One in an occasional series, “Under Fire,” about Philadelphia’s unchecked gun violence.
Pamela Owensby woke up every day for three years fearing her son would be shot.
Her 23-year-old, Sircarr Johnson Jr., had opened a clothing store on West Philadelphia’s 60th Street in 2018. Because of ongoing violence in the neighborhood, she became licensed to carry a gun and accompanied him at closing time. This spring, she even researched life insurance for each of her four sons — the youngest of whom is 9.
But before she could fill out the paperwork, Johnson was killed in front of his store.
In the middle of a July 4 cookout, gunmen jumped out of a car and pumped bullets into the crowd — a crime police believe was part of an ongoing conflict between rival neighborhood groups. Four people were struck, including Johnson, who was shot in the torso.
He died within minutes.
“I just knew they were gonna take my baby,” Owensby said.
The notion that a parent could feel a sense of inevitability when their child was killed is inconceivable in many parts of the country.
But in Philadelphia, the epidemic of gun violence has been intensely concentrated in just a handful of neighborhoods and several dozen blocks — like the one where Johnson was killed, according to an Inquirer analysis. These shootings have left behind a breathtaking level of fear and trauma among a fraction of the city’s residents, nearly all of whom are Black and brown.
As unchecked gun violence has reached unprecedented heights this year, it has continued to disproportionately batter these same communities, where residents also endure higher poverty levels, lower life expectancy, and more blighted housing, the analysis shows.
One startling example: There are 57 city blocks where 10 or more people have been shot since 2015.
The poverty rate around those blocks is nearly double the city’s average.
The rates of vacant housing on these blocks is three times the city’s average.
And on these blocks, people are expected to die at least three years earlier than the state’s average life expectancy. In one part of Strawberry Mansion, people were expected to live 14 years less than the state average.
The overlap of so many of these injustices in communities of color has roots dating back generations. Nearly all of the neighborhoods in Philadelphia suffering from perpetual violence and other structural disadvantages were redlined starting in the mid-1930s as part of a federal mortgage program, which effectively provided a map for banks to deny conventional loans because of race or ethnicity. Researchers say there is a correlation between the explicitly racist program and the ongoing gunfire today.
Of the 57 city blocks where 10 or more people have been shot since 2015, 53 were in communities the federal government deemed undesirable on redlining maps created decades ago.
Kensington contains by far the largest share of these hard-hit streets, including some of the poorest census tracts in the nation. For decades the community has housed open-air drug markets and the violent turf battles that accompany them.
The intersection at Kensington and Allegheny Avenues, long a bustling hub of the drug trade, shows what can happen when these disadvantages collide. More than half of the residents there live in poverty. Drug users arrive by bus or train, and some people in addiction sleep in nearby encampments.
Since the start of 2015, the analysis shows, 295 people have been shot within a five-minute walk of that corner.
Analyzing the thousands of shootings shows unmistakable concentrations in North and West Philadelphia and provides new insight and precision on where violence routinely happens and where it doesn’t.
The vast majority of the city’s developed blocks with housing — more than three-quarters of them — haven’t experienced a single shooting since 2015. Entire swaths of Center City, Northeast Philadelphia, Chestnut Hill and Roxborough, far whiter and wealthier than the rest of the city, have not seen a shooting for years.
Neighborhoods like Graduate Hospital, Fishtown, and University City — where years of reinvestment have ushered in more wealth and opportunity — are just a few minutes’ drive from shooting hot spots. But they rarely experience gun violence.
Those who live near perpetual violence live an entirely different reality.
Although police and law enforcement estimate that only a small percentage of the population commits a vast majority of the city’s shootings, many residents have been forced to learn the macabre rituals that accompany them: washing blood off the sidewalk or repairing bullet holes on a parked car. Burying children in pint-size caskets, and praying over neighbors shot in the street. Some have collections of dozens of funeral cards, each representing a friend or relative who was killed.
And many know the pain of losing several friends or family members. Johnson’s father, Sircarr Johnson Sr., was 5 when he watched his own father be gunned down in their home. And when bullets began flying at the July 4 cookout on 60th Street, the elder Johnson had to cradle his dying son in his arms until a friend raced him to the hospital.
