August 4-10, 2005
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Race, recreation and redemption in a troubled South Philly neighborhood.A Homecoming
The funeral is over. Phelim Dean wipes down the bar. Summer sunlight filters in through the green curtains casting light on the late-afternoon drinkers. In walks Ryan Kennedy. Ryan's Uncle Billy was laid to rest today. Cancer. His uncle was a good man, and last night the line stretched out the door and around the corner of Shea's Funeral Home.
The Mass, of course, was at St. Gabriel's. Father McKay, a close friend of Billy's, gave a beautiful homily, praising him for his passion for family, faith and neighborhood. Everybody sang the Irish funeral hymn "Golden Rose, Queen of Ireland," and Uncle Billy was buried in the shade of a sycamore tree at Holy Cross Cemetery.
Ryan takes a seat at the bar. A toast is offered and glasses are raised. Ryan graduated from the Naval Academy a few years ago and is serving out the final months of his military commitment at a base in New Orleans. He's got a wife and kid there. He took a walk around the old neighborhood last night and it saddened him. Row homes where his family and friends once lived are now rotting like broken teeth. Screen doors hanging off hinges. Busted windows. Trash piled up six feet high. Little kids in diapers running through the streets with no supervision.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
And look at Lanier field. Jeez, when he played ball for St. Gabe's, there would be a thousand people out there cheering. Coach Sumner would march the team from St. Gabe's to the field, everybody in green and gold. Coach Sumner was a Notre Dame fanatic; everything about St. Gabe's the uniforms, the helmets, the fight song was borrowed from the Fighting Irish. But now St. Gabe's doesn't even have a team. Not enough kids. And the field's a mess. How long's it been closed for? He'd have to ask someone.
Ryan lights up a cigarette and stares up at the framed picture of Phelim's father, Gabber Dean, hanging behind the bar. Gabber ran the bar until he passed away last year. Like the rest of the neighborhood, Gabber saw Ryan had smarts and talent and "picked up for him." Whenever Ryan needed a few bucks, Gabber would have him paint the bathrooms, and it was Gabber who drove him to his Naval Academy interview.
"Look him straight in the eye," Gabber told Ryan in the car, "and handle yourself like a man."
And it was Mr. Rafferty, Francis Rafferty, the former city councilman who lives over on 28th Street, who wrote a few letters to make sure Ryan got the interview in the first place. But that was Grays Ferry. People picked up for each other.
Yeah, the racial fighting was always there. Ryan even knew a couple kids killed in that shit. One time a kid was shot right outside Dean's. Black guy walks up to him and shoots him point-blank in the face. They catch the fucker the same day and he says some whites were bothering him at Lanier so he went home, got a gun and shot the first white he saw. Fucking crazy.
But like anything else, you got used to the fighting, and Ryan always planned on moving back to Grays Ferry anyway, to pick up for the younger guys like people picked up for him. But, seriously, what's there to return to? Sure, there are still some great families living here. And there's still St. Gabe's and the school, thank God, but the other night his mother was afraid to take the baby around the corner for a walk in the stroller. Afraid to walk your own streets at night! What kind of life is that?
Not that he's saying he's given up on the place. Not saying that at all. He loves Grays Ferry. Prays for it. But, in the end, you have to do what's best for your family.
It's all too much to think about now. Ryan stubs out his cigarette and finishes his drink.
"You ever coming back to the neighborhood?" someone asks.
"I don't know," he says, before walking out the door. "I don't know."A Past
Grays Ferry is a healing wound. For five decades, this small South Philadelphia community, stretching west from 25th Street to the Schuylkill River and north from Moore Street to Washington Avenue, was defined by racial tension. The tight-knit, blue-collar Irish Catholics living in the neighborhood's modest row homes clashed with the poor blacks living in the deteriorating Tasker Housing Project. There were riots and beatings and, sometimes, killings. A one-block no-man's-land of grass and concrete called Lanier Playground separated them and served as the battleground.
And every time a bottle or fist was thrown, packs of reporters descended in search of quick headlines and more often than not left sensational and inaccurate stories in their wake. In the process, an entire neighborhood was stigmatized.
"After all the stories in the papers," says Bill Shea, owner of Shea's Funeral Home, "people would say "Grays Ferry' like it was some kind of slur."
