Be careful out here,” warned a voice just the other night.
I stopped digging through my purse for my keys and turned around. On the sidewalk below me, a woman passed by carrying shopping bags – whether she was a resident or another student, I couldn’t tell. But her words stuck.
It’s not as if it’s the first time I’ve heard it. Actually, it’s quite a common response when I tell people that I live in North Philadelphia. And had this happened two weeks before it actually did, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about my interaction with the woman. But this time was different.
“Be careful,” didn’t just feel like mere words of advice against some unforeseen danger. The woman was literally instructing me. I’m sure of that, since her warning came just two days after three men followed a girl home to her apartment on the 1800 block of North 18th Street – just one block down from where I live. The armed men forced their way into the apartment where they bound the girl and her three roommates with duct tape while they stole cash, cell phones, computers and credit cards.
I think it’s the first time it felt so close to home. Even after watching surveillance footage on the news a few weeks ago of a Temple student getting mugged by three men – only to realize when they played it the second time that it was my own block of the street – I wasn’t shaking in my boots when I passed that spot at 18th and Berks streets on my way home from work each night.
I’ll admit this is going to come off incredibly naïve, but it’s the truth – I never feel afraid walking in the neighborhood around Temple. Maybe I feel this way because I live on a block heavily populated by students, so other people are often out too. Or maybe because I feel like cops are always cruising by. Philly police, Temple cops, Temple bike cops, you name it. Or the fact that a block from my home sits a high school and beyond that Temple’s very well lit athletic fields. Whatever the case, I felt safe.
And I’m not saying I don’t feel safe now, but I’m definitely more conscious of taking precaution than I was before.
I always had to laugh at the North Philadelphia comparisons to the “Wild, Wild West.” I think Philadelphia City Paper had one of the best headlines in a June 2012 article on the topic: “Cowboy developers are running roughshod over Temple’s neighbors. Is there a sheriff in town?” And really, it still is funny, but maybe I admit I can kind of see the similarities. Illegally dumped construction debris blowing in the wind like dust balls by day, rowdy booze-fueled behavior by night and – of course – armed outlaws. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want to live in a place that could be that closely compared with the Wild West, even if in jest.
Something needs to be done to make the neighborhood a better place to live for both students and residents.
But so far this year, no action has been taken on the bill proposed last January by Council President Darrell Clarke to establish a neighborhood improvement district in the area surrounding Temple. The district, recognized as the North Central Neighborhood Improvement District, would span from Girard Avenue to York Street and west of Broad to 19th Street. Along with regulating the area, it would provide additional cleaning and surveillance services through a tax placed on the university and landlords, mainly affecting those developing and renting to students. All owner-occupied, single-family residents are exempt.
And Clarke does have somewhat of a point in at least suggesting a neighborhood improvement district for North Philadelphia, as it’s worked well for the city at large so far. At present, many improvement districts have helped to revitalize neighborhoods from Mount Airy to Callowhill, as well as all across the city.
With revitalization inevitably comes gentrification, in which some ultimately gain and others sadly lose. The friction produced from the change is unique to that neighborhood, but examples are rampant in the neighborhoods that have experienced the benefits of these neighborhood improvement districts.
But whether or not you have a special services district in North Philadelphia, gentrification is occurring.
And in the same way that I’m more conscious of taking precaution than I was before when walking around the neighborhood, the city should also take extreme care in creating these types of institutions – so that the parties in power are focusing on urban governance and the people affected are guarateed accountability.
Bri Bosak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BriBosak.