Experts say the effect of this repeated exposure to gun violence is clear: It leads to more violence. One study, published in June, said children exposed to shootings were more likely to be arrested later for a weapons crime. Others have shown that young people living among community violence are more likely to exhibit anger, anxiety, or hypersensitivity to perceived threats — all of which can grow deadly with guns in the mix.
In Philadelphia’s disadvantaged neighborhoods, many young Black men say they carry guns for protection — aware of the recurrent gunfire, mistrustful of authorities’ ability to stop it, and desensitized to its traumatic effects.
Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration said it is allocating $22 million in new grants to grassroots organizations, many of which work with those young men. The dollars are part of a package of new investments in community-focused resources to combat violence, some of which is aimed at addressing long-standing inequities.
Police officials also said their patrol strategy is based in large part on data showing where violence has occurred. Starting in 2019, commanders have been instructed to focus their resources on those areas, known internally as “pinpoint zones,” and officers are sometimes stationed 24 hours a day at specific intersections.
Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said there are 45 such zones across the city. And though the Police Department declined to share their boundaries, Outlaw said each zone has its own challenges: Some have long-running conflicts between old neighborhood crews, while others may be suffering from new and unpredictable cycles of retaliation fueled by social media. Some are hot spots for dealing drugs, like heroin.
Outlaw did say police have seen promising returns with the strategy, citing a 14% downturn in shooting victims within those zones in 2021 compared with last year — even as gunfire has been rising citywide. But she acknowledged that strategy may be little solace to residents living in fear.
“This is not normal,” Outlaw said. “We cannot accept this as normal.”
Three days after the July 4 shooting, Owensby and dozens of others stood on 60th Street where her son had lived and operated his store, Premiére Bande. Flanked by a half-dozen private security guards with assault-style rifles, they released balloons in memory of him and 21-year-old Salahaldin Mahmoud, who also died in the hail of bullets.
As the sun started to set, candle wax melted onto the sidewalk and a handful of friends lingered, telling stories of Johnson and Mahmoud. Johnson, extroverted and fiery, was passionate about every activity he tried, and doted on his fiancee and 10-month-old daughter. Mahmoud was low-key, but he was comical and ambitious. He’d just started a towing business.
The friends also shared scattered memories from that night — of diving behind cars to avoid the gunfire or watching a wounded loved one take their final breaths.
Darkness fell, and their conversation was interrupted. Police cruisers, sirens wailing, were flying north to 54th and Race Streets, just a few blocks away.
Three more people had been shot.
On some of the blocks where gunshots are heard with striking regularity, residents are clear-eyed about the interplay among violence, race, and poverty.
Shirley Kitchen Rogers, a 66-year-old retired teacher, has owned a home on the same block in Southwest Philadelphia since 1983. She said the last year and a half has been “constant chaos.”
Neighbors have complained that drug dealers operate openly, and Rogers avoids one end of her block altogether. A crumbling, abandoned home this summer had a bull’s-eye target spray-painted on it. Eight people have been shot on her block over the last 18 months.
On May 26, shortly after 5 p.m., Rogers heard gunshots and opened her front door to see a man bleeding in the street. Her first thought: “Oh, my. Not again.”
She stood in the doorway and prayed. Police took the 23-year-old to Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead minutes later.
The violence on the block this year has been heartbreaking, Rogers said, pointing to a funeral card tucked in an armoire for a 17-year-old who was killed in March at a recreation center two blocks away.
But the truth is it has never been easy to live on the 6000 block of Reinhard Street.
“Sometimes it’s like, we know. What else is new?” she said. “In the poorest neighborhoods, the people-of-color neighborhoods, we have the least resources, the most crime, the most violence.”
In the area surrounding the block, Black residents make up 80% of the population, and the median household income is less than $23,000 a year, census figures show.
The block is also a case study: Economic conditions set generations ago, some experts say, may have had ripple effects that beget gun violence today.
The area where Rogers lives, like many in Philadelphia, was part of a zone that was redlined starting in the 1930s. Under the New Deal, the government-sponsored Homeowners’ Loan Corporation developed color-coded maps of American cities to show lending institutions which areas appraisers believed posed credit risks. Some communities were designated hazardous (red) or declining (yellow) because residents were Black, Jewish, or immigrants.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 made it illegal for lenders to deny the sale, rental, or financing of real estate based on race. But Sara Jacoby, a scholar at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing whose research shows a correlation between redlining and modern-day violence in Philadelphia, said discrimination persisted over time, “so what you have is long-standing lack of investment and long-standing isolation of very specific places within a city.”