: Courtesy of Urban Archives, Phila. PA, Temple University
Banks refused housing loans and mortgages. Investors shied away. Unemployment rose.
A proud, hardworking community struggled to hang on.
Then a street fight stirred up a racial tempest. On a cold February night in 1997, whites leaving a parish hall event fought with two black teens, Raheem and Warren Williams, who were walking home from the grocery store. The worst injury in the ensuing ruckus was a bloodied nose. But whites in the crowd broke the door and front windows of the home of Raheem's mother, Annette Williams. It was an ugly but relatively harmless street brawl. Grays Ferry had seen far worse. An incensed Williams called the press and hell broke loose.
Inquirer and Daily News articles depicted the melee more like a lynching than a street fight. Black leaders, led by Grays Ferry resident Charlie Reeves, demanded retribution. The Nation of Islam prepared for a 5,000-person march. CNN and The New York Times picked up the story. HBO sent a film crew. And Grays Ferry replaced Howard Beach, N.Y., as America's racial storm center.
The headlines raged for more than a year through the shooting death of a 16-year-old white teenager named Christopher Brinkman by two black men in a Grays Ferry drugstore, through a nonviolent but acrimonious black protest march and through the trials of the nine white men arrested for the Williams incident. But, then, just like that, it was all over. The reporters, the cameras, the carpetbagger activists and pandering politicians picked up tent and moved along, leaving the whites and blacks of Grays Ferry to deal with the broken remains.
Many whites left. Outside investors bought up the properties and filled them with Section 8 tenants from the crumbling Tasker project. Clean streets quickly turned trash-strewn. Absentee Section 8 landlords allowed homes to fester and tenants to run wild. Drug use and violent crime rose and housing values plummeted.
More and more whites sold their homes for what little they could get. With plans to rebuild all of the city's public housing and a need for a place to put displaced tenants, the Philadelphia Housing Authority flooded Grays Ferry with wave after wave of Section 8. By 2001, just four years after the Annette Williams incident, Grays Ferry which accounts for only 1 percent of the city's total population contained 10 percent of Philly's Section 8 homes.
"It was like a plague," says long-term resident Pat Sheridan. "You turned around and everything was gone."
King of Peace and St. Aloysius parishes shut their doors. Anthony Wayne High School closed. The Fleischer industrial mill folded. Shuttered properties sprouted everywhere.
But away from the flash and glare of news cameras, a quiet struggle persists in Grays Ferry. Division has faded here as residents fight, in small ways and large, to preserve a community they love. A beloved priest walks the streets ministering to its wounded soul. A local boxer tries to restore its fighting spirit. And earlier this year, in an unprecedented step for the neighborhood, black and white leaders brushed aside decades of acrimony to form the Grays Ferry Partnership, a biracial coalition uniting to combat drugs, violence and blight.
At the heart of their efforts is a proposal to redevelop Lanier Playground, which for so long served as a symbol of the neighborhood's strife, into a state-of-the-art baseball complex for neighborhood youth. The proposal envisions a gorgeous field with grandstands, nighttime lighting, a picnic and pavilion area, and, most poignantly, a memorial garden dedicated to victims of youth violence in Grays Ferry over the years.
"It will be something for the community to be proud of," says Bob Gormley, president of the all-white Grays Ferry Community Council and the Partnership member behind the field proposal. "The whole community, blacks and whites."
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Hope is alive in Grays Ferry.A Priest
Father Douglas McKay has been walking the streets of Grays Ferry for 30 years, ministering to the drinkers, the druggies and the sick of spirit.
In his mid-50s, Father McKay is a sturdy-shouldered, dark-haired man with a peaceful smile. Growing up he earned the reputation of being one of Grays Ferry's better street fighters and worked as a janitor before finding his vocation in a neighborhood tavern.
"I looked around one night," he says, "and asked myself if this is where I wanted to spend the rest of my life."
The neighborhood supported his calling to the priesthood, subsidizing his seminary tuition by passing jars in the pubs and holding fundraisers in the parish hall. As a young seminarian in the 1970s, Father McKay would return to Grays Ferry to "make the rounds," which could mean pulling alcoholics out of the bar, getting a homeless guy a sandwich and a warm place to lie down, or washing and feeding a dying old man. At night, when Father McKay would finally make it back to the seminary, he would kneel below Christ on the cross and cry.
