Every block has its rhythms. For so long, on the 4800 block of Griscom Street in Frankford, the daily rhythms were decided by drug dealers: a group of about 20 men who, on hot summer days, often stood in the shade under the trees near the Alonzos’ house, where Saul, a 33-year-old construction worker from Guatemala, lives with his wife and two young daughters.
Like other parents on Griscom, Alonso told his children the gunshots they heard were fireworks.
Other afternoons, the dealers, who called themselves the Griscom Street Mafia, would sell crack and marijuana under the block’s towering, century-old ginkgo tree. Nights they spent in the abandoned house next to where Gina, who is 50 and disabled, lives alone. For four years, Gina spent her own money to board up the back of the neighboring house. But the dealers and their clients would tear down the boards every time, and soon she had spent so much she couldn’t afford to do it again.
By summer Gina had grown accustomed to the sounds of clanging metal — stolen pipes — and the comings and goings in the night, and the rodents and cats and mold that invaded her house.
Then came the shooting in May — in broad daylight, another bang explained away to the children as firecrackers. A man in his 30s, one of the Mafia, was shot in the leg. Stray bullets left holes in the door frame of landlord Henry Nhu’s rowhouse. Police swarmed the block.
But it wasn’t the shooting that upended Griscom Street’s rhythm. It was the quiet that came after it. Griscom Street confronted a terrible irony: That quiet was the first peace their block had experienced in years.
There was no dealing, no shootings, no loud noise except the laughter of the old men who felt safe enough again to come out to their wide porches.
Pastor Gabriel Wang-Herrera, who is 43 and lives with his wife and two teenage daughters in a house with rocking chairs on the porch across from the ginkgo tree, thought of Scripture: “Old men and women will again sit along the streets of Jerusalem. … The streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing.”
The quiet became tantalizing. A taste of freedom the block could not ignore. But it lasted only weeks. The Mafia came back. Even the man who had been shot.
And so the residents of Griscom Street decided to do something different.
“Something had to be done. I mean, something had to be done for the longest time, but this was the perfect storm,” Wang-Herrera said. First, they held a meeting in Wang-Herrera’s living room, and they gave themselves a name: Griscom Street: United and Strong.
It is one block: 32 homes bookended by Jefferson Frankford Hospital and a historic 19th-century home owned by a retired draftsman and a crossing guard who have planted a garden with Japanese red maples, dogwoods, and white cedars. The block calls it the Oasis. On the other end of the street, the Yummy Yummy Chinese restaurant, where the dealers often crowded outside, and where a man was killed on Super Bowl Sunday. And the old repair shop with an overgrown lot, the weeds nearly covering the sky-blue Eldorado in the corner with a caved-in canvas roof.
It is their block.
“The vision is for one block to support one another as residents, neighbors, people who love the city of Philadelphia, to see what resources we can bring back into the community,” Wang-Herrera said.
They sought a partnership with the police — who, finally, were there to meet them. Capt. John Walker, who had taken over the 15th Police District in December and quickly identified the Frankford grid where Griscom Street sits as his most violent and drug-plagued, the place that most needed his attention. He’s trying to build a block-by-block partnership where residents build trust with police, and police stick around — with services and support and patrols that don’t diminish in the weeks after the shooting. That keep the quiet.
“People are skeptical. They’ve seen so many programs started and go nowhere,” Walker said. “The fear in the public was really great — and we never really engaged them in a conversation, and then brought our resources to show them that we were going to be here.”
The goals are simple: Appoint a block captain. Get a town watch started. Flood the block with cleanups. Outreach efforts began at a meeting last week at Wang-Herrera’s church space. Twenty two police and city officials showed up. A table in the back offered career services.
The residents know it’s not just about them — it’s about the young men who feel their best option is to sell drugs on the block. This year, Wang-Herrera managed to get one a job at a Chick-fil-A, but he was soon back on the street. The money was better, the pastor said. Griscom Street’s project is about finding better options for them, too.
For now, the partnership is working. The Mafia hasn’t shown back up, yet. The abandoned house next to Gina’s was cleaned up. Henry repaired the damage to his door frame. It’s one block. But for now, at least, it feels more like theirs.