The economic and racial segregation that resulted are among the “structural and policy reasons for a deep, deep concentration of gun violence,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy.
“This wasn’t just some natural evolution. It’s all connected to public policy,” he said. “Look at these maps over a very long period of time. They’re not that different. And there’s a reason for that.”
‘No one has got to live like this’
Another block that was in a redlined community is the 4700 block of Griscom Street, in Frankford, where Javese Phelps-Washington has lived since 1996.
She knew several young men who were slain not far from her front door. She also knows the pain of losing a loved one to gun violence: Her son, Christopher Spence — a former standout football player at Frankford High School — was shot dead in 2011 during an argument at a nearby bar.
Perhaps as a result, Phelps-Washington — a 55-year-old Streets Department employee known as “Aunt Vez” to her neighbors — tries to engage with young men in the area, many of whom she believes need something as simple as encouragement, support, and hope. So many of those susceptible to violence, she said, are presented with so few opportunities in life, they grow up believing gun violence is inescapable.
“There is a better way,” she tries to tell them.
It doesn’t always work.
A few years ago, she was counseling a 27-year-old man who spent time on the block, and she kept trying to tell him to leave the city and its violence behind. He left for a few months, she said, but eventually came back to the corner.
On Jan. 1, 2020 — his birthday — he was shot dead during a street fight. And he became yet another victim on a block where 14 people have been shot since 2015, five of them fatally — one of five blocks citywide to record that many gun homicides.
For three decades, Phelps-Washington has saved the cards from funerals she’s attended to memorialize family and friends. The cards rest in a black-and-white striped box that sits on a high-top table in her living room.
While searching through the box recently, she counted 69 cards commemorating people who have been killed over the last 30 years.
“Mentally, I’m drained. Emotionally, I’m broken,” Phelps-Washington said. She continues to try to help people, but added: “No one has got to live like this. There’s got to be more.”
In West Philadelphia, Sircarr Johnson Jr. had been trying to find more. His grandfather was killed at age 23, and he watched his own dad at times get wrapped up in the streets.
As a teenager, he started designing clothing in his great-grandfather’s basement, working through the night pressing vinyl onto shirts and ripping jeans by hand. Piles of orders started to overwhelm the living room.
In 2018, he opened his clothing store along 60th Street, a once-thriving commercial corridor that had experienced decades of disinvestment. He was aware of violence in the area, his mother said, but “he didn’t have fear, because he knew he was a good kid.”
Things were looking up. The store was popular, and Johnson’s father had gotten on a straighter path. He and his son became best friends. On Father’s Day this year, Johnson texted his dad: “Thank you for being the person you are. Love you and continue to grow.”
Two weeks later, he was gone.
‘Tragic but not unexpected’
Johnson and Mahmoud were two of seven people shot in the span of three hours on July 4 — in just one police district.
Capt. Matt Gillespie, who heads the 18th District, which stretches from Cobbs Creek to University City, said the volume of shootings over the last year and a half “is like something I’ve never seen before.”
He said his officers are trying to both respond to and prevent shootings in real time, adjusting their deployment based on whether there’s a potential for retaliation.
A district analyst examines where shootings, armed robberies, and illegal gun arrests are taking place, Gillespie said, and then officers are stationed accordingly. But he said it’s not a perfect science: “When you have something like six shootings in three hours, your head’s spinning.”
Citywide, Outlaw said the department uses internal intelligence reports to help guide how and where to supplement patrol efforts in the pinpoint zones. Narcotics teams will be sent to areas with suspected drug activity, she said, while patrol officers might be assigned to monitor specific corners or corridors depending on what detectives probing homicides or shootings learn during their investigations.
Outlaw has repeatedly urged residents to speak with officers and provide information that might help those proactive efforts, joining what she said should be a collective effort to confront gunfire.
Still, residents expect police to be a leading force in making them safe. While Outlaw was doing a walking tour of a pinpoint zone in North Philadelphia last month, a woman driving by recognized her and pulled over to talk.
“It’s really crazy out here,” the woman told the commissioner. “You’ve gotta save these babies.”
Philadelphia is on pace to set a record for annual homicides, and more than 1,600 people have been shot in 2021, nearly double the rate of just four years ago.