"I realized the suffering of Jesus in the suffering eyes of the people of Grays Ferry," he says.
It was Jojo who taught him about Christ's mercy. Jojo was a neighborhood guy, a mess-up who took drugs, lost his wife and kids, and stole. But here he was on his deathbed so excited, giddy even, because he knew he was going to heaven. He was positive of it. Jojo had repented and he was at peace. As Jojo lay dying, he wondered if God had a garden in heaven because he would take care of it just like he took care of his aunt's garden in Grays Ferry. So Father gave him communion and Jojo said, "I can't wait," and then died with a smile on his face. And that's how Father McKay learned the true extent of Christ's forgiveness.
"There is no place I feel holier than on the streets of Grays Ferry," he says.
As the neighborhood began to deteriorate, drug use and despair led to a rash of teenage suicides.
According to statistics compiled by the Grays Ferry Community Council, 13 neighborhood kids either overdosed on drugs or committed suicide during a four-year period in the late 1990s. Father McKay would be called to bless the bodies and minister to grieving families.
"Hangings, mostly, or else they'd shoot themselves," he says, his voice falling low. "Always in a violent way, like they felt shame and wanted to punish themselves."
In response to the suicides and soaring drug use, Father McKay bought and renovated, with the community's help, two row homes on the 1400 block of 29th Street. Father McKay had holy cards printed up that he could pass out during his walks. They quote Matthew 11:29: "Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you." He opened the homes as a gathering place for neighborhood young and old people battling addiction and depression. Father McKay will sit for hours at the kitchen table offering spiritual guidance or personal advice.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
He's counseled grieving parents who lost children to suicide. He's led group meetings for teenagers burying their friends from drugs. He even gave shelter and food to a man who tried to mug and beat him in front of St. Gabriel's.
"He is a light in the dark of this neighborhood," said a man praying at Father McKay's house the other afternoon. "He lifts people up and gives them hope."
"We've had many blessings over the last few years," says Father McKay of his ministry's accomplishments, which include helping neighborhood kids into drug rehab centers and raising money to help poor families pay rent and school tuition. "Suicides are not the problem they were, thank God," he says. "We've only had one in the last year."
On a recent Thursday evening, 12 people gather for Mass in the small, comfortable living room chapel in the 29th Street houses. During his homily, Father McKay talks of St. Maria Goretti, a 12-year-old girl who on her deathbed prayed to God to forgive the man who stabbed her. The murderer had a vision of the Blessed Mother, repented and upon his release from prison lived a holy life as a priest.
"You see," says Father McKay, his arms opened to the audience. "Even at our most desperate, the Lord can make us into something beautiful."A Fighter
September 1987. The Cambria Boxing Club. Smoke. Noise. Sweat. Look at the skinny white kid with the V-neck T-shirt, faded trunks and oversize boxing shoes. He's teeing off.
Triple hooking. Jabbing. Dancing.
The crowd erupts.
Hook. Hook. Hook.
All the other guy can do is cover up.
The ref's seen enough. It's over.
Sixteen-year-old Michael Rafferty just won his first amateur fight.
: Courtesy of Urban Archives, Phila. PA, Temple University
He was 123 pounds. Quiet. Never had a street fight. But his father, Francis Rafferty, the no-nonsense city councilman and former boxer who once punched John Street on the council floor, made sure his sons were taught the basics of pugilism. Of the four boys, Michael was the one who got hooked.
He trained relentlessly and prayed to God for courage and strength. On fight nights, he would track down Father McKay and ask for a blessing. He'd pray in the corner before the opening bell and drop to a knee to give thanks after each victory. Losing was not an option. The thought of it repulsed him.
He felt like he was fighting for the neighborhood, physically fighting for all the good things that he believed Grays Ferry embodied: the moral values, the strong faith, the Irish pride. On fight nights, the neighborhood would show up in force to cheer him on.
"There was such a strong sense of pride and respect in the neighborhood," he says. "It instilled into me the courage and competitiveness I needed as a fighter."
By the age of 21, Michael had earned a place among the top of the national amateur rankings, boxed throughout Europe and fought in the U.S. Olympic Festival.
