When Hector Colon moved into Fairhill in 1986, it was a much different place from what it is today. According to Colon, the 1990s became a very bloody and crime-ridden time in Fairhill’s history.
“There used to be a drug dealer on every corner, dealing dope, dealing needles,” he said. “People would get shot and die in the streets and nobody would even call the police. Some teenagers even set a car on fire right across the street.”
Since Colon moved into Fairhill more than 26 years ago, he’s raised a family – four biological children and three stepchildren – and acquired two more properties next to his home on 828 W. Indiana St. As his family and holdings have grown, the neighborhood’s calmed down, said Colon.
“Today, there’s murals on the walls and there’s less drugs on the corner,” he said. “It’s pretty quiet nowadays.”
While drugs and violence have gone down, several disparaging sights are still common in the neighborhood – trash, graffiti and abandoned buildings and lots.
Kalli Badolato, the assistant bureau chief of the East Division in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, which serves Fairhill in the 25th District, said these elements have a substantial effect in promoting crime in the neighborhood. She said she subscribes to the “broken windows” theory of criminology, which states neighborhood degradation will contribute to crime, and neighborhood maintenance will stem it.
“’Broken windows’ makes sense,” said Badolato. “You can tell which neighborhoods are bad just by looking at them. You can tell just by seeing lots of trash, chaos and disorder. If you see an area not kept up, you’re more likely to graffiti and you’re more likely to commit other, more serious crimes.”
Badolato first came to the East Division in 1996 when Fairhill was struggling with drug gang “turf” wars. She said she immediately noticed the difference between her native New York City and Philadelphia in terms of the nature of urban crime.
“When I was living in New York, there were smaller pockets of crime, whereas in Philadelphia there were concentrated areas of poverty and violence, like in Fairhill,” she said. “Even today, there are still open-air drug sales, sales which don’t happen behind closed doors, and incredibly lucrative corners. Dealers advertise drugs out loud and people purchase directly on these corners.”
Drug dealers often use abandoned buildings in the neighborhood to sustain their business, said Badolato.
“Drug dealers are not stupid,” she said. “Abandoned properties insulate them from outside intervention, they give them a place to hide drugs and guns and serve as a place for their clientele to smoke crack. Women addicts who are desperate enough for their next fix will even use these places to sell their bodies for drugs.”
Badolato helps oversee the Public Nuisance Task Force (PNTF) and its initiatives in Fairhill. The task force works to bring together residents, police, government agencies and community groups to combat “nuisance” properties such as drug houses, weed stores and houses of prostitution.
A.J. Thomson is an assistant district attorney and has been working with PNTF since 2011.
“Most of the crime in an area like Fairhill is related to narcotics activity,” said Thomson. “Unfortunately, there are areas in Fairhill where the majority of the people on the block may be just regular taxpaying neighbors, but a few of the houses on those blocks are inhabited by people who are not following the law and are using the property to sell drugs.”
Once PNTF identifies these problem houses, it targets the property, seals it off and removes the residents until forfeiture action is complete, said Thomson.
“It gives a lot of satisfaction to people on the block who are not involved in drug activity,” he said. “There are a lot of people who don’t have a familiarity with Fairhill and they just think the whole neighborhood is people selling drugs, which is certainly not the case.”
Thomson said he understands the effect drug-house forfeitures can have on a neighborhood. He, too, grew up in a neighborhood where there was a drug dealer plaguing its law-abiding residents.
“I happened to live on a block where there was a drug dealer when I was a kid,” he said. “We could never get rid of him. Once we did, though, the block turned back to normal.”
“There has been improvement in the neighborhood from investment from District Attorney’s Office,” said Badolato. “Taking away corners, taking away abandoned properties, putting in more greenery – all of these have helped. Community members today are not as hopeless. Although there is definitely more to go.”
Crime data do reflect improvement in Fairhill, Anthony D’Abruzzo vouched, a research and information analyst at the Philadelphia Police Department. Narcotic sales arrests in the neighborhood declined almost 66 percent from its record high of 1,557 in 1999, down to 530 in 2011. As of October, 199 narcotic sales arrests have been made in Fairhill in 2012.
However, homicide, robbery and aggravated assault remain relatively high with nine deaths, 113 robberies and 51 assaults occurring in 2011. Five people have been killed in Fairhill in 2012, thus far. More than 130 people have been murdered in Fairhill since 1997.
Badolato said change in Fairhill needs to come not only from her office, but also from the ground, up.
“Just beautifying Fairhill will not work,” said Badolato. “We need more mechanisms. And most of all, we need more community members who are vocal and who demand the police, city and our office to help them take control.”