Other places across the country have also seen a surge since the beginning of the pandemic. And shootings in other cities have also traditionally been concentrated in neighborhoods lacking well-funded schools, job opportunities, and other public resources.
Explanations for the recent uptick have varied, but many criminologists believe the pandemic made existing structural inequities worse. Unemployment in Pennsylvania hit its highest rate in at least four decades. Schools shut their doors, and in-person programs for teenagers halted, leaving some young people in disadvantaged communities even more isolated. Criminal courthouses were largely closed, while probation services were significantly disrupted.
And the stress caused by COVID-19 persisted through one of the largest protest movements in American history — one that forced a reckoning over racism and the role of law enforcement in society. Police, meanwhile, began retiring in record numbers, and Outlaw has conceded that morale among the rank-and-file had plunged.
Amid all of this social upheaval, guns flew off Pennsylvania store shelves at an unprecedented pace.
Against that backdrop, the city’s government and criminal justice leaders, including Kenney and District Attorney Larry Krasner, continued to feud publicly, blaming each other for the spike in shootings.
Closer to the street, police have continued to raise alarm about an ongoing issue: beefs between rival groups that increasingly play out on social media.
Investigators believe that type of group conflict led to the July 4 killing of Johnson and Mahmoud on 60th Street.
Homicide Capt. Jason Smith said four gunmen, part of a neighborhood group, drove to the block party outside Johnson’s store looking for someone in a rival faction who’d posted on social media from the celebration.
By the time the shooters arrived, Smith said, their purported target — whom Smith declined to identify — had left.
The gunmen opened fire anyway, and at least four people in the crowd fired back.
Johnson and Mahmoud were killed in the gunfire. Detectives do not believe either was an intended target, Smith said. No one has been arrested, he said, and no suspects have been identified.
Police are investigating that shooting as one of more than 40 incidents in a cycle of retaliation between rival crews that has spanned at least two years.
Smith said ballistics evidence has been key in linking some cases. One of the guns used in the July 4 shootout on 60th Street was used just days later — during the shooting on 54th Street that broke up the memorial for Johnson and Mahmoud, according to Smith.
State Sen. Sharif Street described the gun violence as a “vicious cycle” of which he knows the consequences all too well. Mahmoud was his wife’s cousin and like a nephew.
Street said for his family, it was “tragic but not unexpected that we would be here at some point.”
The son of a former mayor, Street explained that he grew up in North Philadelphia and was 12 the first time he saw someone get shot. In just the last five years, his teenage son lost a football teammate, his daughter lost her boyfriend and a classmate, and half of his legislative staff lost family members to gun violence.
Street said that without massive new investments to fix structural inequities — and stricter gun laws — many more families will end up like his.
“If we don’t do anything,” he said, “then we’re all playing a game of Russian roulette with our families. It’s not a question of ‘whether.’ It’s just a question of ‘when’ it’ll hit close to home.”
A concentration in Kensington
If anywhere embodies the pronounced structural disadvantages that can help fuel repeated gun violence in Philadelphia, it’s Kensington.
A century ago, the community was one of the country’s biggest manufacturing hubs. But in recent decades, it has become notorious for housing open-air drug markets that attract users from all over the East Coast. Law enforcement officials believe dealers sell heroin, crack, and other drugs on more than 80 corners in the neighborhood. Some generate tens of millions of dollars in annual sales.
In that setting, gun violence has become alarmingly common.
More than 1,000 people have been shot in Kensington’s 2.4 square miles since 2015, a rate of gunfire that is nearly seven times higher than the rest of the city.
Of the 57 blocks with the highest concentration of violence, nearly half are in the neighborhood.
And in a triangle of narrow streets encompassing just a tenth of a square mile near McPherson Square, in the heart of the neighborhood, 189 people have been shot since 2015 — by far the highest rate of shootings per square mile in the city.
Linda Mottolo has spent 32 years in her house nearby, the 1800 block of Hart Lane. Seventeen people have been shot there since 2015.
Mottolo has witnessed the aftermath of some shootings, and a stray bullet recently ripped through her front screen door. She sometimes feels hopeless about the situation around her home, and said she calls the police so frequently they view her as a nuisance. She hasn’t connected with many neighbors to fight the issue; the house next door to hers is abandoned. And she sometimes tries to address dealers or drug users, but typically only if they are near her house.