He went 9-1-1 in the pros, but when injuries slowed his career in the late 1990s, he turned his attention to giving back to the neighborhood that had molded his fighting nature. "So many people were leaving, athletic programs were fading, and the heart, the fighting spirit, was coming off the neighborhood," he says. "The kids had nowhere to develop their self-confidence and self-respect."
With the help of friends and family, Michael renovated the third floor of the neighborhood community center into the Grays Ferry Boxing Club. It is now one of the premier boxing gyms in South Philadelphia, producing a crop of talented boxers. Greg Hastings, a neighborhood white kid, wanted to do something else than just hang out on the corner when he walked into the gym two years ago. Michael helped him develop a strong left hook and the self-confidence to attend Lock Haven University. Jesus Heard, a 20-year-old black kid, had watched many of his friends go to jail for drug dealing when he decided to begin training three and half years ago. Jesus won a Philadelphia Golden Gloves title in April and is looking ahead to 2008 Olympic trials.
"Mike makes you want to train hard in the ring," says Heard. "And live the right way outside it."
At the gym, a crucifix hangs among the old boxing photos and a green-and-white placard on the back wall lists the dozens of neighborhood people who chipped in what they could to help the gym get up and running.
Rafferty is in the ring working with a young black fighter named Marquis. The kid is sinewy and fast and is stinging the pads with uppercuts. Next he works on footwork with an Italian kid who already has a few amateur wins under his belt.
"There is hope for this neighborhood," says Rafferty, after the workout is completed. "But only if people are willing to fight for it."A Partnership
On a hot summer's night, Irene Russell sits on a bench at Stinger Square, the well-kept neighborhood park she runs at 32nd and Reed streets, two blocks away from Lanier Playground. Around her, children chase lightning bugs in the grass or dry themselves off next to the pool. Men play pinochle at the wooden tables and women sit chatting, holding their babies in their laps. Soul music plays.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Russell, 53, grew up along 32nd Street during the height of Grays Ferry's racial tension.
"I can remember standing outside the gates of Lanier Playground and the white kids shouting at me to "get out of here you little so-and-so," she says. "It was like Selma, Alabama, in an Eastern metropolis. Busloads of cops were always out there. Sometimes even the National Guard."
"My father had to rumble," Russell continues. "My sons had to rumble. But my grandson won't have to rumble. We're ensuring that."
Russell is referring to the Grays Ferry Partnership, the biracial coalition of Grays Ferry's six community organizations, which celebrated its founding at an April ceremony in St. Gabriel's Parish Hall.
"That was a proud moment for all of us," says Russell, who took the podium that night representing hundreds of Grays Ferry blacks as president of the Friends of Stinger Square association. "We realized that in order to save the community we had to come together and put aside all the racial junk." So now the group leaders meet in the Grays Ferry Community Council offices once or twice or month and, as Council President Bob Gormley says, everyone "has an equal voice."
The Partnership commissioned a group of Penn graduate students to draw up a community strategy for the neighborhood. The resulting 75-page study calls for commercial retail development especially along the mostly barren Grays Ferry Avenue and more quality housing developments to attract homeowners to the area.
"Our goal is to price Section 8 out of existence in Grays Ferry," says Partnership member Jim Helman, who says that houses in the neighborhood that five years ago were selling for $15,000 are now listed as high as $55,000 thanks to projects like the Audenreid High School development, the new Naval Home complex along Grays Ferry Avenue and Anthony Wayne Senior Housing.
The most noticeable development is the former Tasker Homes, now called the Greater Grays Ferry Estates. But the beautifully remodeled townhomes are a source of resentment for many in Grays Ferry. Three hundred and nine rental units were filled last year, says PHA spokesman Kirk Dorn, but only a "handful" by whites. Former Tasker and Section 8 tenants get first crack at the homes, he says. Plus, many Grays Ferry residents, white and black, make above the income criteria set for the Estates. (A family of four must make under $34,000 to be eligible for a rental unit and under $55,000 for a home.) So Grays Ferry residents stare across Lanier Playground and watch as the same Section 8 tenants they believe led to the deterioration of their neighborhood receive gorgeous new homes.
"This is a working-class neighborhood with people struggling to pay for their homes and put their kids in school," says Gormley. "And they have to look on as other people get handed everything for free. Of course, it causes anger. But it has nothing to do with color, just common sense."
