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On city's most violent blocks, drop in shootings citywide is no comfort

Residents of city blocks where shootings are common still face violence on a regular basis.

AGAINST THE backdrop of a gray sky on a bitter autumn afternoon, a woman on Reed Street near 27th quickly unloaded groceries from her car and scurried into her house on the South Philly block.

But she wasn't rushing to get out of the cold. Inside, standing in her cozy dining room, she barely relaxed.

"Ever since I've been living here, I've got anxiety," she told a Daily News reporter breathlessly. "Every time I go outside, I think I'm gonna get shot."

On her block of brick rowhouses in the past two years, police data show that six people have been shot, two of whom died - placing it among the city's most violent blocks.

Despite significant strides made by the city in decreasing homicides by 25 percent and shootings by 12 percent since last year, residents of some of the most bullet-riddled blocks still fight a war every day.

For them, violence isn't just a statistic - it's real, with the sound of gunfire echoing down their blocks, bullets claiming the lives of kids they watched grow up, and blood spilling on their sidewalks far too often for them to feel safe.

The woman on Reed Street, who is in her 50s but asked that the Daily News withhold her identity for her safety - "If you put my name in the paper, that's like a death wish for me" - said that since moving from West Oak Lane four years ago, she's witnessed enough bloodshed to land her in therapy for anxiety.

"I saw a guy chasing another guy around the car with a gun," she recalled. "Then he didn't get back up. So he got shot."

When the sound of gunfire inevitably erupts in her neighborhood, she said, the same panic sets in all over again: "When I hear shots, I go looking for my son," she sighed, adding that her teenage boy stays out of trouble, but she still constantly worries.

"Did you ever see a man [who's been shot] try and get up and walk, knowing that he won't make it?" she asked.

Gunplay on H Street

Across the city, on a shooting-plagued block in the heart of Kensington, a woman in her late 40s sat in a living room dotted with photos of the children she raised to adulthood - but even there she had no peace.

Her voice fell to a whisper when she spoke of the gunplay on her shot-out block of H Street near Ontario.

"It's horrible," she said, her voice lowered as if the young men peddling drugs on the corners outside could hear her. "These young kids have no concept for the value of life."

The woman, who has lived in the neighborhood her whole life, also asked that the Daily News protect her identity for fear of retribution from the gun-toting thugs who hold her hostage in her own home. The rowhouses on her block - some fortified by locked porches caged in wrought-iron bars - have been the backdrop for shootings that left five people wounded and one dead in the past two years, making it another of the city's most violent blocks.

"I'm working on trying to get out of here," she said. "But it's kind of hard to get out of here when there's shrines to kids everywhere."

The story is echoed in all of the poorest, most violent neighborhoods. Experts, longtime residents and police attribute the gun violence that plagues the areas to the usual suspects: Drugs. Poverty. Lack of jobs. Nuisance bars.

"We need to, as a city, create more economic opportunities in downtrodden communities," said Chad Dion Lassiter, president of Black Men at Penn and a professor of race relations at the University of Pennsylvania.

"There's a lot of economic deprivation, and I'm of the opinion that if we create economic opportunities, we can stabilize some of these communities against the backdrop of crime that we see."

A calming in Fern Rock

In the Fern Rock neighborhood, on Camac Street near Chew Avenue, where five people have been shot since last year, an older couple said the past few months have been some of the calmest since they moved there in the 1980s.

"I don't hear [gunfire] as much as I used to on nights and weekends," said the man, who requested anonymity for safety. "The 35th District has amped up their [police] patrols."

But, his wife cautioned, one problem remains constant in the area, and without its resolution the shootings will continue: "The drug trafficking has been consistent. You actually grow to know who it is, who it might be."

She said many neighborhood youths have grown up and either gotten out of the drug game or been locked up - two factors to which she partly attributed the decline in shootings on the block.

Still, many residents of Camac Street can call to mind a shooting or point to a house that's been hit by gunfire.

In the middle of the block, George Clayton, 31, who's lived there all his life, motioned across the street to strike marks on a concrete wall below his neighbor's patio.

"They let off one shotgun shell," Clayton said. He was in his living room playing video games with his son the night of that shooting.

Clayton said he's been lucky enough not to have lost any friends on his block. But a buddy was shot to death a block away, on 13th Street, he said.

'They'll shoot me'

If it's not the drugs and poverty creating a climate for gunfire, it's something else.

In Southwest Philadelphia's Eastwick section, on Buist Avenue near 74th Street - where five people have been wounded in shootings in the past two years - a policeman nodded toward a bar in the middle of the otherwise tidy block.

"That's why," the cop said, referring to the block's five shooting victims, including three wounded in the same shooting in August.

The bar looks out of place on the block flanked by rowhouses, a doctor's office and a day-care center.

An older man walking down the block who declined to give his name also pointed to the bar as a source of problems.

"I've been here all my life. There are a lot of shoot-outs and stuff," the man said, eyeing the bar apprehensively even though it was shuttered in the afternoon hours. "I don't know what's going on. I'm not getting involved in this s---. They'll shoot me."

The man said he's already had one run-in with an armed thug - back in 1991, several blocks away on 61st Street - and he doesn't want another. He lifted his chin to reveal a jagged scar below his jaw, where doctors had to place a metal plate to repair the damage from a bullet.

"I can be in bed and hear, 'Pop-pop-pop-pop,' " he said gruffly, shaking his head. "It's for real, and the city don't care. I don't go out at night. That's a bad thing."

A proposal for change

On another violent block in South Philadelphia - McKean Street near 22nd - Betty Fields, who's lived there 25 years, summed up how law-abiding people survive in rough, crime-ridden neighborhoods: "They don't bother me, I don't bother them."

Fields cited "young boys out here with the drugs" as the source of problems on her block, where police statistics show five people have been shot in the past two years.

Lassiter said that although good people stuck in violent neighborhoods can't always be expected to put their lives on the line to stand up to it, people coming together is one way to combat crime and violence.

He described a partnership among community stakeholders - including, perhaps most importantly, relatives of those perpetrating crimes - as a way to begin to heal and bring about change in communities.

"The individuals committing the crimes live in the community and they're sleeping in someone's house," he said. "We need to not just rely on the community. We need to rely on family members."

He said it can only happen with involvement of "police . . . community leaders, probation and parole, family members, because then what we're doing is we're putting the onus on the shoulders of the community [members who aren't committing crimes]."

The couple from Camac Street in Fern Rock, who raised 10 children on the block, reflected on the fact that all of their children made it out of the neighborhood safely.

"Everybody got to adulthood safe and sound," the father said. "I keep telling my wife it's like hitting the lottery."

His wife added that despite the gunfire and other crime that plagues their block, they believe in the neighborhood and have no plans to leave.

"I don't think it really matters [where you live]. I just think it's all over," she said. "For the most part, people are just doing what they need to do to survive."