Rattled by recent violence, Northeast Philly longtimers ready to fight

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Real-estate agent Phil Cunningham rejects the assessment of Lawncrest as a bad neighborhood and says it's poised to make a comeback.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Real-estate agent Phil Cunningham rejects the assessment of Lawncrest as a bad neighborhood and says it's poised to make a comeback.
Posted: March 05, 2014

WHEN Kerlis Moncion and her family were looking to move to a bigger house in 2007, they settled on a home in Lawndale, on a quiet, residential street called Martins Mill Road.

The area had everything Moncion was looking for: a Shop-Rite at the end of her street, friendly, helpful neighbors, a nearby bus stop for easy access to other parts of the city.

Then, she started to notice some changes. She heard stories about muggings in the surrounding area. During the closing months of last year, her husband's trailer was stolen out of their back yard.

And in the second week of February, three men were killed - each executed with a single gunshot to his head - in a house across the street from hers.

"I used to love it here," she said recently on the steps of her home. "Now, I'm thinking of Montgomery County. If I could afford to leave the city now, I would."

A turf war for glory

Moncion's attitude is emblematic of Lawncrest, the colloquial name for the area spanning Lawndale and Crescentville, two neighborhoods in the Lower Northeast that for the past decade have been struggling to cope with an influx of crime and drugs that has tarnished their blue-collar, working-class roots.

To talk with longtime area residents is to hear about a veritable turf war between newcomers bringing problems with them from elsewhere in the city, and a growing core of individuals who are fighting hard to restore Lawncrest to its former glory.

"Crime stems from the fact that the area is changing: Lawncrest is an area where we have an increasing overall population, a population that's been there for years, and, in some cases, we have a lot of renters who don't have a stake in neighborhood, who didn't grow up there," said Capt. Frank Palumbo, who commands the 2nd Police District, which covers Lawncrest and nearby Oxford Circle.

"When they have success in other areas of a city, some criminals, not unlike business people, are going to look for new markets to profit from doing things illegally," he said. "Drugs have come from the north and east into the lower portion of the district."

The real-estate market is the nexus for this change: Houses put up for sale in the area are being bought by landlords, many of whom are "absentee" property owners who manage their homes from other states, offering them at reduced prices - and discretion - to anyone looking to rent.

That often includes drug dealers searching for a place to store their product, according to Palumbo.

"You couldn't afford to have a drug-stash house in a neighborhood where real estate became too expensive. No one would rent you a house like that in a more popular, newer neighborhood," he said. "Criminals look for an environment where it makes sense to do their business economically."

Outbursts of violence

Charting the length of the neighborhood's downward trend is difficult, but Palumbo said it's been going on for the past 10 years. But only recently has the area seen a "dramatic increase" in violence.

Four weeks before Keurlin Charles, Vander Freemont and Brian Williams were shot in cold blood in a house on Martins Mill Road, Donna Muller and her son, Rich, were killed in a similar manner less than a mile away, in their home on Stevens Street.

Six days after the Mullers were found slain, Linden Henry, of Willow Grove, was shot several times as he sat in a white Cadillac on Weymouth Street, about a mile and a half from the two other shootings.

But hope is not lost - at least where the 2nd District's police are concerned.

"Lawncrest is a good neighborhood. There are people here who really do care," said Lt. Fran Staab, who oversees the Police Service Area where the slayings occurred. "Every community meeting is packed with people who care about their environment and want to make a positive change."

Pastor Charles Dear is one of those people.

"I'm not ready to give up the community and say, 'Let the crooks take over,' " he said recently in his office on Godfrey Avenue near Rising Sun in Crescentville. "I'm willing to do whatever I can to counteract that."

For 30 years, Dear has presided over Crescentville Baptist Church, a position he inherited from his father, who established the ministry in 1935. He's also a native son of Crescentville, reared in a house across the street from where his congregation worships.

From that vantage point, he's watched the neighborhood ebb and flow. To hear him tell it, the Lawncrest of his youth was a tight-knit community, where everyone knew one another.

"If you were playing on the street as a kid and got in trouble with a neighbor, they'd come back at you with, 'Cut that out or I'll call your mother,' " he said. "It was a serious thing, people looking after each other, because there was that type of relationship here.

"Those kind of things preserved the community."

Lawncrest in his day was a haven for blue-collar industry: It was home to Bond Baking Co., Exide Storage Battery Co. and a sizable facility for Sears, Roebuck and Co.

But in a trend echoed across cities that had once been centers for industry, those bastions of labor closed one by one. By the early '80s, they were all gone.

"You had a community that was tight and multigenerational beginning to fragment," Dear said. "An emphasis was switched to higher education, and you saw the next generation of people moving out to the suburbs, even further in some cases."

Those newly vacated homes were snatched up by landlords, who turned them over, as Palumbo described, to renters who lacked a stake in the community.

One of those rental properties was across from Crescentville Baptist Church. Dear watched as tenants would arrive, stay a few months and then be replaced by new ones.

He saw one family pack their car and leave in the middle of the night, only to find out later that a pipe in the home's basement had burst. The family had ignored it for a month and then decided to "move on," he said.

In some cases, crime followed the renters: Dear began to find crack vials on the sidewalk and see open-air drug sales take place up and down Godfrey Avenue.

These issues only fueled the exodus of Lawncrest's established families.

"The people who had been here for generations began to perceive that their neighborhood was failing," he said. "It went from a small number to a steady stream, even now."

But not everyone left. In fact, Dear said, Lawncrest's saving grace is its longtime residents who are tired of the decline.

"I would agree that there is a core of people who care, but would also say that that core is frustrated, has been frustrated," he said. "I like to think these good people would find the line where they say enough is enough."

Poised for a comeback

Phil Cunningham certainly feels that way. A real-estate agent by trade, and a Lawncrest resident since the mid-'70s, Cunningham defies the assessment of Lawncrest as a "bad neighborhood." Instead, he said, it's a victim of problems found elsewhere in the city.

"These problems happen citywide. These aren't Lawncrest problems," he said. "Change the name, go look somewhere else and you'll see the same issues."

He said Lawncrest is at the end of its decline, and is poised to make a comeback, if people are willing to work.

"Apathy is the biggest problem of this neighborhood," he said. "People need to be willing to pick up the phone and tell people in authority what's going on."

Bill Dolbow, president of the Lawncrest Community Association, said he's working on that.

He's working to assemble a board of representatives from his organization, the Police Department, the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections and other agencies to meet regularly and work to find solutions to local problems.

"If we can work together, I know we can turn things around," he said. "Lawncrest is still a good place. I just think these things are catching up to us. Things are bad everywhere."

His response to people who believe the area is in decline is to visit its annual Fourth of July parade and fireworks display - one of the city's biggest and oldest. This year the celebration will mark 100 years.

"When things happen in a neighborhood and people comment that the neighborhood went downhill, the reality is that the neighborhood went down because people left," he said.

"The people who are here care, and we're willing to prove it."


On Twitter: @Vellastrations

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