Most everyone in Tioga remembers where they were on Aug. 14, 2019, when they heard the sounds: first, the shots fired by a man who barricaded himself in a house during a botched drug raid and then targeted the police who responded. Then, the chorus of sirens piercing the afternoon.
Gregory El, thin and soft-spoken and now 72, dived behind the bumper of a car to escape the hail of bullets. Capt. Javier Rodriguez bolted so fast out of the 25th District police station, he left his phone at his desk.
And Cynthia Muse, the block captain of the 3700 block of North 15th Street, was at home across the street from where police traded hundreds of rounds with 37-year-old Maurice Hill, now accused of injuring six officers in what was the largest mass shooting of Philadelphia police in modern history.
The standoff left fearful residents across the neighborhood confined in their homes for nearly eight hours.
Some in the majority-Black neighborhood — which has experienced decades of heavy policing and mass incarceration — blamed the cops for the trauma, saying officers told them to hunker down, then didn’t check on them. In the aftermath, city officials promised to patch the bullet holes and mend the relationship with Tioga, provide counseling, and host community gatherings.
But a year later in Tioga, progress is on hold as police reform and community improvements take a backseat to the necessities of today: grief, medical care, and hunger.
Muse, 68, doesn’t think much about that day anymore, or even the promises made after. She and the rest of the 3700 block of North 15th Street have come together, she said, to prop up their neighbors now in a different type of lockdown, one necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic that has decimated this community and others like it.
Huge portions of the neighborhood are unemployed and hungry. Community gatherings are on hold, and some in the police force question if the pandemic — even more than the uprising over racial justice and policing — has hindered their ability to connect with residents.
The neighborhood is 90% Black, and more than 1,200 people in the 19140 zip code have tested positive for COVID-19, placing it among the city’s hardest-hit areas. Nearly everyone in Tioga knows someone sickened or killed by COVID-19. A church nearby lost 18 members. Jondhi Harrell, a community activist based blocks from the shootout, was hospitalized for nine days in April.
Harrell, too, remembers where he was when the shooting started on Aug. 14, 2019 — at his desk, staring out onto Broad Street while dozens of police sped by.
Today, the same desk is covered in paperwork from hundreds of people desperate for food, many of whom have been confined to their homes. While he has spent most of the last decade running the Center for Returning Citizens, advocating for formerly incarcerated Philadelphians, Harrell has pointed his efforts during the pandemic toward the community at large, working to get food to the hungry.
“A year later,” he said, “the world has really shifted.”
Tioga is in many ways a quintessential working-class Philadelphia neighborhood. This stretch of 15th Street is a mix of longtime homeowners and renters, just blocks from the Erie transportation hub, where nearly 9,000 people, at least pre-pandemic, caught the subway daily. Around the corner is arguably the city’s best cheesesteak, and parents spend their days concerned that people drive way too fast down Erie Avenue.
Typically, the 3700 block of North 15th Street is host to kids’ basketball games in the street and neighbors catching up on stoops. Families milled about at the corner where a day-care sits, overlooking a busy bus stop.
The day of the shooting, the block felt like the center of the world. Narcotics officers had come with a search warrant for 3712 N. 15th St. They arrested four people on the porch. They then conducted a “safety sweep” of a house two doors down, where they said they observed someone hauling a duffel bag that might have had drugs or guns in it.
That’s where the team encountered Maurice Hill, relatively unknown to the neighborhood but a man with a history of violence and drug crimes. He was apparently renting a room there, and allegedly rained bullets on the police when they entered.
As residents were hunkered down in stairwells and customers trapped inside businesses, national news covered the standoff live. Reporters and camera crews swarmed the neighborhood alongside the SWAT teams, searching for details about the shooter.
Residents today say their neighborhood — they see a block with a couple of bad actors, but mostly good people — was defined by Hill and the day’s events. How their community was characterized as a war zone riddled with drugs and violence, and how the city was slow to respond to physical damage in the aftermath, further fueled a long-simmering skepticism of the media, the police, and the government.
City officials tried to make quality-of-life improvements. In the months after the shootout, they sent crews to address a rodent infestation in an empty lot and an abandoned house that’s no longer there. Two months after the shooting, the police hosted a block party where cops played basketball with kids and City Council members broke bread with residents.
By November, almost all the homes hit by bullets were repaired through a partnership between the city and District Council 21 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. Mayor Jim Kenney came by, and Muse showed him where the damage from the flying bullets was worst.
City workers also counseled Octavia Abney, a 29-year-old mother whose three kids were so traumatized by the shootout at the house adjacent to theirs, they were desperate to move. Abney’s then-11-year-old daughter had a seizure during the standoff, and the family was escorted off the premises while dozens of police had weapons drawn and pointed at the house next door.
In January, Abney found a new home in East Germantown, and the kids felt safe. The night they moved in, she lay awake in bed, chilly under a stack of blankets because the heat hadn’t yet been turned on, feeling an overwhelming sense of relief.
“And then,” she said, “COVID hit.”
The preschool where Abney was a teacher closed, and she began what would become a summerlong wait for an unemployment check. She has enough savings, she said, to make it another month or so.
Come March, the city had a pandemic to deal with, too. Councilmember Cindy Bass, whose district includes Tioga, said months after the shootout the city fell back to “standard operating procedure, which is not the level of resources these folks need.”
