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Police, neighbors team up to tackle crime in Castor Gardens

AS THE late-afternoon twilight descended on Castor Gardens, in Northeast Philadelphia, Lt. Thomas Macartney guided his marked police car down the alley behind the Rutland Street rowhouses near Magee Avenue, stopping at a garage with broken, wide-open doors.

AS THE late-afternoon twilight descended on Castor Gardens, in Northeast Philadelphia, Lt. Thomas Macartney guided his marked police car down the alley behind the Rutland Street rowhouses near Magee Avenue, stopping at a garage with broken, wide-open doors.

A few days earlier, neighbors had called 2nd District police to report raw sewage pouring out of the garage and flooding the alley.

"Whether you're a renter or a homeowner," Macartney said, "you don't want to live next door to this."

Police notified the city's Department of Licenses & Inspections, which took the owner to Municipal Court. The sewage is gone.

Cruising down a nearby back alley with a Daily News reporter, Macartney pointed out two young men who, upon seeing his police car, suddenly became fascinated by the crumbling pavement at their feet.

At the end of the alley, a third man, standing with a pit bull on a leash, was visibly startled to see the patrol car but quickly recovered and stared straight ahead.

"We got a tip they're selling weed out of that house back there," Macartney said, driving away. "Stash houses are a big problem around here."

Surveillance takes longer and arrests are more difficult than with street-corner sales, Macartney said, but thanks to a resident's tip, the stash house is on the police radar.

As the 22-year veteran officer continued to cruise, it was clear that Macartney, who grew up in Mayfair and is a lifelong Northeast Philadelphian, knows Castor Gardens' streets and alleys like the back of his hand. And it's apparent that, unlike the don't-tell problem in other neighborhoods, residents trust police and talk with them.

As Macartney pointed out all the contractors' pickup trucks belonging to Brazilian, Asian, African-American and Central American construction workers who were home after a day's work, it was also clear that he respects the diversity that has rapidly replaced a once-white enclave.

That respect is the foundation for Macartney's extraordinary crime-fighting partnership with like-minded Jared Solomon, who founded the community-activist group Take Back Your Neighborhood four years ago and who works closely with Macartney to combat the burglaries, robberies and car break-ins that regularly occur on both sides of Castor Avenue in the neighborhood.

"The reality of the Northeast is like the reality of our country: it's a minority-majority region," Solomon said. "Asian, black, Latino communities are growing here. So, there really is no option anymore except to respect them.

"When you talk with people in your neighborhood who you think are different," Solomon said, "you find that they have the same values as you. You want a place that's clean, that you can raise a family in and that you have a good feeling about. We all want the same thing."

Solomon, a lawyer, started Take Back Your Neighborhood when he moved out of the house that has been in his family since his great-grandmother's time.

"I realized that my mom, who's a single mom, was going to be there alone in a neighborhood that was getting worse," he said.

"I also realized that although I had lived in the neighborhood my whole life, I didn't know any of my neighbors. People would come home from work and scurry into their house or apartment. So we really needed an organization that brings people together and is the nerve center on issues that people can gather around and support."

The organization had the humblest of births - at a meeting in Solomon's mother's house.

"My mom was required to be there so I knew I had one," he said, laughing. "She got a neighbor or two that she knew. So we started Take Back Your Neighborhood with maybe four people."

Today, 50 people regularly crowd a room at Max Myers Recreation Center for meetings. Five thousand fliers in English, Spanish and Chinese are distributed throughout Castor Gardens. There are translators on the group's leadership council so that everyone has a voice and, Solomon said, "we can all be part of the solution to make the Northeast a place we can really be proud to call 'home.' "

Walking on Castor Avenue, Macartney paused at Magee Avenue and said that a group of young men, 16 to 20 years old, hung out in front of Murano Deli, selling small amounts of marijuana or directing customers to nearby stash houses.

"It's a nickel-and-dime gang-type thing," Macartney said, "and our problem enforcing the law is that most of the complaints about it are coming from the neighborhood, and most of the marijuana customers are coming from the neighborhood, too."

Although the corner sales have not turned violent, Macartney said, there have been gunpoint robberies.

Despite recurring street crime on and around Castor Avenue, longtime merchants like Michael Visco - whose Guido's Inc. has sold what he proudly calls "Italian flair" men's suits and dress clothing on Castor near Knorr Street since 1979 - feel safe.

"I don't put gates up at night, and for almost 35 years I've had no problem," Visco told Macartney, surrounded by Italian-tailored haberdashery and by framed black-and-white photos from the Sinatra era. "The old guys on Castor Avenue, the guys who have been here the longest, don't have gates."

Asked if he ever thought of leaving Castor Avenue for the safety of the 'burbs, Visco looked as if he'd just been asked if he ever thought of growing wings and flying to the moon.

"I live here," he said adamantly. "My family lives here. It's home. Anywhere else is a foreign land."

He and Macartney - two Northeast homeboys for life - shared a laugh at the absurdity of leaving.

A block away, at Castor and Unruh avenues, in S & H Hardware, where what seems to be every piece of hardware known to man overflows the floor-to-ceiling aisles, co-owner Stuart Stern said that the neighborhood was safer when the store opened "about 200 years ago" (actually in 1951), but 2nd District police manage to keep things reasonable.

"It's not what it once was, when I could walk out of here any time of the night and feel OK," Stern said. "Now, we make deposits at all different times of the day so we won't be profiled as having a regular pattern.

"And," Stern added, putting his hand on Macartney's shoulder, "I feel much better if I see this guy or one of the other officers in a police car out there. That's the only real difference today."

The big difference off the avenue, Macartney said, is that too many old row homes that belonged to the same family for generations have been sold and turned into illegal boarding houses - "30 people living in a regular row house is a serious problem," he said.

"We'll respond to a complaint about loud music next door and when we get there, we see 10 names on the mailbox of a row home," he said. "That's an illegal board house. Our first question to the tenants is, 'Who do you pay rent to?' "

Macartney arrived so early for a recent Take Back Your Neighborhood session at Max Myers that he had to wait patiently for 20 minutes while pounding rhythms filtered through the closed multipurpose room door and a bunch of joyous little girls leaped through their ballet class.

An early-arriving resident walked up to Macartney, respectfully got in his grill, told him there had been two recent burglaries on her block and asked why police hadn't warned her.

Instead of being defensive or evasive, Macartney wrote down her name and number, apologized for not being able to call her later that night because he had another community meeting to go to, and promised to deliver an answer in the morning.

The intimacy of the exchange - a neighborhood resident taking a grievance directly to a Philadelphia police lieutenant and receiving a direct answer - is what makes the marriage of cops and community work in Castor Gardens, without regard to race or ethnicity.

For Solomon, it's the fulfillment of his Take Back Your Neighborhood diversity vision. For Macartney, it's community policing that delivers the goods.