The colorful sandwich board should have stood proudly in the middle of Alden Street, warding away cars and advertising the skinny West Philadelphia block as a designated summer PlayStreet. Instead, it leaned against Renell Powel’s house, as if regrouping, taking a break from the oppressive midday heat.

Powel was regrouping, too.

She’d stepped up for the first time ever as a summer PlayStreet captain, trying to salvage a bit of summertime magic for her three grandchildren, a 12-year-old and two 3-year-olds. Then, on July 15, just as the kids were getting into the spirit — and Parks & Recreation, YMCA, and Mural Arts Philadelphia staff had arrived with toys, games, and stencils to turn the street into one big mural — gunfire splintered the West Philadelphia morning and sent everyone scattering.

The staff on site rushed to help 20-year-old Zaikeem Bruce, who crumpled to the sidewalk with multiple wounds. He did not survive.

The Alden Street parents called their kids in, and did not let them out again that week, or the next. As for Powel, she had put the PlayStreet on pause. But she still stood on her porch every day, passing out chocolate milk and calling to neighbors, “You want a lunch today?”

“We’re not going to let this shut us down,” she said on July 22, one week after the violence.

Philadelphia, which closed pools, recreation centers, and libraries in this pandemic summer, has doubled down on its 300 PlayStreets. A nearly 60-year-old tradition, once mostly a vehicle to distribute meals during the “hungry season” for schoolkids, they are now meal service, summer camp, and field trip all in one. Backpacks, art kits, super-soakers, and games were distributed citywide. Fifty blocks, including Alden Street, were designated “super streets” — where high levels of poverty and violence would be met with extra resources and programming, like play equipment, DJ dance parties, and mural-making.

This effort has now collided with the city’s deadliest summer in at least five years, punctuated by more than 453 shootings, 77 of them fatal. Thirteen of those victims were shot in eight incidents on PlayStreets. Five died.

Bruce was the only one shot in the middle of the day, while kids were out playing. Powel’s grandsons ran in the house yelling that a firecracker had gone off, and a boy had been hurt.

It’s a reality of Philadelphia in the summer, but one residents and officials say they cannot accept. Now, Parks & Rec, the police, and the neighbors are trying to figure out how to restore a sense of safety to the community.

Powel said she understands why parents are afraid. “A stray bullet could’ve hit one of the kids,” she said. But, she added, ”I am resuming service because we have another month. They’ve been cooped up with coronavirus, and I’m not going to do that to them.”

A group of children sitting on temporary play equipment brought in by the city eat soft pretzels distributed by 18th District police during a PlayStreets event on Alden Street. A police car parked at the end of the block was a signal to parents to let kids come outside.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
A group of children sitting on temporary play equipment brought in by the city eat soft pretzels distributed by 18th District police during a PlayStreets event on Alden Street. A police car parked at the end of the block was a signal to parents to let kids come outside.

‘Eyes on the street'

Alden Street is about 10 blocks away from where a more highly publicized tragedy took place in one of the worst years for gun violence in recent memory: the fatal shooting of 7-year-old Zamar Jones, who was playing on his front porch when a shootout began on his block. He was one of 98 kids shot this year in Philadelphia.

“Feeling safe on your block is a basic human right,” City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier said at a virtual town hall on solutions to gun violence Tuesday. “This is not normal. Our communities in West and Southwest Philadelphia are plagued by gunfire day after day. ... We have to give Black people what they are owed, and that’s the opportunity to grow up in a safe and well-resourced community.”

PlayStreets have a little-recognized role in the city’s public-safety strategy, First Deputy Police Commissioner Melvin Singleton said. They present a chance to build police-community relationships, a department priority after this summer’s protests, while keeping kids safe. For PlayStreets in designated “hot zones,” police are dispatched every half hour — they were already en route to Alden Street for such a routine check when Bruce was killed. It’s one reason they were able to quickly arrest the alleged shooters.

The idea of a sense of security is self-reinforcing: If more people feel comfortable being outside, they can serve as “eyes on the street,” which in turn will further deter crime.

