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Despite crimes like Sabina O'Donnell slaying, Northern Liberties residents vow to stay

Early Wednesday, as always, Honey's Sit 'n Eat hums. Mark Rounds takes a seat as worker-bee servers refill chubby porcelain mugs with excellent coffee.

At Honey's Sit 'n Eat, left, are friends (from left) Desiree Aguno, Eric C. Deines, Robbie Bennett, and Sue Oneto. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)
At Honey's Sit 'n Eat, left, are friends (from left) Desiree Aguno, Eric C. Deines, Robbie Bennett, and Sue Oneto. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)Read more

Early Wednesday, as always, Honey's Sit 'n Eat hums. Mark Rounds takes a seat as worker-bee servers refill chubby porcelain mugs with excellent coffee.

Rounds, a 57-year-old sculptor who works with recycled objects, has lived in Northern Liberties on and off since the 1970s. "I was here," he says, "before it was here."

Before the homey Standard Tap Room opened its doors, and before Ortlieb's (now come and gone) became a sacred jazz venue. Before residents transformed a squalid corner into Liberty Lands Park, and before Bart Blatstein waved his developer's wand to make the Piazza at Schmidts rise from industrial rubble. Before the average real estate listing hit $480,000, and Psydde Delicious set up shop selling $600 corsets.

Remarkably, Rounds says he still loves Northern Liberties, even though his stepdaughter, Sabina Rose O'Donnell, was murdered June 2 in an empty lot next to the loft they shared a few blocks north on Fourth Street.

On Friday, he plans to be in court to for a hearing for Donte Johnson, 18, who lived less than a mile away and is charged with her rape and murder.

"Sabina's attitude was the same as mine: 'Live and let live,' " says Rounds. "She'd say, 'I don't want to live in neighborhoods where everyone's like me.'

"If you live amongst all kinds of people, you learn to get along," he says, then adds a rueful footnote: "At least that's the theory."

When news first broke about Sabina O'Donnell's murder, the instinctive reaction was to blame gentrification, as if desperate acts of violence are bound to occur whenever affluent white people invade tough urban territory.

But those who know Northern Liberties well - and that includes longtime residents like Rounds, the police, an assistant district attorney, and the head of the Town Watch, who was nearly killed in her own home - say gentrification is not the central issue.

"Like any urban neighborhood, it can be dangerous," says Rounds. "But so can Center City or Queen Village."

Gentrification may play a role, but so do the natural flow of city life, the capriciousness of crime, and the scourge of untreated mental illness.

An arbitrary murder

Angel Flores, area bureau chief for the District Attorney's Office, says one reason the murder received so much attention was that O'Donnell was outgoing and kindhearted, and the attack was so arbitrary. "Something like that - random and violent - hits home much harder than the person taken out when they're on the corner selling drugs."

To assume that she died because she lived near a ghetto is to miscast Northern Liberties as a well-heeled white enclave and to smear North Philadelphia as an unmitigated hellhole, says Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association.

"When people say the ghetto, it's code for poor and black and bad families and young men who are bad seeds," Ruben says. "It's code for people who don't know how to behave. The problem is, it's very easy for that to be a racist way to look at things, and it's not very productive. And if you object to this narrative, then you're labeled a naive, bleeding-heart, knee-jerk liberal. That creates an impasse that makes it very hard to talk about what's really going on."

So what is really going on?

That question has haunted Catalina "Katrina" Mansfield. Two years ago, after being stabbed, raped, and beaten, she found herself on her kitchen floor trying to write her attacker's name in her own blood.

Mansfield grew up in Collingswood. Her mother, who came from Spain, was sheltering and protective. So when Mansfield moved to Northern Liberties in 1995 for a job as a graphic artist, she says, she was naive about city life. She scored a spacious apartment on Fourth Street, with high ceilings, hardwood floors, a small backyard, and a kind landlord who asked only $500 a month. The neighborhood was much edgier then.

"There were lots of empty lots," she recalls, where drug dealers hung out. "I remember a girl walking home from Ortlieb's was killed in her backyard on Lawrence Street."

But as long as she kept her wits about her, Mansfield says, she felt safe. "Who wants to believe that the place they're living is scary?"

Especially people like her who are ideologically inclined to choose frontier neighborhoods before they become hip and expensive.

Mansfield was drawn by the mix of races, ethnicities, religions, and incomes. And she was not afraid, she says, because like many of her new neighbors, she had faith in the goodness of humanity.

In 2002, she met a 10-year-old boy who asked if she had a bicycle she didn't need, because he wanted to start a repair business.

"I was impressed by his resourcefulness," she says. Over the next few years, he and his friends did odd jobs for her to earn pocket money. But as they grew older, Mansfield sometimes felt that they were hustling her: "They were always impeccably polite, but I should have trusted my gut."

About 3 a.m. Nov. 23, 2008, Mansfield's doorbell rang. She opened the window.

She walks over to the window now and shakes her head. "I could lift it then. Now I don't have the strength in my hands."

Outside on that night, she saw Derrick Cook, one of the teenagers. "He told me he was locked out of his house and his mother was mad at him. He said he didn't feel well, so I let him in."

Cook, then 15, towered over the 5-foot-2 Mansfield. "I was thinking, how could I leave him out in the cold? He's just a kid."

She went to the kitchen to get him Tylenol and a glass of water. A carving knife lay on the counter.

As the sun came up, Frank Piacentini was walking his old English lab, Maximus. They had taken their normal route down to Third Street, north to Girard, and up Fourth. But the dog refused to turn left toward home.