She raised four children in the neighborhood, and, despite its challenges, says she doesn’t want to leave. It’s home. But she said it can feel isolating not knowing where to turn.
“Who do I blame?” she asked. “Why aren’t they fighting for us?”
Aanjhrue, a 21-year-old who lives on a nearby block and who asked to be identified only by his first name, is familiar with the sound of bullets outside his door. He recalled watching TV with his niece when they heard shots and reflexively ducked to the ground.
But they ducked for only a moment, he said, before returning to watch their show.
“It’s sad how numb you become to hearing gunshots,” he said.
Mottolo and Aanjhrue attend church at Rock Ministries, which sits on Kensington Avenue and teaches young people boxing in a community based on faith.
The pastor, Buddy Osborn, is intent on creating a welcoming and safe environment. Boxing classes are free, young people cannot swear inside, and “the Rock,” as it’s known, has church employees who live in the neighborhood.
In a community where some may see despair, Osborn said he sees hope — an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young people who might otherwise grow up with unaddressed trauma.
“We don’t run from it,” Osborn said. “When people have been through tragedy, the greatest thing you can do is listen.”
Still, Osborn is not naive to the challenges of operating in the city’s most violent neighborhood. During a prayer meeting once, he said, he heard the pop, pop, pop of a gun outside. He later learned a man had been shot nearby in both eyes.
And in the last eight months alone, three people have been shot just outside the ministry on the 2700 block of Kensington Avenue, the block that the Rock calls home.
Mayor Kenney has said he has “no greater priority” than reducing violence, touting that his administration is steering $155 million toward an array of non-policing services to address the crisis — from funding recreation centers to jobs programs and the city’s Office of Violence Prevention.
City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart recently released a report concluding that just 21% of that money would go toward intervention efforts that are most likely to show results within one to three years.
But administration officials say they’re playing both a short and long game. In addition to the antiviolence programming, Kenney has pointed to the work of committees established last year that are examining how to repair generations-old racial and economic inequities. The initial work has focused on matters ranging from police reform to Black entrepreneurship.
Krasner said his office’s focus on curbing mass incarceration could improve inequities stemming from joblessness, wealth, and the amount of single-parent households, shifts he contends “would actually result in a chronically violent and chronically poor city becoming less violent.”
He also pointed to investments his office is making in community organizations using money seized through civil asset forfeiture. The office has distributed more than half a million dollars this year.
In many of the neighborhoods most affected by violence, it’s the longtime residents, business owners, clergy, and other community leaders who are the most consistent forces trying to stop shootings.
In West Philadelphia, there’s Siddiq Moore, who in 2017 opened a water ice store on the 200 block of South 60th Street. He’s a native of the corridor and knew violence was endemic, but he wanted to help.
So he painted the building’s exterior bright yellow and started playing calming, smooth jazz from outdoor speakers through the day. He hosts events for families and children, and gives out free water ice to neighbors having a bad day. He installed a floodlight to shine over the corner at night, and put a sign in the window that reads: “our community matters.”
“It’s bigger than water ice,” Moore said. “If you want to begin to change the mind-set and get people to believe ‘our community matters,’ you want them to subconsciously see it, and then they start having a different outlook on things.”
His efforts coincided with other improvements along 60th Street. Developers rehabbed about 40 properties, repairing vacant ones and constructing new commercial space with the goal of reducing blight.
Then, there was a shift. After several years during which there was a shooting every few months around 60th and Walnut Streets, the pace of shootings slowed in 2019 and 2020, the latter one of the most violent years in Philadelphia history.
The progress proved fleeting.
A block north of Moore’s shop is Premiére Bande, where Johnson planned a July 4 party — open to all — to celebrate the store’s three-year anniversary.
“4th of July Anniversary cookout!!!” he wrote on Instagram at 2:30 that afternoon. “Everything free, starts at 6 p.m.”
By 11:09 p.m., he and Mahmoud were dead.
Johnson Sr. called Owensby in South Carolina, where she was visiting family, to tell her their son had been killed. She secured the last seat on a flight home the next morning.
Today, Owensby lives in Olney but said she hopes to move out of Philadelphia altogether. She said it’s the only way to protect her 9-year-old, Sakai, who is now without the older brother he saw as a hero.
“I can’t stay,” she said. “I can’t bring another child up to the point where I have to fear for their life.”