People gather on the corner of 47th and Brown streets. There are children playing on the Mill Creek playground. There are adults sitting on lawn chairs on the sidewalks. There are people riding bikes. There are people driving by.
There is no crime. There is no drug dealing. There is no gunfire.
In 2000, following the Lex Street Massacre, the Men of Mill Creek was formed. This is a group of men who grew up in the Mill Creek community in the 1960s and 1970s as brothers, classmates, teammates and friends.
Police at the time said the Lex Street killings were the worst multiple slayings in the city in 30 years. Four gunmen opened fire on 10 people in a boarded-up row home in West Philadelphia, killing seven in what was thought to be a drug-related crime.
“Nothing like that ever happened in our neighborhood while we were growing up,” said Donald Long, 60, and senior statesman of the group. Long’s nephew was killed and his sister was shot in the incident. “We started this group to make sure nothing like that would ever happen again.”
The Men of Mill Creek began giving back to their community by their involvement in the Weed and Seed program that began in 1992 and seeks to prevent violent crime, drug abuse and gang activity in high-crime neighborhoods.
From there it was all networking for the Men of Mill Creek. They are now involved with the Philly Works program, the Horticultural Society and the Commerce Department, as well as local schools, churches and organizations.
One of big programs for the 12 current members is lot revitalization. They clean about 100 lots in and around West Philadelphia.
“We do everything, but nothing political,” said Stanford Allen, 53 and vice president of the group. “That’s their own fight.”
The Men of Mill Creek wanted to have a facility for the children and adults in the community to help further their education. In 2005 the members got together and purchased the building at 4656 Brown St.
“This building came from the barber that we knew when we were kids,” said Keith Bell, 44, a member of the group and co-founder of an organization called Generation Next. “He didn’t want the building to go to anyone else.”
Today, there is still a barbershop. The members are also planning to open a small bistro to help raise money for the organization.
On the second floor is a lab full of computers that were donated to the organization. With this computer lab, the organization provides GED classes, computer literacy classes, tutoring and mentoring.
Mike Garret, 51, spent 20 years teaching in Philadelphia. He is now a fifth-grade teacher in Chester and volunteers two hours twice a week to teach a GED course.
“It’s all about being able to give back and get people that piece of paper that says they completed a high school level of education,” said Garret.
The Men of Mill Creek continue to carry on the tradition of sports in the Mill Creek community. Their home turf is the Mill Creek playground, the same place the men played as they were growing up.
They’ve established teams for baseball, basketball, football, handball and track. Many of these sports are open to adults as well as the youth leagues.
“We do like sports and we’re really excited about it, but the educational aspects that the Men of Mill Creek partake in are very vital to the community,” said Steven Whaley, 53, and president of the group. “We’re proud of the things we’re accomplishing here. We’re overachieving, and now people are modeling themselves after the Men of Mill Creek.”
The Men of Mill Creek are committed to giving alternative choices to both the youth and adults in the West Philadelphia community, said Whaley.
“By us being here on the ground, these kids respect us,” said Kevin Fennell, 49, and a member of the group.
“The Lex Street Massacre really gave us a boost to get the children involved in the activities we provide,” said Bell. “Everybody in the neighborhood knows who we are and they know we’re here. We’ve really seen the crime drop.”
A majority of the Men of Mill Creek have full-time jobs during the day, and spend their evenings and weekends actively participating in the organization.
“This is our second job. We are the big brothers here,” said Bell. “When we were growing up there were a lot of gangs, so we tell the children we made it safe for them to grow up here.”
“We’ve known each other for 50-some odd years now,” said John Adams, 50, and chief of operations of the group. “We were all born and raised around here. And our parents taught us to have respect.”
The people of Mill Creek and the West Philadelphia community also have respect for the Men of Mill Creek, said Adams.
The Men of Mill Creek hope that their positive influence and their commitment to tradition, family and community will be passed on to younger generations.
“If this organization ever ceases to exist,” said Derrick Long, 51, “on the tombstone they should write, ‘They tried to make a difference.'”