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There’s usually no reason for police to stop on the 3700 block of North 15th Street.
On a cloudy Wednesday afternoon, friends and neighbors communed on porches and came home from work while children played near a basketball court. Many residents didn’t realize it was the one year anniversary of the shootout that briefly but significantly disrupted their lives — and brought intense media focus to the close-knit block.
“This is an up-and-coming Black middle class community,” Cynthia Muse said. “Every house on the block has been rehabbed, filled with people.”
Muse had big plans for the summer. Neighbors were going to host another “Soul” block party. Before COVID came, there were going to be outdoor movie nights in partnership with the local police district, and neighbors were even planning an Erie Avenue festival, Muse said.
She’s the block captain on this North Philadelphia street, where, last year, a man named Maurice Hill engaged in a dramatic, 7.5-hour long shootout and standoff with Philadelphia police. A dozen officers were injured, including six shot, and residents’ homes were riddled with bullet holes.
The gun battle brought national and international media attention to the block and the surrounding North Philly-Nicetown/Tioga area. Reports painted with a broad brush the suspected shooter, the several people who were also arrested that night, and North 15th Street itself: These are dangerous people. This is a dangerous block.
Derek, who asked that his last name be withheld, said he’s lived on the 3700 block for about nine years. He was outside when shots were fired and said he doesn’t blame the media for drawing negative attention to his neighborhood.
“You can only blame the shooter,” Derek said of the negative news coverage. “He’s the one who, you know, fired the shots and did what he did.”
Some neighbors tried to set the record straight. “It’s a very caring and loving neighborhood,” resident Eric Graham told WHYY in October. “It’s like, everybody looks out for each other.”
In the months that followed the incident, various groups set out to mitigate the phenomenon of a “parachute” response that drops into a neighborhood after sensational news, then dissipates.
Councilmember Cindy Bass, in whose legislative district the street falls, partnered with the 39th Police District, block captain Muse and others to host a fall block party. Bass and Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration tapped the building trades unions to repair most of the homes damaged during the violent standoff. Many repairs were made in November.
Today, the windows in the front door of Mary Singleton’s home are still missing.
“The first thing I want to say that everybody on this block got their stuff fixed except for mine and I’m right next door,” Singleton said. “So that’s frustrating.”
Temple University hosted a panel of journalists to discuss covering the event and the importance of community follow-up in November. Those and other community meetings have been stifled by the coronavirus pandemic.
For neighbor Lik Moss, media representation of his neighborhood hasn’t improved. “Not at all,” Moss said. “Looks pretty much the same. Nothing really changed.”
Despite all the difficulties, residents believe some good came out of the traumatizing shooting. For one, Muse said, neighbors are more organized.
“I see cohesiveness, I see cooperation,” Muse said. “They’re actually communicating. So it’s a kinder block. It’s a more unified block.”
An event unique in Philly history
The North Philadelphia shootout was the only event of its kind in the city directly involving police. When the smoke cleared, six officers had been shot, one was injured by shrapnel, five additional officers sustained non-shooting injuries responding to the scene — and a community was traumatized.
Around 4 p.m. on the afternoon of Aug. 14, 2019, officers went to serve a warrant for one of the rowhomes closest to Erie Avenue for suspected drug activity. As children were getting out of school, youngsters were playing in Precious Babies Learning Academy on the corner and neighbors were returning home from work, narcotics agents swarmed the spot and arrested four men.
Then, police allege, they saw a man carrying a duffle bag into a different building. Nearby security cameras, according to various news reports, lack footage showing that happened.
Either way, officers went in for a “safety sweep,” to lock down the house until they obtained a search warrant for that other property — and were met with a barrage of gunfire from Hill, who was inside the rowhome. Police shot back.
Around midnight, after a lengthy phone negotiation with then-PPD Commissioner Richard Ross, District Attorney Larry Krasner, and Hill’s attorney Shaka Johnson, Hill was finally taken into custody, unharmed. He has since been in court for several preliminary hearings, and remains behind bars without bail. The most recent hearing was held this past Wednesday.
Of the twelve injured police, all but one, Officer Ryan Waltman, have returned to work, a police spokesperson said.
No community members were injured during the shootings.
Turns out Hill, the alleged gunman, had only been in the neighborhood a couple weeks. He had an address in Darby and a lengthy rap sheet, and was known to frequent Southwest Philly.
The others who were arrested that night became forever associated with this relative stranger.
“Some of the guys that were arrested had nothing to do with the guy that was the shooter,” said Muse, the block captain. “They were just as surprised as we were.”
Many of those arrested men have since been freed, and have returned to their home to pick up where they left off. Last week, Muse said, those men helped distribute organic fruits and vegetables to neighbors during one of the block’s regular food giveaways.
Community garden, weekly cleanups, DIY basketball court
Now when police visit the block, most of the time they’re just passing through. Speaking to Billy Penn, some neighbors said the relationship with police has notably improved since the standoff a year ago.
Singleton, whose property remains damaged from last year’s shootout, has a daughter who lives in the home and said police come more promptly when called.
“As far as like the [police] harassment, that kind of stopped,” said neighbor Moss, who said he was trapped on the porch of the house where officers served a warrant last year. “That whole thing really started from harassment,” he continued. “They see a bunch of us just hanging out here, they automatically assume drugs.”
The 3700 block remains relatively safe and violence free. There’s been no shooting recorded there since the infamous episode. There’d only been one other gun violence incident on the block in 2019, and hadn’t been any others since at least 2015, when the city began regularly publishing data.
Still, resident Derek said he’d like to see more stories written about gun violence, gun control, and its effects on children.
Ralphael Brown, who said he’s lived there for about five years, said he wants to see more uplifting stories told about his community. “I believe that we should be put in the limelight instead of always being put in a negative light.”
Other neighbors came up with different ideas for positive stories. There’s a community garden at one end, for example.
“We have weekly cleanups,” offered Moss. “Probably one of the few blocks in the neighborhood that still has weekly cleanups.”
And there’s always politics. “What about Trump? Can we talk about Trump?” block captain Muse said. “Y’all ain’t coming in here talking about Trump. What, y’all don’t think we got an opinion?”
Neighbors also hope for stories that draw attention to regular neighborhood issues. The block is dealing with a rat infestation with minimal city intervention, for instance.
Moss mentioned the lack of recreation facilities nearby. “For years, we ain’t have no after school activities,” Moss said. “No basketball court. Nothing for kids to do. We had to buy a basketball court and put it out here.”
And like many other communities, folks are just waiting and hoping for the pandemic to pass.
“After COVID, we expect to pull more events and things together for our community,” Muse said. “Because we are getting along much better today than we did before the shooting. Seriously.”