A week later, the kids beat 42-year-old Belinda Moore, who was not homeless either, after finding her walking through the playground. They told police they did it "for fun."
In the section of Southwest Philly surrounding Finnegan playground, there was a time when the neighborhood children loved and respected Vince Poppa. He owned "Vince's," a mom-and-pop convenience store at 65th Street and Dicks Avenue. The store was a veritable neighborhood institution where local kids would buy candy, gum, and trinkets. In the late afternoon, it was common to see a crowd of girls from West Philadelphia Catholic High School, in their green blouses and knee-high socks, milling around outside the store.
Finnegan playground is just a few blocks from Vince's, and many fondly recall it as the place where they learned to swim, hit a baseball, or shoot a jumper. Playground violence at the time was limited to an occasional fistfight.
Although I was from Roxborough, my wife was from this working-class neighborhood of mostly Irish and Italian heritage. Several Catholic parishes dominated the area and were broken down by ethnicity: St. Barnabas and Good Shepherd were primarily Irish; Our Lady of Loreto was mainly Italian; St. Clement and St. Irenaeus were mixed.
I always felt safe and welcome among the neighborhood's narrow, rowhouse-lined streets. I often stopped at Vince's for a pack of cigarettes or gum and was greeted with a friendly smile and a "How ya doin'?!" The neighborhood adopted me as one of its own, and some of the people who grew up there became my best friends.
I learned early on that it was a proud place, much like my own neighborhood. Punishment for unruly kids was meted out by parents and nuns, not police officers. Honor and respect were not just words.
One night, a buddy from Roxborough and I were in one of the neighborhood's numerous corner bars, Sullivan's Café, when two tough-looking guys walked in and sat down. Each downed a shot of whiskey. One looked at the other and said, "You ready?" "Let's do it," the other replied, and they stepped outside.
My friend and I looked at each other, puzzled. We asked the bartender why they had gone outside. "To fight," he said. "To fight who?" we asked. "Each other." We noticed that none of the other patrons went outside to watch; to do so would have violated some unspoken neighborhood protocol. The men soon reentered the bar with cuts and bruises and sat down next to each other as if nothing had happened. Nobody was seriously hurt and, in a way some might not understand, an issue was privately resolved.
Vince spent 39 days in the hospital and is still struggling to recover. Last month, a large group of his friends, family, and former classmates gathered at a South Philly restaurant and presented him with a plaque marking their friendship. "We just wanted to let him know that we love him and care about him," Vince's close friend Matt Senior told me. Many wiped away tears during the emotional evening.
It is true: The old neighborhood has changed. But when I heard about the people who rallied around Vince Poppa, I was heartened that those who grew up there haven't changed. They've shown that the old neighborhood is a place that exists not only within the confines of your memories, but also within the hearts and souls of those who used to call that place home.
Chris Gibbons is a writer from Philadelphia. He can be reached at email@example.com.