“Zombieland.” “Dead man’s row.” “Street of fatherless children.” Those were just some of the nicknames residents rattled off when asked about the 4400 block of North Orianna Street.
But things are changing on that block and changing for the better.
This is one of the blocks bucking the image of Hunting Park, a neighborhood that has a track record of gun violence, prostitution and public use of drugs like cocaine, heroine and crack. This past summer, Philadelphia Police and FBI agents shut down a major drug trafficking ring that was operating out of the neighborhood.
Hunting Park is home to a diverse mix of ethnicities including Hispanics, Puerto Ricans and African-Americans. While the news media has often cited this racial disparity as the source of increasing gun violence over the past decade most residents point towards the many vacant warehouses and obscure alleyway as pivotal in the crime problem.
Rosa Gonzalez has lived in the same house on the 4400 block of North Orianna Street for almost 30 years. She has served as a block co-captain. She said the block wasn’t always dangerous.
“When I first moved here it was all elderly white people. The kids had moved out. It was a beautiful block. It was clean. It was quiet,” she said.
Gonzalez moved to Hunting Park with her 8-year-old son who was just one of two children on the 65-house block. After neighbors began moving or renting out their homes Gonzalez began to see the block change.
“The drugs started coming around. Sometimes I would sit on the steps with the drug dealers and talk to them. I would say, ‘Why are you doing this? You can still pick up your life.’ If they were hungry, I would feed them. It doesn’t matter who it is, nobody should go hungry,” she said.
During an Orianna Street clean up earlier this year, a child found a flashlight stuffed with drugs. The block offers unique hiding spaces, which dealers use as storage, such as deteriorating steps or the gas lines in front of Mildred Thompson’s home.
Mildred Thompson has lived on the 4400 block of North Orianna Street for over 20 years. She said despite keeping to herself, armed robbers still targeted her home recently.
“When I looked up there was a man standing over me. He put the gun to my head and said, ‘Don’t turn around.’ He took all the jewelry that I had. He went into my son’s room and took his laptop and all his money savings. They took my piggy-bank, too,” she said.
Since the home invasion, Thompson has installed a security alarm system in her home. She said she wasn’t aware of the new block captain, Luiza Baerga, thinking that maybe that’s why robbers targeted her.
If there’s one thing–anything–that’s changed in the past year on the block, it’s the emergence of this new neighborhood leader – Baerga.
A Promising Future
Luiza Baerga has focused on making the block safe for its residents.
“I’m just so thankful that everything is so much better now. And even if the drug dealers try to come back here, they can’t. There’s a power and authority much higher than them,” Baerga said.
Angela Robinson has lived on Orianna Street for the past three years. As the new block co-captain, she has seen the changes in the neighborhood firsthand.
“We were that drug block before and now you don’t even see transactions,” Robinson said.
Part of cleaning up the block involved the residents taking back the block from drug dealers.
“We’re not accepting it anymore. They know the cops and detectives have been watching our block,” Robinson said.
In order to keep the block safe, residents have become vigilant and created a neighborhood watch.
The friendships and bonds are what is now setting this block apart from others.
“You have groups of people just sitting down enjoying conversation. It’s more of a family type atmosphere,” Robinson said.
While families may have disagreements, Gonzalez said the neighborhood has been very easygoing.
“You know what’s special about this block is that there aren’t any fights. Everybody gets along with everybody and the children are very respectful,” Gonzalez said.
Residents of this block have been putting in the effort to improve their surroundings.
“We still have our differences just like any family, but the biggest thing is that we’re trying. We have hope that everybody on the block will be pitching in,” Robinson said.
Part of pitching in involves unifying the block with activities. At the start of fall, Orianna Street had a harvest clean up to welcome in the season.
“Everybody was very eager to decorate. That was a good day, that day. They had the spirit of decorating. First they started with the paint. It was supposed to be like a touch-up, not painting the whole house. But then everyone got into it and painting the walls and decorating. I guess they got the autumn fever,” Gonzalez said.
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