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Crime has some thinking twice about Philly life

BORN-AND-RAISED Philadelphian Danielle Harvey never really saw herself moving away from her hometown. Then, last spring, she witnessed a shooting at the same bus stop where she had been robbed about a month before.

Donna and Otis Bullock and their children; Danielle Harvey
Donna and Otis Bullock and their children; Danielle HarveyRead more

BORN-AND-RAISED Philadelphian Danielle Harvey never really saw herself moving away from her hometown.

Then, last spring, she witnessed a shooting at the same bus stop where she had been robbed about a month before.

Harvey, 24, who worked at a law office in Center City, said that she was able to shake off the robbery, in which her phone was stolen and pockets rifled through at a bus stop outside Frankford's Margaret-Orthodox El station.

"You live in the city, this stuff happens," she said. "That made me think this city is getting a little tiring to live in, but I never really imagined myself being somebody who could move."

Then, about a month later, as she waited at the same bus stop, a man across the street from where she stood was shot in the neck.

"[The shooting] was pretty much the thing that more or less sealed it for me thinking I should get out of here," she said.

With that, she packed up in October and moved to California, where she now lives and works outside San Francisco.

Decisions like Harvey's are daggers to city officials who point to the city's significant progress in reversing the historical brain-drain of educated young adults from Philadelphia.

Although crime has dropped - part-one crimes that include robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and vehicle theft are down 4 percent from 2011 to 2012 and 9 percent the past five years - the crime rate remains persistently high compared with other big cities. Last year in Chicago, for instance, there were 2,880 part-one crimes per 100,000 residents. In Philadelphia, there were 4,849 - almost double.

A mixed bag

In a testament to the city's progress over the years and efforts to retain young, educated adults, recent census numbers have shown an uptick in both the numbers of young adult residents and residents with a bachelor's degree or higher.

Some young people say that the quality of life the city provides far outweighs concerns about crime.

"I can't imagine where else I would want to be with all the convenience for the kids," said Otis Bullock, 34, a lawyer who lives in Strawberry Mansion with his wife, also a lawyer, and two young sons.

Harvey, however, isn't alone among young adults for whom crime became a reason to leave the city.

Anthony Coombs, 32, left his house in Queen Village in January to start fresh in Santa Monica, Calif. He said his last straw was seeing how the life of his good friend Kevin Neary changed drastically after Neary was shot during a robbery outside his Northern Liberties apartment in 2011. The shooting left Neary paralyzed at age 29.

"This stuff is a citywide issue and problem," Coombs said the week before he moved. "I think it's just embarrassing that New York has eight times the amount of people and their murder rate is so much lower than ours."

Indeed, the per-capita homicide rates in both New York and Chicago are lower than Philadelphia's. In 2012, Chicago had 19 homicides per 100,000 residents, and New York had five. In Philadelphia the same year, 22 people were slain per 100,000.

So far in 2013, though, homicides in Philadelphia are at the lowest they've been at this point since at least 2006.

Coombs, who grew up in Florida, came to Philadelphia for college and decided to stay after he graduated. He said for his career working with startups, he'd probably be better off staying, but between the violence and a perceived apathy about it among some people in the city, he couldn't stay any longer.

"There's a normal expectation of violence in a large city, but we've gotten to the point where it's so bad that people are like, 'Well, there's nothing we can really do about it, so we're just going to live with it,' " he said. "No. We shouldn't put up with this crap."

More educated residents

Although some young adults have left, census numbers show that the people moving away from Philadelphia are exceptions to the norm, as the population of young adults and college graduates has risen in recent years.

The number of city residents who have a bachelor's degree or higher increased from 18 percent in 2008 to 23 percent in 2010, said a spokesman for Mayor Nutter.

According to the American Communities Survey, 18- to 34-year-olds accounted for 29 percent of the city's population in 2011, up from 24 percent in 2007.

Perhaps the most telling statistic is the number of students who came from outside the city to attend college and stayed after graduation. In 2007, only about 26 percent stayed, according to Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alan Greenberger. By last year, that number nearly doubled to 47 percent.

"That's an enormous increase, and a testament to the belief that the city has both social and economic value to offer to these young people after they graduate college," Greenberger said.

Incidents like the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., he said, prove that violence isn't just an urban problem.

"Crime does happen," he said. "It's never a good thing, and it's demoralizing, but you have to weigh it against the assets and the life that goes on day in and day out [in a city]. That is far greater in number than crime."

Greenberger, a city resident for nearly four decades, said he and his family have had their own run-ins with crime. He offered a word of advice for young people in the city who may be struggling with the decision of whether to stay.

"Get to know your neighbors. When communities band together and sense that you're not living in isolation," he said, "it's a great help."

Donna Johnson Bullock and her husband moved to Strawberry Mansion after they both graduated from Temple Law School and married in 2004. They are comforted by the relationships they've developed with their neighbors, far outweighing worries about crime in the violent neighborhood.

"Do we not have that conversation when we hear some things? Yes, we have that conversation. We do. We're raising two little boys. We have that conversation all the time," said Johnson Bullock, 34, a special assistant to City Council President Darrell Clarke.

"We've obviously heard about the violence, but we've never felt unsafe, because we know we have neighbors who look out for us," she added.

'Why do you live here?'

When the Bullocks first bought their house, they said, people - both in the neighborhood and among their circle of friends - were puzzled.

"I used to play chess with a kid who asked, 'Why do you live here? Are you really a lawyer?' " Otis Bullock, the executive director for Diversified Community Services in Point Breeze, recalled with a laugh.

"It's not unusual for them anymore to have lawyers living next door to them."

As for what the city can do to retain young adults, most opinions center on finding a way to make it safer.

"Here is something that is not talked about honestly: Neighbors who are stressed out about crime are given a list of homework to do to solve the crime issue," said Kensington resident Jeff Carpineta, a real-estate agent and community organizer.

"We're [told to] now attend sentencings, use the right words to stimulate the 9-1-1 dispatch, get cameras, gather names and license plates, and of course, 'Just hang in there.' But the fact is, who really prevails over the criminals who control blocks and neighborhoods?" he asked. "Cops. Law enforcement. And there just aren't enough."

Harvey said that the things she saw during her commute on the Market-Frankford El eventually made her feel too unsafe to want to stay.

She said that although Regional Rail trains from the city to suburbs are clean and well-kept, the El seemed to be ignored.

"It's kind of hard to answer, because it's complicated," she said when asked if the city could have done anything to keep her here. "I had a great job in the city and loved working in Center City. I think my commute was what did it for me."