“This community is further behind,” she said, “than where it started out.”
Now, parents aren’t at work, and kids won’t be at school. There are no city-maintained parks within short walking distance of the block, and the Nicetown-Tioga branch of the Free Library is closed. It needs major upgrades that were supposed to happen as part of the city’s Rebuild Program, which lagged even before the pandemic.
And the 3700 block of North 15th Street is notably quieter. Older folks mostly stay inside, and the day-care is closed. Block parties are a thing of the past. So are community meetings.
Across Tioga, distrust in institutions has festered, compounded by the feeling that COVID-19 and the economic devastation it wrought are rampant in a neighborhood where the median income is less than $18,000 a year.
“It’s like one thing after another,” said Michelle Childs, 63, who lives a few blocks away from the shootout. Another resident, Clyde Clayton, 57, shook his head as he spoke of his hungry neighbors, saying repeatedly, “It’s bad out here.”
Harrell said some problems could be addressed if community groups like his were better funded, and suggested the city consider diverting some police funding to improvements in health-care access, housing, and job creation, especially during the pandemic.
This is a core tenet of the movement to “defund the police,” an idea that’s become a mantra for the Black Lives Matter movement that gripped the nation this summer. Anecdotally, residents here say they’d be in favor of such a tactic, but few think abolishing police or drastically reducing funding is a good idea. A recent national poll showed about 6 in 10 Black Americans want the police presence in their community to remain the same, while only 20% want less.
There’s some sense among Tioga residents that the most hard-line, antipolice ideology doesn’t reflect their reality: They need cops to respond to violence.
Even lifelong Philadelphians like Gregory El — who recalls the years when officers came down the street with dogs, shooting people with fire hoses and beating them with sticks — say they need police to respond when they call.
Still, El said the relationship between police and Black Philadelphians has been so fraught for so long, he’s not convinced new policies or procedures will help.
Residents’ thoughts on policing vary widely like anywhere else, but what’s consistent is a desire to eradicate excessive force, and a sense that police in the past have targeted those working in the underground and sometimes illicit economy of the neighborhood, necessitated by decades of poverty and joblessness.
That slowed significantly this spring, in what some called a silver lining of the pandemic. For more than a month, Philadelphia police scaled back arrests of low-level crimes like drug offenses and theft, largely to avoid further crowding jails where COVID-19 spread.
Harrell said that allowed people used to seeing police constantly to “kind of relax and just say, ‘Let’s focus on the pandemic, and let’s keep ourselves and our families safe.’ ”
But for the cops, the pandemic made it harder to make inroads in the community, said Capt. Javier Rodriguez, who leads the 25th Police District, which patrols along the Broad Street corridor in Tioga. He said officers on the street worked with neighborhood-based groups to foster relationships with longtime residents and small business owners.
Today, most people are inside, and many of those businesses are closed.
“More than the civil unrest, COVID has done more to hinder the progress that we made. We’re doing everything on Zoom now,” Rodriguez said. “There’s not that interaction, that face-to-face that we were constantly building on.”
Amid the devastation of 2020 are the same people who worked to prop up the community in the aftermath of the shootout: the block captains, pastors, and nonprofit leaders checking on their neighbors, many with little pay or recognition.
At Harrell’s food distribution, Peggy Sprewell, 72, gathered food one day last month to share with neighbors on the 1500 block of West Tioga Street. “Some seniors, they’re not strong enough to come out here,” she said, “so they look for Peggy.”
The same day, workers from Called to Serve CDC, based at Zion Baptist on Broad Street, picked up food to stock at the church. During the pandemic, neighborhood residents have come by on a near-daily basis asking for help.
“Tragedy can bring people together,” said Called to Serve’s executive director, the Rev. Jeffrey Harley. “It usually does.”
Harley’s group works closely with police to identify residents who need jobs, and connects them with businesses along the Broad and Erie corridor supported by the nonprofit. The idea is that addressing joblessness and poverty can improve the neighborhood’s relationship with police.
“It’s as if we have a pipe broken and water gushing into the floor, and instead of sending someone to fix the pipe, we send people with mops, and police officers are like people with mops,” said State Sen. Sharif Street, who represents Tioga. “When joblessness, poverty, and a lack of health care are gushing into the community, people with mops will never get the floor dry.”
The pandemic and mass closures have proved problematic for that process, but Harley said he chooses to see it as an opportunity. He said today the group is working to prepare people for new jobs created out of the pandemic, such as in telehealth or other virtual services.
In the meantime, a resilient block is leaning on each other. Few think about Hill, who is incarcerated in Delaware County, awaiting a trial scheduled for next year. The only reminders of a year ago are some lingering drug activity and painted boards covering the windows of the house that was the scene of the crime.
On a recent weekday after a food distribution, Muse, whom the block calls “Miss Cynthia,” pushed a cart down the sidewalk that was overflowing with Juicy Juice, cereal, and diapers. There were lunches for single men who live nearby, and the rest of the food would go to her basement.
She said she was channeling her “squirrel energy,” of Native American symbolism — she doesn’t hoard, but collects items people might need in the future, “so a year from now or six months from now, somebody has a disaster, somebody’s baby’s born, ‘Here, you get a bag of Pampers.’”