall’s.

Lisa Witomski said her family never seriously thought about relocating, perhaps to somewhere safer and more bustling.

"The location is fantastic," Witomski said. "We're at a crossroads," with major highways and the Commodore Barry Bridge nearby.

And the community's violence doesn't penetrate the store. She doesn't hear gunshots or fear for her safety when on the job. But she knows, she said, that much of the crime here happens outside of business hours. If she works late, she said, she drives her car into the massive warehouse.

An old tag Lisa Witomski found stapled to a post in one of the older sections of T. Frank Mccall’s at Sixth and Madison Street, where it has been near downtown Chester since 1876.
Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer
An old tag Lisa Witomski found stapled to a post in one of the older sections of T. Frank Mccall’s at Sixth and Madison Street, where it has been near downtown Chester since 1876.

There was a time when her father did own property in neighboring Ridley Township. But he couldn't bring himself to abandon the store's Chester roots, she said. At this point, they have had some customers for more than 100 years.

"We've been treated well by the community," Witomski said, "and we like to think we treat them well."