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Karen Heller: It's an uphill fight against neighborhood violence

The Ralph Brooks play lot at 21st and Tasker features two basketball hoops, a few battered benches, and a forlorn swath of green.

The Ralph Brooks play lot at 21st and Tasker features two basketball hoops, a few battered benches, and a forlorn swath of green.

But what dominates this corner are the dead.

Forty-six murder victims are listed high on the side of a nearby building under "Stop the Violence," a brutal billboard. The words failed.

On the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, volunteers will start transforming the lot. Adé Fuqua, an assistant city managing director, is charged with helping Point Breeze: "Everybody had a similar desire to do something with this place. It's terrible."

Along with the requisite fresh paint and new nets comes a much bolder initiative for this busy intersection that mirrors much of Philadelphia, mottled by empty lots and untended buildings.

The New York Rucker league, known for its innovative youth basketball program, will launch one at Ralph Brooks. Working with area legislators, educational institutions, mentoring programs, and corporate sponsors, developer Jeffrey Tubbs and his nonprofit, Urban Roots, have an elaborate plan to use nearby vacant lots to build an urban farm, a kiosk selling healthy snacks, a digital gaming area, and affordable housing.

"We're trying to create something that addresses the community's needs," Tubbs said. "Preventing crime, creating an active, healthy lifestyle." The plan came together in half a year. The hope is to create more life-affirming murals.

The thin, rectangular slice of Point Breeze - largely confined to 19th to 21st, Reed to Snyder - was the fifth neighborhood selected in Mayor Nutter's PhillyRising initiative in September 2011. The 15th, Kingsessing, was launched last week. The program identifies hot crime spots and works with police, city agencies, and local stakeholders to create safer neighborhoods.

An amiable former football player, Penn State grad, and part of the former singing duo South Street, Fuqua has accomplished a lot with an army of volunteers and paltry funding. He's here all the time. Frankly, he's done wonders.

Fuqua works with residents like Betty Beaufort, a local mayor - "a hero," he calls her - who volunteers with the police, the library, and Smith Elementary, now slated for closing. Point Breeze is changing with gentrification lapping at the area's northern edge, but not as quickly in her neighborhood, where loss is more common than growth.

Fuqua rescued an underused state-of-the-art recording studio at the Wilson Park public housing complex - another vanity project of former housing czar Carl Greene - and launched Philadelphia Youth Music Partnership led by Dominic McFadden, son of Gene McFadden, who cowrote and performed "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now." The program, taught by award-winning professionals and volunteers, is about to begin its second year.

At meetings, residents told city officials that their top quality-of-life issue - or decided lack thereof - were the narrow alleys teaming with filth, sometimes five feet high, that invited drugs, prostitution, and break-ins.

Instead of fixing broken windows, AmeriCorps cleared 15 tons of debris. Today, the 2100 block of Earp is one of the area's tidier streets. Another cleanup is set for spring.

In 2011, violent crime fell by 19 percent in the southern part of the area. Last year, it was down an additional 6 percent. All this hard work couldn't have hurt. Capt. Lou Campione said of PhillyRising, "People were heard and not dismissed. They want to be validated and see results."

Betty Beaufort has lived in Point Breeze for 40 years. "Something went terribly wrong," she told me. "This place was vibrant. Then it started deteriorating. We don't have a community."

She wants more businesses, a rec center. The improvements at Ralph Brooks should make a difference.

But what Point Breeze really needs is more Betty Beauforts.