"You want to go that way today?" Piacentini asked. "OK. We'll make this a group decision." When they crossed the street, Maximus stopped in front of Mansfield's door and would not budge. Piacentini noticed the door was open.

"Then I heard what sounded like a moan." He walked in and found Mansfield. "It looked like a scene out of a Freddy Krueger movie."

Later he was told that if he had arrived 10 minutes later, he would probably have been too late to save her.

The place has its issues

Piacentini, 56, had a tough childhood in Kensington. He was a fighter who both drew and shed blood. In ninth grade, he dropped out. Later, he earned his GED, attended community college, started a heating and air-conditioning business, married, and raised three sons in Palmyra.

But he missed the city. After his youngest son graduated from Rutgers in 2004, Piacentini paid $135,000 for a lot around the corner from Mansfield and on it built a three-story, 2,500-square-foot house. Today, he says, he couldn't possibly afford the property.

"I love the people here," he says, though the place has its issues. There are factions, for instance, within the community. Young newcomers who rent in the Piazza (known sardonically as "Bartland") do not clean up the parks or join Town Watch activities as much as older residents had hoped.

But almost everyone feels welcome, and relatively few of the original tenants have been forced out by rising prices. In many ways, the community's fundamental character remains unspoiled.

"There's a woman who knits sweaters for newborns," says Lara Kelly, a Northern Liberties resident for 15 years. "I have a tab at the corner store." Kelly, 43, now serves as the only paid staff person on the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association (NLNA). She manages cleanup and recycling projects, organizes programs that help poorer families, and deals with quality-of-life issues like construction noise. Kelly and her partner have a 5-year-old daughter. "It's like the 1950s here," she says. "Everybody watches out for one another."

Flores, of the District Attorney's Office, agrees.

In Northern Liberties, "they never look down on anyone. It's probably one of the strongest communities I've ever dealt with - responsive, cohesive, one that views one's neighbor's challenge as the challenge of the whole neighborhood."

In a city as territorial as Philadelphia, neighborhood borders can seem like fortress ramparts. But boundaries are porous - for worse and for better.

"A few weeks ago, I went to a birthday party at North Lanes," says Spring McCray, who expected the popular nightspot on Second Street to be all-white. "I was surprised how nice it was and that it was mixed. I told my coworkers and the twins' dad, we ought to go back there."

McCray, 44, has twins who attend elementary school in Northern Liberties. She works in King of Prussia and lives in an immaculate Philadelphia Housing Project townhouse off North 11th Street.

Three doors down from her, Donte Johnson lived with his family. The community, McCray says, is quiet and safe. She remembers seeing Johnson riding his bike and playing with his dog, but she never spoke to him; "sometimes, I'd wave to his mom." She feels sorry for her now.

Not envy - property crime

The kind of berserk violent crime that cost Sabina O'Donnell her life and disabled Katrina Mansfield does not stem from envy over nice cars and pretty houses. Property crime does, says Sgt. Mark Nagy of the 26th Police District, and it is up:

"Obviously, there's more theft from autos because there are more people. People move in from wherever and leave their GPS or laptop in the car."

Nevertheless, an argument can be made that gentrification is a factor. "What fits," says NLNA's Ruben, "is that Donte wanted to steal Sabina's bike. But the part where he wants to kill her because she's a witness to stealing a bike? That's not Northern Liberties vs. adjacent neighborhoods. That's just a troubled human being.

"People are messed up in every race and class," he says. "But when there aren't resources to help people, they're more likely to hurt themselves and others."

After the murder, people argued about where the crime actually took place. "She worked in Northern Liberties, visited friends in Fishtown, and went home to South Kensington," Ruben says, "but it was all within a few blocks' radius."

He understands neighborhood pride and concerns about property values, "but at some point, who cares? Across Girard, there's a different feel, but it's not a different planet."

Kelly points out the randomness of the crime. "If he had made a left instead of a right on Girard, he would have been in Fairmount," she says. "Think about that. . . . Every story done about this neighborhood misses the point."

From her window, Mansfield can watch her neighbors pushing baby carriages and walking dogs, and the local eccentric who inline-skates while playing his trombone.

She no longer sees any of the boys who used to come by the house.

Cook, who attacked Mansfield, pleaded guilty to rape, attempted murder, and other charges, and was sentenced to 20 to 45 years. He left her with chronic pain, partial vision in one eye, scars, and some paralysis. She can no longer work and supports herself on disability and insurance payments.

"I'm not leaving," she said. "I'm not going to let him take that from me, too. I love my home."

Between physical therapy, acupuncture, and doctor's appointments, she devotes herself to reviving the Town Watch. "I want to tell people what I wish I had known and try to instill a proper respect for where we are. People don't listen to their gut - or don't take simple precautions, the kinds of things you've got to do when you're in the city."

Rounds, Sabina O'Donnell's stepfather, has not given up on Northern Liberties either. Over scrambled eggs at Honey's, he says that after the murder, he could not bear to stay in his old apartment. But he didn't go far. He found a new space south of Girard.

Rounds is working to turn the memorial in the lot where she was killed into a proper park. "That will probably be the defining aspect of my life until I leave," he says. "If I do leave."

Over the summer, Davis Cook, 18, a freshman at Temple University, moved into an apartment a floor below the one Rounds and O'Donnell rented. Cook grew up in New Hope, which he describes as "somewhat of a bubble," and was eager for an authentic urban experience.

"Honestly, I feel that it's safer to live here now," he says, on the theory that lightning won't strike twice.

"I have come back on my bike at 2 a.m. I probably should feel nervous, but I don't."