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Business owners say weak enforcement is emboldening the violence on Philly’s South Street

Several South Street business owners cited a climate of “lawlessness” in the city. The lack of enforcement is creating a climate of impunity that climaxes in lethal force.

Ron Dangler served two tours in Iraq — where he was “a door-kicker,” a cavalry scout at the front of a dangerous patrol in Ramadi in 2005 and 2006.

So it wasn’t the first time the Philadelphia native who owns Dobbs, the rock club at 304 South St., had heard gunfire, when shooters blasted each other and a crowd of people in the street on Saturday night, leaving three dead and 11 wounded.

Helping tend victims, Dangler was impressed with how fast Philadelphia police in their SUVs “scooped” up the wounded, taking them to hospitals, and securing the scene.

But the episode quickly affected his business. At Dobbs, bands from two record labels that were supposed to come on after midnight had to be canceled.

On Sunday evening, authorities closed the street to pedestrians, so the expected crowds from the PHL Pride Festival failed to materialize. The record label owners “asked me if this is South Street all the time. ‘This is not the people that come to our bars and restaurants,’ I said to them. ‘These are young kids who have nothing to do, and it’s summer, and they want freedom to do what they want, with no repercussions.’”

The Tacony native, a Drexel University graduate, said the city doesn’t generally feel more dangerous than 20 years ago, when he and his friends toured live-music venues from the original J.C. Dobbs club whose site his bar occupies to the North Star Bar in Fairmount.

But like several of his fellow South Street business owners, Dangler thinks a climate of “lawlessness” in the city, where officials have stopped enforcing anti-nuisance laws, has created a sense of impunity that eventually climaxes in lethal force.

“The problem is, they’re not nipping it in the bud,” Dangler said. “Two Fridays ago, we had 100 people in the middle of this intersection, Third and South. They shut down traffic, the girls started twerking [dancing suggestively] in the middle of the street. Guys jumped on cars ... . But there were no arrests, no detainees.”

“The worst is, you get the motorbikes, dirt bikes, ATVs. It’s as if the police have a no-chase policy. It isn’t enough that all the police are present -- that’s reassuring for the tourists and us business owners -- but the element that comes around, they drive around the cops in what is supposed to be an area closed to traffic, and so they come to believe nobody’s going to stop them.”

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The shooting is not just “a gun-control problem,” agreed Chris McNichol, owner of Woolly Mammoth, a sports bar at 430 South, who posted on Instagram. It “must be viewed as one of far too many acts of lawlessness, criminal behavior and violence on the street and in the city.” In five hours, 237 people “liked” the post, many forwarded it, and no one complained, McNichol said.

“The complete lack of law and order on South Street and in too many neighborhoods” is the deeper cause, to McNichol. “Protect your citizens by creating AND ENFORCING laws,” he added, with emphasis. “Arrest individuals who commit crimes” and “keep dangerous individuals from committing repeat crimes. ... Allow police to do their job” so Philadelphians can “enjoy their city without endless fear, and businesses can prosper, not to crumble under the weight of fear.”

Mike Harris, who heads the South Street Headhouse District, made a similar case. “We get large crowds down here, and the summer is always a challenge — people don’t always realize we are in a residential neighborhood,” said Harris whose group represents 400 businesses, including more than 100 restaurants, from Front to 11th along South and nearby streets.

“We’re trying to find the balance of ‘Come to South Street, but act maturely.’ Coming with loaded weapons and shooting into a crowd is far from that.

“We have a summer police detail to try to maintain public space, order and safety. The detail was in place on Saturday night.” Harris continued. “Unfortunately that didn’t prevent the shootings — the shootings happened in proximity to police officers. There’s a certain brazenness and disregard that’s very difficult to deal with.”

Harris said that South Street draws visitors from neighboring counties and states and from up and down the East Coast. “If customers are not feeling safe, they are not going to come to South Street, and those restaurants won’t fill tables,” he added. “We get over a million visitors a year, tens of thousands every weekend.

“We are, statistically, a safe area in this city.” Harris said. “But we had a shooting the morning after Memorial Day. And now this, the worst I’ve ever seen. It is throughout the city, and it’s terrible for business. Vacancies are going to go up, and patrons are not going to come in, if they are not feeling safe, and I’m afraid that’s the general feeling right now.”

What to do? “I don’t have a magic answer. We want to make sure the police have the ability to enforce nuisance laws, noise ordinances, ATV and dirt-bike issues, general quality-of-life issues. We have a lot of police here. It’s not necessarily a matter of more laws, it’s a matter of being able to enforce the laws.”

Jabari K. Jones, president of the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative, said that feeling of safety is what allows retail and restaurant centers such as South Street, City Avenue, or the University City business district west of Penn to draw crowds from beyond nearby residents — while many other shopping districts have a tough time attracting visitors to areas perceived as crime centers.

Jones blamed the city’s political trends of the last few years. “There’s a fear of progressive retaliation against business owners” who complain, he said. “They can get protested, they can get boycotts. So they stay silent. But more people are saying ‘enough is enough!’” He predicted that next year’s city elections would attract candidates who backed a stronger anti-crime response.

Not everyone blamed city officials. “Where did these hundreds of kids come from?” asked Nick Ventura, owner of Copabanana at 344 South St. “It reminded me of the flash mobs we had years ago, when the city had to impose a 9 o’clock curfew. I don’t fault the city. It’s these kids. They came running down the block — running and fighting. They destroyed our outside cafe. My customers ran — they came inside, or they just left.”

Patrick Graham, owner of Brickbat Books on South Fourth St., just below Bainbridge, a block from South, noted that the crowds were back on South Street when he crossed it the day after the shootings. But, added Graham, who lives nearby, “I don’t spend a lot of time on South Street, and I have always urged my kids to avoid it, especially on weekends.”

Staff writers Anna Orso and Michael Klein contributed to this article.