For Philly's Overbrook Park, killings were anomaly

Asa Manley, 15, goes to the hoop while playing with friends at the Rose Playground basketball court. Volunteers now staff the recreation center for a summer camp and basketball league.
Asa Manley, 15, goes to the hoop while playing with friends at the Rose Playground basketball court. Volunteers now staff the recreation center for a summer camp and basketball league.
Posted: July 31, 2012

On the map that hangs from Police Capt. Joseph Bologna's office wall, colored tacks represent violent crime in the 19th District, which spans West Philadelphia from Cobbs Creek to West Fairmount Park.

On a recent afternoon, tacks were clustered in bunches across the map, which is common.

Unusual were the two tacks pinned in Overbrook Park.

They marked the deaths of Christopher Malcolm, 17, and Rohan Bennett, 13, brothers shot to death in their parents' home Tuesday in what police say was a bad drug deal - and the type of violent crime that is rare in the mostly working-class neighborhood of red-brick rowhouses and tidy lawns, bordered by the well-heeled townships of Haverford and Lower Merion.

"This is not indicative of that community whatsoever," Bologna said, pointing to the tacks. "You drive through there in the morning, and you see people going to work. This is an anomaly."

Rather than signifying a neighborhood in decline, he said, the killings were more representative of criminals trying to conceal wrongdoing behind the veil of a quiet neighborhood.

Civic leaders were fast to declare that the killings did not reflect the character of a neighborhood they have worked hard to maintain.

"You don't want people to think that's what's going on in Overbrook Park," said Angela Hall-Morris, a member of the Overbrook Park Civic Association and Town Watch.

After the shootings, investigators found a large stash of prescription pills, $102,000 in cash, and four guns in the bedroom of the boys' parents. Their father, Rohan Bennett, who was upstairs at the time of the shooting, and their mother, Cynthia Bennett, have been arrested on multiple drug-distribution charges.

Police believe the unidentified shooter opened fire after he was let inside for a drug transaction. Investigators believe the parents were high-level dealers, though neighbors did not report seeing any suspicious activity at the house.

The killings represented the first homicides in Overbrook Park in more than a year, Bologna said. Shootings and assaults are infrequent, too, he said, and are rarely connected to larger crime patterns involving drugs and gang activity.

More usual for Overbrook Park are quality-of-life and property crimes, and sometimes burglaries, said Lt. John Walker, commander of Southwest Detectives, which covers Overbrook Park.

"It's a well-maintained, working-class neighborhood," Walker said.

That's exactly why the violence left so many in the neighborhood shocked and unsettled, Hall-Morris said.

"I'm not living in a cloud, and I'm not putting judgment on other neighborhoods, but Overbrook Park, we're a nice little hidden pocket here."

Nestled between the Cobbs Creek Golf Course and City Avenue, straddling Haverford Avenue, the small neighborhood of about 7,700 residents has long been a working-class enclave.

Built under the G.I. Bill after World War II, the three-bedroom rowhouses, with their lawns and enviable garages, sold for $9,500 and offered a nice setting for raising families.

By the 1960s, the neighborhood was mostly Jewish with some Irish and Italian residents. Lamberton School was, and is, a neighborhood hub, with its big playground and ball courts at 75th and Woodbine. The streets were packed with children, and the alleyways brimmed with wire ball, box ball, and stickball games.

The Haverford Avenue and City Avenue shopping districts offered the Boysville Clothing store, Pagano's Pizzeria, and Barson's ice cream parlor, serving sundaes the size of battleships.

By 2000, the older generation had mostly moved on, replaced by working-class black families.

And it has remained relatively stable, though the average household income did not increase between 2000 and 2010, actually falling $100 to $54,131 in that time, according to U.S. Census figures. Still, it remained higher than the average Philadelphia family income of $52,990.

The community has benefited from its active neighborhood association and Town Watch. District Attorney Seth Williams led both when he lived in Overbrook Park from 1995 to 2006 in a house with a backyard that abutted land near the Cobbs Creek Golf Course - perfect for chipping and putting, for taking the children sledding, and walking the dog.

"It looked like Montana back there," he said.

Then, he said, the neighborhood associations dealt mostly with quality-of-life crimes.

"Someone wanted to open a bingo hall and a check-cashing place and the association fought it," he said.

The neighborhood has also benefited from strong benefactors such as U.S. Rep. Robert A. Brady, who grew up in the neighborhood - "7332 Woodbine, the one with the black door," he pointed out on a tour of the neighborhood Thursday night. He went on to raise his family on Kimberly Street, just around the corner from Tuesday's shootings.

He moved to a bigger house in a nearby neighborhood in 2004, when he needed more room for the grandchildren, he said.

He still remains the ward leader.

"You see what a great neighborhood this is," he said, driving down the streets of tidy houses. "You see how well they're kept. The people will tell you themselves, they're proud of their neighborhood."

A sign of that pride is the newly renovated Rose Playground and Recreation Center at 75th and Lansdowne, which had been shuttered by the city after it had fallen into disrepair.

Last year, with support from Brady and Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., the association was able to reopen the center, refurbish the playgrounds, build a new basketball court, and manicure the ball fields, said Farida Saleem, president of the neighborhood association.

Volunteers now staff the center for a summer camp and basketball league. They are hoping to put in a trail around the fields and raise money for permanent staff.

Businesses remain vibrant along Haverford Avenue, said William Nasir, president of the Haverford Avenue Business Association.

With help from the city, the group is working on a beautification project for the avenue - new benches, signs, and solar-powered trash-compacting garbage cans, he said.

Businesses are making it, though robberies have happened and the group is lobbying for a steady police foot beat, Nasir said.

"We don't want people moving in here thinking we're ripe for being plucked," he said. "We want the deterrence."

On Thursday night at Rose playground, a group of teenagers played on the new basketball courts, laughing and sporting the carefree smiles of children who live on streets not owned by drugs and guns.

"It's safe around here," said Javon, 14, who plans to attend the Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School in the fall and who did not want his last name used. "Everybody is chill and you don't see any drugs around."

Hall-Morris and Saleem, of the neighborhood association, sat at a table overlooking the playground, where families played.

They said they worried about the neighborhood's image after the killings.

Saleem said that on the night of the shootings, she stood in the crowd of stunned neighbors, and then knocked on the window of a television camera-crew van to deliver a message:

"Whatever you decide to report," she told the man, "you should just let the people know this is not a bad neighborhood."


Contact Mike Newall at 215-854-2759, mnewall@phillynews.com, or @MikeNewall on Twitter.

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