"No one's mad at the people who live in the Estates," he adds. "It's the program they think is unfair."
By Labor Day, 125 new Estates homes will be occupied, says Dorn, adding that it is unlikely many will be awarded to Grays Ferry residents.
The Partnership meets regularly with the commander of the 17th Police District, Capt. Jerrold Bates, providing the addresses of known drug-dealing houses. The group also requests that more action be taken against quality-of-life disturbances emanating from the Section 8 homes, fearing that a minor thing like kids throwing rocks or a family playing loud music all night could balloon into a racial incident.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
"We want help in eliminating all the small things," says Gormley, "that could jeopardize all the steps we have taken."
Grays Ferry is the only neighborhood in the 17th to have its own police detail a squad of seven officers assigned by the city during the racial tension of the late 1990s. But, says the captain, it's no longer the most violent or racially tense area in the district, having been replaced by Point Breeze, which has a heavy contingent of Mexican immigrants, and the gentrifying Christian Street. The department is doing all it can, he says.
"They want their own police department down there," says Bates. "But they're just going to have to keep learning to live side by side."A Field
Dean's Bar is filling up as the first fundraiser for the Grays Ferry Memorial Baseball Field gets under way. Gormley is at the door collecting $25 donations.
On the wall by the window overlooking the tattered Lanier Playground hangs a framed color drawing of the envisioned baseball field.
"Jeez, it looks like a minor league stadium, Bobby," says one guest.
"It's beautiful," says a woman holding a draft beer her donation bought her. "You're going to be able to get that done for us?"
"Trying," says Gormley. "Doing my best."
A 31-year-old electrician who grew up just a few blocks from Dean's, Gormley came up with the idea for the memorial field last year after the city notified the six neighborhood organizations that budget cuts called for the closing of one of Grays Ferry's three playgrounds and recreation centers. The Partnership members requested the crumbling and dormant Lanier be closed but asked that they be able to lease it and develop it themselves.
"We wanted to keep it for the neighborhood," says Gormley. "Not lose it to some big outside developer we had no control over."
The Partnership agreed to support the baseball field proposal, and on a hot day in June city trucks rolled into Grays Ferry and tore down Lanier Playground.
"The field will be something positive for the community," Gormley says at the fundraiser. "This community has been hurting for so long, they need something they can be proud of."
Plus, he adds, it will go a long way toward healing the wounds of the past. "It will represent a new era for Grays Ferry," he says, "and be a place for all the neighborhood youth to interact in organized athletics."
There is some anger in the black community over the fact that there will be no basketball courts included in the development. In May, Grays Ferry activist Charlie Reeves led a march of about two dozen people on the field, during which he allegedly told those in attendance that the field will be for white kids only.
Garbage, Partnership members say.
"Why would I ever support something that excluded black people?" asks Russell. "This is just a case of somebody playing the race card and not being able to get with the new Grays Ferry."
The tennis courts and hockey rink both primarily used by whites are also not being replaced, says Gormley, because of how high insurance rates would have been for a multiuse facility.
Gormley is also meeting with black community leaders from the Grays Ferry Estates who want to field teams.
"Everybody around here is excited," says Mike Johnson, president of the Greater Grays Ferry Brotherhood. "We're already putting together a boys' and a girls' team."
It will be at least a year before anyone plays baseball at Lanier. The few hundred dollars raised tonight will be the first money raised toward the $700,000 needed to redevelop the field. Probable mayoral candidate and head of the electricians union John Dougherty has promised to donate the labor crews, and the Partnership is seeking funds from local populations.
"Hopefully," says Gormley, "people will see that we're doing something to benefit all the people of Grays Ferry, and help us out."
After the fundraiser winds down, Gormley takes a beer and sits on the concrete ledge surrounding the glass- and debris-strewn Lanier Playground. There is little life here tonight, just a few shirtless teenagers drinking 40s and listening to a radio.
Ten years ago, says Gormley, there would be 500 kids here on a Friday night, the teenagers either drinking quarts of beers the older guys bought for them or playing ball until the park closed down around midnight. The Ledge was the heart of the neighborhood.
"I loved this place," says Gormley. "I spent my childhood here and hated to have it torn down."
"But," he adds, looking out over Lanier, "to rebuild this neighborhood, we have to tear things down and start over."