Phi Le sits with his friends in the warm spring sun outside the Feltonville Recreation Center. Despite the weather, he sits and watches the kids play on the playground with a glum expression. He was born and raised in Feltonville so he knows how hard it can be to grow up in this area.
He talks about the crimes that he has seen with a calm, but sad, voice. Recently, his friend witnessed a girl getting her face kicked in outside a bar by a group of guys.
“Shooting, fighting, drug deals, stuff like that. It gets to the point that it’s normal,” Le said.
Along with being one of the more crime-ridden neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Feltonville’s population is one of the youngest. According to city-data.com, the median age for males is 24, while the median age for females in 27.
“These kids have the odds against them,” said Ed Henninger, the director of the Feltonville Recreation Center.
The Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education found that although coming from a single-parent family is not the only factor in juvenile delinquency, it could be a major factor when it aligns with economic problems. The percentage of single-mother households in Feltonville is 26 percent, which is 11 percent higher than Philadelphia’s average. This in combination with the fact that 36 percent of Feltonville’s population lives below the poverty line shows the troubles many Feltonville kids face.
“Its hard enough to make it with two parents who love and take care of you,” Henninger said. “Its so much harder when you have only one.”
Henninger and his staff try their best to provide the kids with plenty of activities to keep them occupied. They hold after school programs, computer classes, homework help, basketball leagues, dance classes, flag football games, baseball games, men’s softball games, pool services, arts and crafts, puppet shows and a summer day camp.
The summer day camp costs $200 and usually gets about 75 to 100 participants.
Although Henninger is proud of everything his recreation center does he knows that it’s not enough.
“The same kids that are involved in activities are the same ones doing all the bad shit out there. Doing activities is not going to stop them,” Henninger said. “We save less kids than you think.” In his 20 years of experience at the recreation center, Henninger is well aware of the multitude of challenges that the kids in Feltonville experience.
“Feltonville is a transitional community. There’s no stability,” Henninger said. “They don’t have the chance to build long term relationships.”
Many people only live in Feltonville for a short time before moving on to another neighborhood. The community is made up of a lot of immigrants who first move in to get situated and then move on. The percentage of native residents who were born outside the United States is 18.7 percent, which is 15 percent higher than Philadelphia’s average. This causes problems for the kids when they have parents who do not speak English.
“They don’t get a lot of academic support at home,” said Suzin Rigsby, the branch manager of the Wyoming Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia in Feltonville.
Rigsby makes sure that the library provides as many services to the kids as possible. Since she knows that many of the kids have parents who do not speak English, she focuses a lot of her attention on homework help and reading programs.
“A lot of adults don’t work a 9-to-5 schedule. It’s difficult to get parents involved because of their work schedules,” Rigsby said.
Along with the programs for the kids, the library also has ESL classes for adults and they used to have GED courses. But the adults’ work schedules also make it difficult to have strong adult programs.
What Rigsby finds the most frustrating is the poor role modeling that kids receive from other kids. She sees kids getting pressured to join gangs, commit petty crimes and use drugs.
“I’ve known a lot of kids that were the sweetest second graders and by sixth grade, they have been arrested once,” Rigsby said.
Rigsby also noticed the same attitude that Le sees regarding violence in the area.
“There’s a cynicism about violence that it is just the way things are,” Rigsby said.
Rigsby said she once knew a girl who was beaten up by her best friend for no good reason. The girl told her friend that the friend’s boyfriend had hit on her. The best friend felt that she had to beat he girl up to prove her loyalty to her boyfriend. After the beating the best friend told the girl that she hoped they could still be friends.
“She just accepted that this is what had to happen,” Rigsby said.
Many Feltonville residents see the violence stemming from the fact that the community is not very close with each other.
“This is not really a close community,” said Jeannette Herrera, who has lived in Feltonville for all 19 years of her life.
Herrera noticed a lot of petty arguments when she was growing up. She got into a lot of fights and witnessed many more especially while in school.
“There’s good people, but there’s more bad. Every person is in it for themselves,” Le said. “If each person can do one more good deed a day, that’s all you can ask for.”
Le, Herrera and others stated that although there might be a lot of opportunities for young people, they are not clearly advertised.
Many people do not know about all the activities at the recreation center, the library, the Wyoming Avenue Baptist Church or the Muslim American Society. Many had no idea that there was a Boys and Girls Club on Whitaker Avenue. The club holds various after school programs and sports events including a very competitive soccer club.
“I wish that there was more or let us know if there’s more,” said Christina Koch, a mother of two. “I wish there was more to do because that is how they stay off the streets with activities and sports.”