The storm was rolling in over Northwest Philadelphia.
In Grace Epiphany Episcopal Church in East Mount Airy, a concerned crowd packed the hall Wednesday. Two shootings and a murder in three days had rocked their normally quiet community, and they’d come for answers.
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On the other side of the vast Northwest Police Division, which is home to the highest shooting rate in the city, staffers at the Belfield Recreation Center in East Germantown were welcoming neighbors into a workshop to help them process trauma from gun violence — including a recent shooting outside that very rec center that shut down the neighborhood pool during a heat wave.
It was the latest of so many shootings that the staffers can spot the signs of trauma among the families at the rec. That subdued withdrawal, even in the most buoyant kids.
Two meetings. Two neighborhoods. Two glimpses into the reality of gun violence in Philadelphia: residents feeling the first, unexpected, terrifying burst of shootings, and trying to beat it back. And communities long under siege, where the terror of gun violence is found in its normalcy.
The wind was blowing furiously, and the rain was coming down in sheets as Capt. Nicholas Smith of the 14th Police District arrived at Grace Epiphany. His job this night was to reassure a scared community that the rash of shootings they’d seen and heard was an anomaly. “A pop-up feud,” he’d call it.
But even he had been taken aback by the intensity of the recent gunfire. Before last week, there had been only two all year in the neighborhood around Grace Epiphany. Smith responded to the scene of the first shooting in broad daylight on July 31 — a 25-year-old man shot while leaving his house, fleeing through an alley toward an elementary school, only to find a car on the playground, seemingly waiting for him, with another shooter perhaps inside. Somehow, he escaped.
Seventeen minutes later, another call: a man shot dead, bullet through the brain, as he sat in his car on Temple Road. His 7-month-old daughter was left unscathed in her car seat.
She would not be the only child to narrowly escape crossfire in East Mount Airy that week. Two days later, just before 5 p.m., a 25-year-old man’s car was riddled with bullets. His kids were inside, too.
“Is there still more to come?” thought 19-year-old Molly Carroll, a La Salle University student born and raised in the neighborhood. Before last week’s shooting rash, the neighborhood’s only homicide this year had taken place on her block. Police had to escort her home from the Wawa.
The shootings were connected, Smith told the crowd, the victims targeted. Two crews feuding over drugs or an internet beef, detectives say. The captain hoped that would give people comfort.
But that kind of sentiment is cold comfort over in East Germantown, by Belfield Rec, where people are also targeted for shootings — but where the shootings don’t let up. “People are being impacted, even if they don’t even realize it,” said Donnell Martin, the rec leader at Belfield. “Their disposition and behaviors change immediately after a shooting.”
He looked up at the black sky Wednesday. He had hoped to attract two dozen people to the trauma workshop, but now he doubted anyone would come. The rain might be too much of a deterrent on top of the normal ones — fear, distrust, and the potential of retaliation. Stand up at a community meeting on gun violence and you might be labeled a snitch.
But he and Chantay Love, an anti gun-violence activist, ended up welcoming 19 people, even amid the storm. Around the rec center and out along Germantown Avenue, Love said, “these ping-pong games are with bullets.”
“It’s happening in the middle of the day," she said. "We are in a community that’s almost held hostage. But I believe when we work together, we reshape things.”
They are planning more trauma workshops for the neighborhood — to help them work through the pain of having the one safe place in their community, the Belfield Rec, caught in the crossfire.
For the neighbors in East Mount Airy, the whole community has felt like a safe space. And though that comfort has been shaken, the crowd in Grace Epiphany was just as determined as the staff at Belfield Rec to reclaim the peace.
Kendra Helm and her husband, James, have spent 50 years in East Mount Airy. She still works for the city, and her husband is retired. She’s a little less comfortable walking to the Sedgwick train station now.
“But I’m not going anywhere,” she promised.