As tragic as that incident was and remains to me, the violence of it all still seemed distant and removed in some way.
In my early 20’s, I remember my first time confronted with the barrel of a gun. While walking with my girlfriend to the store, we were robbed right on Broad Street in front of the Nicetown-Tioga branch of the Free Library. I wasn’t afraid for my life then. Maybe I was too young and dumb to realize what I had to lose and how easily it could have been taken in that moment. What I did realize was the sense of power that came from wielding a gun. My life was in his hands and there was nothing I could do about it.
I first moved to West Philly after the birth of my youngest child. In 2010, I moved my then-fiance and our three children to 40th and Brown streets, aka the Black Bottom, an area historically Black and poor, where vacant lots dotted the streets between homes, leaving blocks looking like a ragged mouth missing teeth. We lived there for seven years and although that neighborhood awakened me to the stark reality that not every community had escaped the grip of crack cocaine, it did provide an uncanny sense of peace and stillness. I don’t recall ever hearing a gunshot while living there.
At the time, I ran a general contracting business and frequently carried thousands of dollars of tools and materials around in my truck. I often traveled with wads of cash. I did businesses in all parts of the city, most often in divested areas that look nothing like the flush Center City blocks where Starr does his business.
In those years, people broke into my work truck and stole from me, a motorcyclist crashed and died in front of my home, sketchy things went down at a nuisance bar I could see from my stoop until it was shut down. But no gunshots.
I never carried a gun. I never felt a real need. I had never been approached in a way that threatened my life. I hadn’t experienced an armed robbery, although my truck and toolbox were a favorite target for thieves at one point. I knew close friends who had guns, some who carried a gun on them daily.
Looking back on it now. I realize I was fortunate. I wonder if that could happen in today’s current climate.
Soon after that, I lost everything: my home, my marriage, my business. I was forced to begin rebuilding my life. I searched for apartments in several areas after having no luck finding affordable and livable housing in my own community. Finally, I found what I thought was the perfect place in Cobbs Creek and moved there during summer 2018. My commute on SEPTA was a sociologist’s dream. From West Philly to Center City, rush hour to rush hour, I encountered people from all walks of life all along the socioeconomic spectrum. But I noticed that if I stayed just a half-hour later at work my ride home was a very different experience.
At the corner of 60th and Market streets under the El train, young men hang out in small groups. Commuters jostle around men playing craps and socializing around the bottom of the stairs. Boarding the bus, a young man, frustrated from having to wait, threatens to slap two other men who stop and allow elderly women to board first. I walk to my door only a block away and think about the news story I had just heard. A young, aspiring attorney, shot and killed in front of his home with his wife and child inside. He chose to stay in the hood with the hopes of making it a better place and paid the ultimate price, and for what? A Black man trying to do good, minding his business, trying to get home was dead for no reason.
During my time in West Philly, I’ve frequently witnessed police cars, ambulances, fire trucks responding to incidents in my neighborhood. I’ve watched an attempted car theft end in a crash at the corner of my block. I’ve watched a house fire across the street, I’ve seen individuals with behavioral health challenges exhibit full-blown breakdowns out in the street. I’ve listened to domestic arguments turn violent.
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