Neighborhood tensions between the three sub-communities of Hilltop, Wynnefield and Parkside are a part of life growing up in the Overbrook community. Where someone lives is where his or her identity is rooted.
“They call it riding with their neighborhood,” Naim Bellinger, former police officer at Overbrook High School, said. “The kids hang out together because they hang together in their neighborhood.”
Territorial rivalries perpetuated over multiple generations due to physical barriers dividing the three points of West Philadelphia. However, Overbrook High School and Tustin Recreation Center strive to be places where these barriers are broken and kids are brought together.
“Rec centers are a huge part of the community but a lot of them close so that’s where a lot of violence starts,” Bellinger said.
There are conflicting viewpoints from community members on whether recreation centers facilitate or prevent violence among youth.
“Going to another neighborhood, they [kids] are feeling deprived and frustrated by what they don’t have,” Leroy Beyah-Edney, recreation special instructor at Tustin Recreation Center, said. “They feel like they don’t belong to anything or like it’s not theirs.”
Beyah-Edney advocates more funding needs to go to parks and recreation centers throughout Philadelphia neighborhoods.
“When there’s nothing to do it plays on your psyche,” Beyah-Edney said. “It’s the gateway to something else—something worse.”
In 2010, the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15- 24 was homicide according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the African-American community, homicide is the leading cause of death for young people between 10 and 24 years old.
In Philadelphia, increased homicide rates and youth violence were the driving forces behind increased police patrols and extra-curricular activities during summer months. Although, Mayor Nutter proposed a plan to spend $8 million on parks and recreation for youth in underserved communities, his plan was rejected.
Following the recent death of 17-year-old Bernard Scott, Overbrook High School and Tustin Recreation Center are under more pressure to improve safety or close the neighborhood staple.
“Someone suggested shutting down the rec center and sending more kids down to Parkside,” Beyah-Edney said. “But Parkside has more tragedies than here.”
Parkside playground reported several shootings last summer. In the past month, Philadelphia Crime Reports show three reports of assault with a deadly weapon and 13 thefts within one block of the playground.
The walk from Tustin to Parkside playground shows several reports of assault, theft and one homicide. The hillside clashes are how young people make decisions of where to play.
“These neighborhood divides have been going on a long time,” Will Mega, founder of Men of Wynnefield and life-long resident, said.
“I’m 40 years old, and my entire life there’s never been a playground in Wynnefield,” Mega said. “There is no safe haven.”
A graduate of West Catholic High School, Mega participated year-round in basketball. Now as an adult he is active in trying to engage youth in sports instead of crime.
“We eventually find we have a common bond somewhere,” Mega said. “The way barriers are broken is in sports.”
Students who participated in sports were more likely to have higher attendance, excel in the classroom, develop a positive attitude and become involved in their communities as leaders, according to the Philadelphia School District Athletic Department.
“Basketball is the bait which life lessons are taught,” Curtis Jones, councilman for the 4th District, said.
“We need to invest in programs for kids,” Jones said. “But in today’s fiscal environment it’s difficult.”
Jones has been working with local businesses within the District to form partnerships which sponsor playgrounds and afterschool programs. The primary focus is during summer months.
“As soon as the weather broke, everything broke loose,” Jones said.
Crime data from the United States Department of Justice found violent crime significantly increases in the summer months.
Recreational and youth summer programs can help younger kids avoid gang and territory violence. The City of Philadelphia is continuing a summer city program for children kindergarten through 12th grade.
The Parks and Recreation Department created Neighborhood Camp Sites for kids across the city with activities throughout the summer. Tustin is one of them, specified for kids age 5-12, with activities being held from beginning of July to the middle of August.
With school mergers and closures set to begin after this school year commences in June, extra measures are being taken to ease neighborhoods into the coming school year.
“People look at youth as the problem, but in reality, they’re the victims,” Marvin Debose, West Philadelphia native and graduate student at Edinboro University, said.
“It’s the lack of resources, lack of respect for kids, that contributes to crime in our communities.”
Residents of Overbrook are optimistic these summer programs and recreational activities for kids will curb tensions between communities and aid the transition for students changing schools.
Overbrook: Neighborhood Divides