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When real-life terrors make Philly residents leave their own neighborhoods for Halloween

After two recent shootings of children, some in Kensington don’t want to worry that gunshots could ring out among children dressed as princesses and superheroes on Halloween.

Ramon Garcia (back center) and his wife, Kathy Soler (back right), with their daughter Kathy Garcia (left); son Dominick Garcia (red shirt), 10; and Kathy Garcia's daughters, 3-month-old Kaydrianie Garcia (on lap) and 6-year-old Kaylanie Reyes (right), at their home in Kensington.
Ramon Garcia (back center) and his wife, Kathy Soler (back right), with their daughter Kathy Garcia (left); son Dominick Garcia (red shirt), 10; and Kathy Garcia's daughters, 3-month-old Kaydrianie Garcia (on lap) and 6-year-old Kaylanie Reyes (right), at their home in Kensington.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Six-year-old Kaylanie Reyes noticed the pink balloons bouncing on ribbons tied to a porch railing a few doors down from her Kensington home. She thought they were for a party.

“Mom, why can’t I go outside?” her mother, Kathy Garcia, recalled the little girl asking. “Why can’t I play with the little girl down the block?”

Her mom didn’t want to explain that the decorations were part of a vigil for 2-year-old Nikolette Rivera, who was fatally shot on Oct. 20 while inside her home. The night before, in Hunting Park, an 11-month-old boy was shot four times while in a car.

If gunmen are willing to shoot indiscriminately into homes and cars, then nowhere seems safe, some residents said. They are not confident the violence would pause even during something as childlike and joyful as trick-or-treating.

As Halloween approaches, Garcia’s family, including Kaylanie, dressing as Fancy Nancy; her 3-month old daughter, Kaydrianie Garcia, who will be a ghost; and her 10-year-old brother Dominick Garcia, who will be wearing a “scary" mask, is choosing to leave its neighborhood again to trick-or-treat, to go somewhere they won’t worry that gunshots could ring out among children dressed as princesses and superheroes.

Nikolette, the little girl who was fatally shot, wanted to dress up for Halloween as Baby Shark.

As recently as a few years ago, the Garcia family felt comfortable enough to stop by some houses on their street for candy. But now, many Kensington residents talk about leaving their neighborhood to trick-or-treat in the Northeast, Fairmount, and Pennsport.

People have always left this area to go trick-or-treat elsewhere, said Capt. Javier Rodriguez of the 25th Police District.

Trick-or-treating in other neighborhoods, whether for safety or simply to find the house that gives out large candy bars, is not a new concept. But a different neighborhood doesn’t guarantee a happy trick-or-treating experience when, sometimes, resistant residents see kids from elsewhere as “outsiders."

There are also alternative events like “trunk”-or-treats, a hayride, bounce houses, and a corn maze in Hunting Park, organized by the local police district, and the McPherson Square library branch’s small parade around the park.

The library staff has seen the heroin epidemic up close, with staff training on overdoses and administering naloxone. But they also want the library to provide a safe space for children. They have programs for every holiday, library supervisor Judi Moore said, and for Halloween, they’ll also have prizes for costumes, slime making, and other crafts. There will be costume-making stations, with Groucho glasses, foam masks, sequins, and glitter.

The Providence Center in Fairhill, less than two miles away, provides educational programs and social services. For Halloween, executive director Siria Rivera said, they take children to Rosemont College for trick-or-treating. Families with cars can choose to go to other neighborhoods, and people without those means choose from the options she’s increasingly noticed at churches or community centers.

These other events are “trying to create a culture of safety and community around trick-or-treating,” Rivera said. Still, “the fact that we have to have a conversation about whether kids feel safe enough to trick-or-treat is a problem in itself.”

Fear of the dark

In the 25th District, where the two recent child shootings happened, gun violence is prevalent. The district, which includes the neighborhoods of Hunting Park, Feltonville, and Fairhill, and parts of Kensington, has seen the most shootings of any district this year, with a rate 2.5 times the city average, according to an Inquirer analysis.

This year, 14 of the 141 shooting victims in the district were children.

» READ MORE: Man charged in shooting of baby supplied gun that killed 2-year-old girl, police say

» READ MORE: I visited the Kensington block where a 2-year-old was killed. Nearly everyone I talked to had lost someone to gun violence. | Mike Newall

Fear of crime can lead to fewer people using their outdoor spaces, like porches, sitting in a park, or walking around the block, and to an unwillingness for people who don’t already know each other to talk, said Caterina Roman, a criminal justice associate professor at Temple University, whose research includes neighborhood violence and fear of crime.

Without social interaction, “there is no neighborhood cohesion and willingness of neighbors to interact, know, and care about each other,” Roman said.

Destiny Vazquez, 24, and Gleidie Rivera, 23, both live within walking distance of McPherson Square, but the friends prefer to take their children, ages 8 and 2, to parks outside the neighborhood to play.

“It’s too much,” Vazquez said. “Too many needles on the ground. Too many people acting crazy. That shooting with the little girl, anything could happen.”

When Vazquez walks around with her 8-year-old son, Izaiah, he’ll warn her about a needle by saying, “Mommy, watch it,” she said.

The friends have taken their kids trick-or-treating in other neighborhoods before, but this year, they are especially worried. They don’t want to be outside when it’s dark.

The violence, Vazquez said, “makes me want to keep my son closer.”

‘There is a growing sense of anxiety’

Monica Davila, 27, was walking her daughters, Asya’lee Nieves, 5, and Ariyah Nieves, 3, home from school last week when they passed Nikolette’s home.

“Mommy look, Ariel! Mommy, Ariel!” the girls said, pointing to the Disney princess depicted on one of many balloons around the front porch. The girls had seen their mother crying after she learned a 2-year-old was fatally shot, but they didn’t understand that these balloons were for that child.

Davila knew her daughters were sad that night because they gave her a hug and asked if they could give Nikolette’s mother a hug. Davila had explained that “a little girl got hurt. A bad guy took her away.”

When asked if the family plans to go trick-or-treating, Davila said: “Not down here.”

The Rev. Liam Murphy, the coordinator of Mother of Mercy House in Kensington, said he’s heard from parents who are worried about safety.

“We have seen parents complain, even before the shooting, about the dangerous condition of the neighborhood,” Murphy said. “But the tragedies of the last week … there is a growing sense of anxiety, and maybe even a little bit of frustration, like, why doesn’t it seem to be changing?”

Davila’s family goes trick-or-treating around Cottman Avenue. This year, Asya’lee will be Hello Kitty and Ariyah will be Batgirl. Her third daughter, Ma’lanie Redding, not yet 2, will be Belle.

Davila grew up in Kensington and remembers open doors on summer days and weekend playdates. Since the recent shootings, Davila said, she feels like she can’t let her kids go outside. She’s even nervous while they are in the living room.

As a child, she would dress up in Halloween costumes — a pirate, a she-devil, Princess Jasmine, Barbie — and walk right outside, where she felt comfortable trick-or-treating in her neighborhood.

The way Davila remembers it, she wasn’t worrying about stray bullets.

Graphics editor John Duchneskie contributed to this article.