As though emerging from a storm cellar after the twister passed, residents of Tioga gathered in nervous knots Thursday morning to commune, count bullet holes in buildings, and finally exhale after an embattled night when a gunman shot six police officers and altered the story of a neighborhood forever.
Once, the 3700 block of 15th Street was lauded for winning Christmas decorating awards.
Now, the place has achieved a different kind of fame for being the site of Philadelphia’s largest mass shooting of police officers in memory.
“We’re trying to get our breath back,” said Angie Gonzalez, 45, church ministry assistant at Urban Hope Community Church and Training Center in the neighborhood. “It’s feeling peaceful this morning. But what happened yesterday was insane.”
By the time Maurice Hill finally gave himself up after a 7½-hour standoff, a neighborhood that was no stranger to violence and confrontation was forced to come to terms with a new definition of fury.
“Shootings have been happening in this community for years,” said David Brown, 62, a sales associate at the nonprofit Project HOME, who has lived in Tioga all his life. “But this was especially shocking. Cops are prying bullets out of walls. It was like being in some Clint Eastwood movie war zone.”
As life-altering as events felt, people still had to get up and go to work, or walk their children to two neighborhood day-care centers.
The gunman may have stopped time for a while, but the people of Tioga were determined to start Thursday the same way they started Wednesday, and every day before that.
“You got a life to lead, you gotta lead it,” said Rodney Wilson, 47, a supervisor at a produce company who lives on 15th Street across from the site of the shooting.
While the block where Wednesday’s standoff took place was cordoned off Thursday morning, some surrounding streets were accessible.
Erie Avenue was rumbling with typical city noises as buses rolled by and SEPTA riders gathered at the major hub just a block away. Stores opened and people hunted their morning coffees.
Things were quieter on the block where the standoff occurred. The west side is lined with two-story row homes. Across the street is a line of three-story Victorian-style town homes.
They hearken back to a better time for the area, burdened by a poverty rate that is 39 percent, up from 33 percent in 2010, according to federal figures. Census statistics put the median income at less than $19,000, the third-lowest in the city, after Fairhill and Strawberry Mansion. Two out of every five residents in the area do not have internet access.
Once, the area was seen as magical. Featured in a series of 1988 newspaper articles as one of several “precious places, where people have made their world better,” the 3700 block of 15th Street was a finalist in the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s annual beautification contest. Neighbors launched a community garden built on the site of what used to be three vacant houses.
Yvette, a 53-year-old who grew up just a block south of the shooting, said the 3700 block was known in the 1980s for winning neighborhood awards for having the most beautiful Christmas decorations every year.
“It was a gorgeous block,” she said, sitting on her porch Thursday morning. She declined to give her full name out of concern for her safety. “I used to envy them so much. Every house used to be dressed up for Christmas. It was like going to wonderland.”
She said most of the folks who owned the homes at that time are gone now, replaced by either their children, grandchildren, or transplants.
In the early 1900s, as Irish Catholics settled in Philadelphia, many of them migrated to the neighborhood.
The prominent St. Stephen’s Catholic Church at Broad and Butler Streets — with its soaring turrets and intricate stonework — was a neighborhood fixture.
Rowhouses rapidly sprouted, and Polish and Jewish residents moved in. They found good jobs at the nearby Budd Co., an automobile-parts manufacturer, as well as other industrial giants, including Tastykake and Midvale Steel.
But like many areas in Philadelphia, Tioga in the late 20th century was a victim of the kind of industrial decline that has become a familiar story across the United States.
Manufacturing job losses started, white flight hastened, and poverty crept in. Rail stations in the area closed as ridership dwindled.
Today, the small census tract encircling the 3700 block of North 15th Street is predominantly occupied by renters. Nearly 30% of houses surrounding the area sit vacant. Almost all properties nearby are single-family homes.
According to the Census Bureau, 90 percent of residents in the area are black.
The steady march of gentrification has yet to significantly touch this area of Philadelphia, despite the fact that buildings associated with Temple University are only a few blocks away.
The shootings occurred less than a quarter-mile from a local landmark, Max’s Steaks at 3653 Germantown Ave., which was featured in a scene in the 2015 Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan movie Creed.
For years, people have been trying to improve the area. Brown, of Project HOME, said he and others are always busy reclaiming vacant lots to transform them into useful spaces.
“This is a neighborhood trying to rebuild itself," he said. "We teach kids how to box and lift weights. We became squatters in lots with knee-high weeds, trying to turn them into beautiful gardens.”
The awfulness of the shooting distressed people who are trying to make a better life in a tough, urban place.
Eric Belfiore, 38, lives in a recovery house at the corner of 15th Street and Erie Avenue. He moved here from Kensington seven months ago and took cell-phone video of the early moments of the shooting. Since coming to the area, he said, he’s known of three other shootings within a several-block radius. “If you’re from this neighborhood, this is how it is,” he said.
On Thursday morning, a group of five neighbors sat on a porch on the 3700 block of Carlisle Street, which runs parallel to 15th.
They were lamenting that children who live on their block were afraid to play outside as they normally do.
Typically, every weekday the street is shut down from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. for kids to play basketball, ride scooters, and draw with sidewalk chalk.
On Wednesday, Annette Harrison was grabbing the sign from the end of the street to reopen it when she heard shots ring out.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Harrison, 59, who’s lived on the block for five years and has lived in North Philly all her life. “We normally have a block full of children,” she said, pointing to the street.
“Today we have no children.”
Harrison described the neighborhood as a tightly knit community that has each other’s backs: “We’re all a family.”
She and the friends who were reliving Wednesday’s events wondered what would happen next. They had planned a backpack giveaway for Aug. 30 and a luau-themed block party for the 31st.
“We hope we can still have it,” she said.