Violence has Chester in critical condition

Posted: June 21, 2010

A MASSIVE PILE of stuffed animals filled the doorway of Terrence Webster's Chester home.

"Rest in peace" was scribbled all over the door, along with well wishes for loved ones of the slain toddler. A picture of the bright-eyed 2-year old was posted to the door.

In the middle of the makeshift memorial was a box of strawberry Pop-Tarts, his favorite.

Webster was shot in the head June 13 through the closed door of his public-housing home after he and his family were ambushed by a gunman. He died last Monday at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

His death has left the city in fear - and fed up.

Webster's death is one of four homicides in Chester in eight days, leading Chester's mayor to declare a state of emergency - even though most residents say it won't work.

The state of emergency started 9 p.m. Saturday and will last until Wednesday when Mayor Wendell N. Butler Jr. expects the City Council to vote to extend restrictions for 30 additional days.

"It's a potential quick fix," said Chad Dion Lassiter, president of Black Men at Penn School of Social Work, Inc. at the University of Pennsylvania. "What about after those 30 days?"

Residents like Jovonne Brister, 25, wondered what took the city so long to implement a curfew when violence has been an issue in the city for at least 20 years.

"Why do it now?" Brister asked. "They should have been doing this. They're only doing it now because of the stadium."

PPL Park, the soccer stadium located along Chester's waterfront that will be home to the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer, is set to open on Sunday.

"Their just scared they're gonna lose their money," Brister said. "They aint got nothing out here for us. People die out here everyday. They're only doing it (the curfew) because of the soccer stadium."

Butler barred Chester residents from being on the streets after 9 p.m. and requires a city permit for any gathering of more than three people.

"They start keeping us in at night, they will start killing in the day," said Anthony, 19, who declined to give his last name. His family recently moved from Bennett Homes, in part because of the increase in violence. He now lives on Holland Avenue.

"This has been going on my whole life," he said. "All my friends have been shot."

Dottie Lyons, 49, used to live in the area but moved to Trenton. She was injured while taking her trash out when someone across the street began shooting. "It's a shame you gotta be afraid," she said.

Rosemary, 59, said there are some nights she hears gunshots and she is forced to crawl through her Bennett Home.

Not too far from Bennett Homes, a tree near the corner of West 9th and Tilghman Streets served as a memorial to a young man who was killed in 2005.

"We're really not trying to restrict law-abiding folks," Butler said. "We're just letting them know that we're putting this action in place, it's to protect them."

Vacations and personal days for the 96-member police department have been canceled, and all will work 12-hour shifts. Many will work 16-hour days in the fraught city of 37,000, the mayor said.

"But Chester City residents said they have no means of recreation. The nearest grocery stores are outside of the city in suburban areas like Brookhaven. Only one pool serves the city, and two of the playgrounds that were near Bennett Homes are no longer there.

"The problem is they don't have nothing to do," said Carl Thomas, 63, of 7th and Barkely Streets. "There's no place for young kids to go. They're just now building the [YMCA]. The skating rink done shut down."

Other residents said that the businesses that do come to Chester are forced out by violence and robberies.

Felisha, a mother of six who declined to give her last name, said she keeps her children at home and they travel outside of the city for social activities.

"My kids are sheltered. I don't allow them to go out," she said, adding that she would like to escape the crime-ridden city but she can't due to finances.

"It's a good thing," she said of the new curfew. "There will be more parent involvement and police involvement."

Jovonne Brister shared similar sentiment of other Chester City residents - that people need jobs.

"They need to give people jobs, that's why they be killing each other out here," she said. "You can't just tell people to stay in the house."

The mayor said he would like to hire eight more police officers and to ask the City Council to approve a gun buyback program.

But the most effective form of help, he said, comes from people in the community serving as watchdogs and working with police.

Chester City residents said that they would like to be more proactive but they fear retaliation from neighborhood criminals.

"People are scared," said Lyons. "I ain't saying nothing, even if I saw something."

Bruce Henson, 37, who owns Ess's Place on Madison Avenue, said the streets of Chester were pretty quiet following the curfew. His bar is two blocks from the latest slaying on the 400 block of Rose Street.

Henson said the curfew might be bad for business but it is a good start. He has struggled with loiterers in front of his bar. There have been fights and shootouts outside of his establishment.

"We can only do so much," Henson said. "I need help from the law."

Roosevelt Bailey, 55, owner of a Chester clothing accessory store, said: "If you're trying to rebuild, the first thing you should do is look at the children."