Overbrook: Teen Death Sets Back Struggle to Change Neighborhood Image
Tragedy struck the Tustin Recreation Center Thursday afternoon when 17-year-old Bernard Scott was caught in the crossfire of gunshots that erupted during a fight on 59th and Lancaster. Scott was an innocent bystander, police said.
Scott staggered across the street to Little Caesars Pizzeria and was taken to Lenakenau Medical Center by Antwain Gardener. The victim was later pronounced dead.
Two suspects are in police custody.
Tustin Playground is a staple in the Overbrook community but is unfortunately linked to several incidents of violent youth crime.
Tustin is almost non-existent to the eye until you walk through tall, black iron gates to see the assortment of swing sets and jungle gyms crowded with kids. Although the sound of basketballs can be heard a block away, the courts are hidden below street level.
The playground is a region where police are working to be proactive in crime prevention as the weather gets warmer.
“There are certain legendary basketball courts in Philadelphia,” Rashad Guess, police officer for the 19th District, said. “They take basketball very seriously.”
Guess spoke of the courts at a Police Service Area meeting earlier this month.
“A lot of the things going on are the result of basketball games gone awry,” Guess said. “It goes from ‘oh, you fouled me’ to [people] losing their minds.”
Prior to the shootings there were several carjacking issues and narcotic arrests near the playground.
Police and community members have been increasingly concerned with improving Tustin playground since 2010, when three young men between the ages of 18 of 24 were found dead a mile south of the playground.
Crime reports from the Philadelphia Police Department consistently show strings of breaking and entering, robberies and assaults with a deadly weapon.
“You have to make people feel safe,” Greg Allen, a community member, said. “Right now it has a reputation of not being safe.”
Allen explained that youth violence has a domino affect on the community and was shocked the incident occurred.
“When the places reserved for our children aren’t safe, no one, anywhere is safe,” Allen said.
While police are working to increase patrols of the playground during its closed hours, community members are also working to improve the quality of programs offered by the recreation center.
“We had an organization here a while back called the Men of Tustin,” Leroy Beyah-Edney, former vice president of Men of Tustin and recreation special instructor for Tustin Recreation Center, said. “A lot of us started dying off, people lost interest and the job got bigger than the men.”
But Beyah-Edney refused to leave.
“We left a job undone,” Beyah-Edney said. “You do more harm to them [children] doing a job and then leaving than not getting involved at all.”
Edney grew up in the Overbrook area. He went to Overbook Elementary School and Beeber Middle School, but completed his GED diploma in prison. He served 28 years for robberies he committed during his youth.
“I thought I could do something here and help these young people [because] I didn’t want them to end up like me,” Beyah-Edney said. “In the prisons I started to see a lot of crimes committed by young people, younger than I was, and what they don’t understand is the type of time they are facing.”
About 81,000 arrests for suspects under the age of 18 were made in Pennsylvania last year according to the most recent reports by the FBI
“Most of them do what they do because they don’t have anything to do and I think it’s the responsibility of the rec center, in any community, to provide programs that are conducive to the needs of the people in that community,” Beyah-Edney said.
Latif Rogers is an Overbrook resident but attends school in North Philadelphia at Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education School. He started volunteering about a month ago after he got into a fight at school.
“I got in a little trouble with school and I had to do some community service here,” Rogers said. “I’m going to keep working here in the summertime and working with the camp.”
Rogers’ classmates are from various neighborhoods across the city, which is the root of most fights, Rogers said.
“It’s all about where you’re from,” Rogers said. “I just try to stay away from it.”
Neighborhood rivalries erupt in violence in and out of school. Students crossing through another neighborhood to get to school or attending charter or private schools in different neighborhoods are faced with a tough decision to maintain their pride or a clean record.
“Many young people believe conflict is at the end of violence,” Curtis Jones, councilman for the 4th District, said.
“I grew up in the area so I understand the culture of basketball,” Jones said. “But basketball is the bait which life lessons are taught– with the right coaches and mentors involved it can teach kids how to play the game and how to walk away.”
Jones has been working on several safety initiatives for the Tustin area. His plans are to incorporate private and public funding for afters-chool and intervention programs to aid good students as well as troubled youth.
“It’s bigger than a lot of people realize,” Marion O’Connor, cheerleading coordinator for Tustin Recreation Center, said.
“Me and my kids always had that proverbial village to go to and I feel like every
child deserves that,” O’Connor said. “So I’m being a part of the village.”
O’ Connor volunteers her afternoons teaching dance and cheerleading to children in the after-school program at Tustin.
“We need to get back to engaging in these kids because if they don’t have anything to do it’s tough on them,” O’Connor said.
The budget for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation was significantly cut in 2010. Mayor Michael Nutter proposed an $8 million annual plan as part of the Greenworks Campaign, but the amount was rejected.
City Council approved a $2.6 million budget for parks in 2013, which will be fully dispersed in July.
“They need this in their development, especially the younger kids, to keep them off the streets,” Cliff Smith, the football coordinator for Tustin Recreation Center, said.
“They [Tustin] may need to add some more activities, they may need to fix some things up around here like the fields and not allow dirt bikes and stuff on the field,” Smith said.
Both police and civilians are concerned if parks decline, community engagement will decline and crime will grow in vulnerable neighborhoods with open space.
“Money wasn’t placed in the right place to create programs that are conducive to the needs of these children, and now, this [increased crime] is the result of that,” Beyah-Edney said. “We failed and we neglected them, but now we want to blame them for our neglect.”