Spruce Hill and Walnut Hill: Armed Robbers And Increase in Crime Spur Community Safety Efforts

The intersection at 46th and Hazel Streets, scene of one of March's gunpoint robberies.

On the evening of March 12, a resident of the West Philadelphia community was robbed at gunpoint at the intersection of 46th and Hazel streets. Detective Joseph Murray, one of the West Philadelphia community’s main sources for information on crime, released a statement on Twitter about the robbery, stating that the suspect was wearing a gray hoodie and black sweatpants and carrying a silver handgun, and that he fled in a gray vehicle. The victim was not harmed, but his money and cellphone were taken.


This incident is only one of an increasing number of thefts that has occurred in the West Philadelphia area over the last few months.

Specifically in Spruce Hill and Walnut Hill, there have been 21 robberies and 54 burglaries so far this year, the majority taking place between 6 p.m. and 4 a.m. Nine of those robberies and 19 of the burglaries took place in the month of March.

The crime map below, created on PHLCrimeMapper.com, depicts the location of the incidents taking place in Spruce Hill and Walnut Hill between December 30, 2013, and March 31, 2014. The green pins represent robberies and the blue ones represent burglaries, both residential and commercial.

Over a similar period of time a year earlier, there were about the same amount of robberies—20 between December 29, 2012, and March 30, 2013—but 24 fewer burglaries. In March 2013, there were only three robberies and nine burglaries, a fraction of what occurred last month.

A map of crime in the Spruce Hill and Walnut Hill area from December 30 to March 31.
A map of crime in the Spruce Hill and Walnut Hill area from December 30 to March 31.

Despite the rise in burglaries and the relative waning of robberies—according to statistics on PHL Crime Mapper, there were almost two dozen more burglaries and a dozen fewer from January to March than there were from October to December—public consciousness is riveted on the latter crime and many robberies were given individual attention in the local news. This is possibly because of the unusual factor involved in the armed robberies, namely the fact that several victims were approached by a trio instead of a single, armed suspect.

“There’s been a series where it’s been more than one young man together, committing these robberies, sometimes with a gun and sometimes not,” said Patty Bulack, who founded 48th Street Neighbors, a community safety group, about three years ago.

48th Street Neighbors is dedicated to raising awareness and disseminating information about crime and safety through a community network that includes both police and neighbors. Bulack started out by printing flyers and letters and sliding them under neighbors’ doors to alert people to crime in the neighborhood. She now regularly posts news, police information and eyewitness accounts about any incidents on the 48th Street Neighbors Google forum. She also works closely with Detective Murray, who works for Southwest Detective Division, and several members of the Philadelphia Police Department.

“There are several police officers that I began making good relationships with, where I could call them at a moment’s notice, text them when something’s happening,” Bulack said. Detective Murray in particular is a wonderful resource, she said.

“We’ve set up this interesting, organic way that we communicate, which is he sends out [information] on his Twitter feed and if it’s something that I want to know more about, then I immediately text his cell phone and then he generally gives me more information.”

Fran Byers is also an active member in the circles of community safety. She often works alongside Bulack to disseminate information through a community email Listserv.

“As people were witness to or were victim to a crime, they write in and say ‘This is what happened last night,’ or ‘This is what happened to my neighbor,'” she said. “And I’ll certainly forward it to the police lieutenant, to his sergeant, to one of the people who’s active in the town watch, as well as to the neighborhood at large, so people are aware of something that happened and of what area.”

Like Bulack, Byers works closely with the Philadelphia Police Department. She has been the secretary of the Police District Advisory Council for the 18th District since the mid-1980s. She also organizes a monthly meeting between community residents, police and the safety division of the University City District so that the different parties can share information and concerns regarding crime, safety and quality-of-life issues.

Byers said that the best thing that residents can do to protect themselves against robberies is to stay alert. 

“A lot of these crimes are crimes of opportunity,” she said. “People walking along with their iPads, their iPhones, not paying attention to their surroundings and are quickly robbed before they know it. It’s a matter of not being alert to their surroundings a lot of the time.”

An advertisement for the University City District nighttime escort service.
An advertisement for the University City District nighttime escort service.

University City District, she said, has a program in place to protect people walking home at night. “If people are coming home at any hour up until 3 in the morning, you can call …  and you want an escort from public transportation for a couple of blocks to your house, or if you want an escort all the way, you can call them and they will escort you to your house,” Byer said. “They strongly urge you to get an escort if you’re at all concerned about traveling alone.

The Philadelphia Police Department’s 18th District, which serves the area encompassing Spruce Hill and Walnut Hill, sent flyers on both the robberies and the burglaries to Bulack for distribution to the neighbors.

The flyers describe techniques commonly used by thieves and tips on how to keep oneself safe.

Bulack added that neighbors should listen to their guts.

“If you feel uncomfortable, cross the street, turn around, find a lighted doorway, do something different,” she said. “Go in the middle of the street. Shout. Do things in response to when you feel that something’s going to happen.”

Bulack acknowledged that crime in the neighborhood is an ongoing problem, but said that she and other members of the community refuse to throw their hands up and admit defeat.

“I always say that any action prevents you from being victimized again,” she said. “Any time you move from the place of helplessness to the place of action, even if it’s the smallest thing, like putting a letter under a door, which is how I first started, means that you’ve taken a step.”

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