“I believe that the rise in some of our violence during the COVID time and the stay-at-home order is because we had less eyes and ears on the street, which basically eliminates witnesses and emboldens criminal actors to take their shot if they see their adversary,” Singleton said.

He said Bruce’s shooting was part of an ongoing feud between neighborhood groups. But Bruce was not known to be part of any group, he said. “I think it’s possible this was a mistaken-identity situation.”

Bruce’s mother, who asked that her name not be printed, said her son did not hang out on corners, did not affiliate with gangs. He loved basketball and his New Balance 990v5s. He was a dishwasher at Firestone Grill and was enrolled in school for carpentry. He was on his way there to drop off paperwork when he was shot, she said. A role model to five younger brothers and sisters, he was “a bubbly, wonderful person,” she said. “It didn’t matter what kind of day he was having, he could make you smile.”

He was shot on a Wednesday. For her, Wednesdays have become excruciating.

“It’s really hard. How do you go from seeing a person every day for the last 20 years of your life to not being able to talk to him, to see him? We were a close-knit family.”

Children dance to Let's Rock Recess, a DJ brought to the PlayStreet event on 200 block of S. Alden St. in Philadelphia, on July 28, to coax kids back outside after a fatal shooting terrorized the block.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Children dance to Let's Rock Recess, a DJ brought to the PlayStreet event on 200 block of S. Alden St. in Philadelphia, on July 28, to coax kids back outside after a fatal shooting terrorized the block.

Bringing kids back to the block

By Monday, July 27, Powel was determined to bring back the PlayStreet.

“Our first reaction was to say, ‘Let’s pull the programming. Let’s retreat,’” Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell said.

Powel convinced her otherwise. “She said: ‘The shooting could be the only memory these kids have this summer. But because of PlayStreets, they can have all these other great memories and experiences.’ I found that perspective heartening.”

So, she made sure Powel had backup, with extra programming, gear, and surprises. The YMCA had sent staffers out. Parks & Rec brought misting stations and a truck full of play equipment. The kids were racing up and down the street joyfully.

“So many people are helping,” she said. “I never realized how many people would get involved.”

Most decisive, perhaps, was the marked police car parked on the end of the block, a symbol of safety for many.

A crew from the 18th District stopped by, to hang out, pass out pretzels and water. It’s a reset, too, in a summer of fractured community-police relations, Sgt. Sharone Johnson said: “We want to reassure them that the police are out here.”

Renell Powell poses for a portrait outside of her home on Alden street in West Philly on Friday, Aug. 07, 2020. Powell along with her grandson, Jaiden, are captains of their play street, where they are trying to counteract a summer of gun violence.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Renell Powell poses for a portrait outside of her home on Alden street in West Philly on Friday, Aug. 07, 2020. Powell along with her grandson, Jaiden, are captains of their play street, where they are trying to counteract a summer of gun violence.

One neighbor, George Saunders, watched from his porch with a shrug. “I could think of better things for the police to do,” he said.

But it made all the difference for Tina Butler, 39, who admits she was protective even before the shooting. When her oldest daughter called that morning, she panicked.

“I was like, ‘Take my kids in the house!’ And I’ve kept them in ever since,” she said.

But, many hours of Xbox later, she had finally relented, permitting the five kids ages 6 to 12 to go sprinting through the street, jumping on the Wobbles, joining a dance party with Let’s Rock Recess. “I seen that cop car right there, so I know everything is cool,” she said from her front porch.

A correctional officer, Butler grew up in a public housing project in North Philadelphia, where she never saw anything as lavish as this pop-up PlayStreet. She’s grateful — but still wary. Once the police car leaves, the kids will be back indoors, she said.

By noon, Powel was starting to feel as if parents had grown perhaps too comfortable. “It seems like the parents just dropped their kids off today!” she said, as she mediated a dispute over a toy car.

Still, she said, “It feels good. At least they’re having a good time. That’s the most important thing.”

Staff writer Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.