Derrick Ford points to the corner of 32nd and Fountain.
“This corner is vicious. I shot a guy over there,” he said.
“Most of the people I did drugs with are still at it. Often people ask me did I even go to high school,” said Ford with a grin. “I say, ‘I went to school high.’”
Derrick Ford is the self-proclaimed “mayor” of North Philadelphia and he is known as “Rick” in Strawberry Mansion. Not only does he work for the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health, a funding source for substance abuse treatment, but he is also a licensed therapist and a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Police Department’s “Heads Up” program, where he speaks out on the danger and reality of drugs.
He hosts a radio talk show, “This is Your Life,” and a television show, “From the Streets to the Streets,” and he is the founder and director of the Strawberry Mansion Athletic Association.
Although his resume is impressive, he wasn’t always on the right track. Marijuana, alcohol, cocaine, pills, guns, drugs and violence were all too common growing up in Strawberry Mansion.
“My mother was a single parent and my father was not really in our life,” said Ford, “I often tell people my first mistake started in sixth grade.” This was his first experience with cigarettes. He admits he inhaled his first drag because he had no purpose or vision back then. In seventh grade, he started using marijuana and pills. His curiosity for drugs increased in eighth and ninth grade. He moved to alcohol, cocaine and crack. “I dropped out of school at 16 years old. By then, I was eating out of dumpsters and sleeping on the streets,” said Ford.
“I got locked up over some petty bull—-,” Ford said with a groan. He recalled wearing a leather jacket, standing on the corner of 32nd and Fountain. An older woman called the police just as he fired his first shot. “I thought he was a dirty rotten scoundrel and I picked up my gun and fired a few shots. I wanted to blast him,” Ford said with a bit of hesitation, “but I didn’t kill him.”
A pervasive fear of drugs and gun violence threatens the way Strawberry Mansion lives day by day. “Everybody knew who was selling drugs,” said Ford. “We all were. Faces might change but walk to any corner and you can score something.”
Like most who get involved with drugs, problems with money and crime quickly followed for Ford. “In a two-block radius, there was a lot of gun play, young guys shooting at each other. Folks didn’t feel safe here,” said Ford. “You couldn’t sit on your front porch and feel free. It was a war out there.”
“Things have died down since then,” said Ford. Residents are starting to feel safe again.
“There aren’t as many drugs anymore,” said Joseph Green, the owner of B&G Auto Tags on 1351 N. 29th St. “Everyone is happy to see a change it’s not like the way things used to be here with all the violence.”
I asked, “Why are people killing each other?”
“Why?” He paused for a moment. “We are killing each other over senseless murders. A lot of these guys have no education or family structure. Their mother is on drugs and their father is on drugs or dead,” said Ford. “No one is there to enforce education.”
“Aren’t these kids in school?” I questioned.
Ford quickly replied: “No one is there to enforce education or explain the importance. They can get a gun in the streets of Philadelphia quicker than they can get a job. I call it genocide.”
Quick money is accessible but in actuality, residents are killing each other. When Ford was selling drugs, he admitted, he didn’t have respect for anyone. His job was only to sell drugs. “Folks here lost their lives over stupid gun play,” said Ford. “I found my mother on the floor dead.”
He watched his mother slowly die from alcohol and psychotropic drugs. She died at the age of 51 in 1993. Ford’s mother lacked the knowledge about her disease and her addiction. He visits her grave once or twice a week and prays to God. He is adamant about recovering addiction because of his deceased mother and his own personal experiences.
“Things like death make people turn to the drugs and the crime,” said Ford.
Strawberry Mansion has one of the highest murder rates in the city. Out of 25 districts in Philadelphia, it has the second-highest murder rate, according to statistics generated by the Philadelphia Police Department in 2006.
“Drugs are one of many causes of murders,” said Ford. Out of Philadelphia’s 12,844 narcotic arrests, Strawberry Mansion is only outnumbered by three districts with 814 narcotic arrests in 2006, according to the Philadelphia CrimeBase.
Ford still remembers the last day he used drugs on Oct. 2, 1990. The events mark both the quietest day of his life and his spiritual awakening. He put himself into a recovery program and had a second chance at life.
He gives all his credit to God. He received his high school diploma in 1975, finished Community College in 1996 and got a master’s degree from Lincoln University in 2001.
Ford’s mission is to advocate for education, sobriety, respect and peace in his community.
Everybody in the neighborhood knew another influential man as “Pop the Cop,” but his real name was Warren L. Wiggins. He was a beat cop who was a father figure to all the kids in the community. “He taught me how to have respect and unity,” said Ford. Pop died of natural causes 20 years ago, but Pop’s memory is what is ingrained in Ford. “I try to live the legacy and to keep Pop’s dream alive.” Ford is finally doing what Pop taught him to do. He is leading by example.
Ford, who at one time was running from the law, now works collectively with the Philadelphia Police Department Narcotics Division. After his arrest in 1988, he remembers entering the courtroom and having the judge say: “Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you. If I ever see you again, you’ll be spending a considerable amount of time here.”
Ford held his head high with dignity and proudly told himself: “I will be drug free. I will not create havoc in the community anymore.”
Recently, one of Ford’s best friends, Miles Gray, died. He was educated, but he couldn’t stop doing drugs. “I walk in a funeral now and it’s a norm for me,” said Ford. His drive to help the community helps to prevent an early ending to his own life.
Even those residents in Strawberry Mansion who try to help their loved ones end up on the losing side of the difficult battle Ford fights.
Michael Lane, a former resident of Strawberry Mansion, received a telephone call in February that his daughter was in an unhealthy relationship with her boyfriend. In an attempt to protect his daughter, Lane ended up dying. The one shot in Lane’s forehead caused suffering for not only Lane’s family but also the community.
Theresa Ford, Derrick Ford’s sister, is a block captain on Van Pelt Street between Diamond and Susquehanna. She admitted that the crime has increased lately. “Every night there is something going on. It’s a problem. The cops come but it’s up to your neighbors to help out. I can’t do it all by myself.”
Ford said that he’s been off drugs for nearly 20 years, but he still sees what happens. “I can always tell when someone around here is buying drugs. There is a certain walk that an addict had to go and get drugs,” said Ford. “People from the mainline ride up around here to buy drugs. It’s easy, accessible and cheap. It’s a culture, a negative culture of something I want to change.”
But Ford can’t act alone. Drugs affect the lives of every one of the kids growing up in Strawberry Mansion. “I go into schools [with the Police Department’s “Heads Up” program] and students come up to me with their personal stories: ‘My father got killed selling drugs,’” Ford said. “’My mother is prostituting herself. Can you go talk with her?’ The children want help.”
As I rode in the front seat of the metallic Toyota, Ford pointed to one person after another whose lives are dominated by their cravings for drugs. At 29th and Diamond streets, his friend with whom he went to school continues to drink his life away. Another resident happened to kill six people at one time on the very same street.
Some people appear remarkably healthy. Others are sallow and looks like skeletons with hollow vacant eyes and papery skin. Still, they use drugs. A former state trooper continues to smoke crack and use other drugs. He was lying on the steps of his house near 29th and Dauphin streets with clothes and personal items scattered over his entire body. He slowly inhaled the last of his cigarette.
Ford believes residents are afraid to do what’s right in fear of retaliation or in fear of the system failing them. “That’s what happens with our people, we look the other way,” said Ford
“This very moment life is moving rapidly. Folks are dying right now,” said Ford, holding back tears and his eyes red-rimmed from crying. “If I die today, I want my community to know I was a good guy.”
Until then, Ford continues to advocate for a better way of life, “I don’t ever want to go backwards.”