The children at the pool at the Belfield Recreation Center in East Germantown have been swimming in a shooting war.
The 16th and Nedro crew against the crew from 21st and Conlyn. Technically a dispute over drug turf, but one in which bullets fly over something as inconsequential as a social media slight.
This war has a tally. In the last two years alone, Capt. Ernest Ransom of the 35th Police District in the Northwest Police Division can count 13 wounded and six dead in a four-by-five-block grid around Conlyn Street. He attributes most of that carnage to the crews. The pool, just off Conlyn, sits in the heart of the trouble.
There had been a debate the last few summers whether to open the pool at all. A beat cop was assigned to the rec center.
On Friday, Ransom’s radio crackled with an address of a shooting: 5700 Beechwood St.
Just down the street from the pool, he thought.
And the beat cop on the other end? Wilfrid Etienne, the one he had sent to the pool.
‘They can’t just be here and have fun’
Etienne, an eight-year vet, understood the need for his presence — what with the chance that a child could get caught in the Conlyn-Nedro crossfire. Still, the necessity of it saddened him.
“That they can’t just be here and have fun," he said, “but constantly have to worry about where a bullet is coming from.”
Belfield’s rec leader, Donnell Martin, was born two blocks from the pool, and is the just the sort of optimistic, tireless city worker you want at a spot like Belfield. Often, he feels caught between his job — to provide a haven for neighborhood kids — and the reality of life on Conlyn Street.
He felt like closing would be giving up. And that’s something the folks at the Belfield rec don’t do. But sometimes gunfire makes staying open impossible.
At times in recent summers, the violence has hit such a peak that Ransom and Martin decided there was no choice but to close the pool, at least until police could calm the shootings — a constant challenge in the Northwest Division, which has more gunshot victims than any other division in the city, and where 11 people were shot over the holiday weekend.
Here, fighting shootings means fighting entrenched violence in a place that feels so far removed from the growth much of Philadelphia has seen in the last decade. A place that can trap generations of young men who can feel like there’s nowhere to go than to the corner and to the gun.
A safe haven turned violent
On a poolside blacktop, Officer Etienne was playing basketball with kids waiting for open swim when the bullets started flying, about 200 feet away.
He and his partner, Officer Gabrielle Swart, and the pool staff ushered everyone toward a changing room. There, the kids waited until it was safe.
Etienne radioed in a description of the getaway car speeding down Conlyn. Neighbors waved him to a house on Beechwood. Outside lay a 24-year-old man, his left arm shattered by a 9mm bullet.
“Help me,” he said.
Inside, there was a 21-year-old woman, crying from a bullet that ripped into her right foot.
Etienne and Swart loaded the pair in their patrol car and sped away. Both survived.
On Wednesday, Ransom, Martin and Etienne stood on the deck of the drained swimming pool. It will remain closed, they said, until Monday at the earliest, and possibly longer, re-evaluated on a weekly basis. Until the chance of any retaliatory violence lessens.
This time, they said, the decision wasn’t tough.
“I just can’t have a child shot there,” Ransom said. “I couldn’t live with that.”
Still, it hurt.
“We’re in the middle of summer, and it’s an empty pool, and there’s no kids having fun,” Martin said. He is determined the violence won’t define his pool, or the community. “This is a facility that’s going to keep on fighting.”
Across the street, Ernice Burbage walked out onto the front porch she rarely sits on for fear of stray bullets. And when she does, she said, she makes sure can see down the street toward Conlyn, where the shootings happen.
“I am afraid to turn my back on anything,” she said. And now Burbage, a member of the neighborhood advisory council for the rec center, must tell her 11-year-old great-granddaughter, Aniyah, that the pool is off limits, too.
When the shootings start, Aniyah knows to heed her grandmom’s advice.
“Get down, low to the ground,” the little girl said, sweating in the summer sun.