The 400 block of South Street in June 2022

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When an early June altercation on South Street spiraled into a shooting that killed three people and wounded 11, national news outlets played up concerns the area’s nightlife was encouraging violence.

A Billy Penn analysis of police reports along some of the most commercially active blocks of South Street, however, found that not only do shootings seldom occur, but the business district is also among the safest in Philly.

Some headlines in the wake of June’s South Street tragedy, which happened on a busy Saturday evening, compared it to mass shootings in Chattanooga and Buffalo with zero acknowledgement of how often physical violence in Philly escalates into gunfire. Other news articles warned people to stay away from South Street — and Philadelphia entirely — out of safety concerns. A few used the incident to connect District Attorney Larry Krasner’s policies around misdemeanor offenses to increased gun violence.

“It’s the rhetoric around the incident that bothers me the most,” Jenea Robinson told Billy Penn. She owns Marsh + Mane, a natural hair care store on the corner of 4th and South that specializes in Black beauty products. When she opened the store in 2018, Robinson said South Street was one of the few neighborhoods that welcomed her business.

Now, she is dismayed by how the shooting was framed. “The details of the incident are being reported factually,” Robinson said, “but I think this was used in a political way to push a particular agenda.”

Pedestrians crossing from South Street to the Delaware Waterfront Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Eleanor Ingersoll, president of the Queen Village Neighbors Association who has lived adjacent to South Street for 23 years, told Billy Penn that shootings “don’t scare” her away from South Street, but they are concerning. These concerns manifest differently for business owners and longtime Queen Village residents. Everyone, it seems, wants to see the street become safer for all to enjoy, but there’s little agreement over what constitutes danger in the first place.

“I’m more worried about these low-level crimes creating a wellspring where ‘everything goes,’” Ingersoll said, arguing that city departments need to work together to monitor how bars, clubs, and BYOBs are enabling crime with lax policies around drinking.

“When we have things like public urination, defecation, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and noise violations and you don’t see police pursuing it … that has quickly translated into ‘You can do what you want on South Street with no accountability,’” she elaborated.

Billy Penn’s analysis did not show any correlation between the frequency of infractions like disorderly conduct and weapons-related incidents.

“I don’t know if the tragedy … can be tied to a specific business,” said Mike Harris. As executive director of the South Street Headhouse District, Harris works with approximately 450 area businesses to improve community and business relationships. He believes most of what residents and outsiders know about South Street is anecdotal.

Since data analyses generally focus on larger areas like zip codes or police districts, there previously has been little substantive information about where, when, and how crime occurs on the bustling strip.

A block-by-block review can be key to understanding what’s actually going on, especially since speculation has gradually pitted Queen Village’s majority white and affluent residents against a business district that has long welcomed a diverse array of storefronts and patrons. As of 2019, Queen Village was just over 70% white, while South Street has a long, separate history as a hub for Black activism, commerce, and entertainment.

“To those residents that believe that a hookah lounge is contributing to this crime, I ask, ‘How do you explain the criminal activity happening [in other neighborhoods] where there isn’t a hookah lounge in sight?’” Marsh + Mane owner Robinson said.

Crime on South Street is low

Over the past 7 years, the South Street business corridor averaged 191 crime incidents annually, which is similar to other stretches of nightlife in Philly.

Similarly bustling corridors in other areas of the city experienced totals that mirrored these five blocks of South Street. For comparison, the blocks of Walnut Street between 11th and Broad that house much of the Gayborhood’s nightlife experienced 204 incidents in 2019. The restaurant-filled blocks of Sansom Street from 18th to City Hall had 100 reports for the same year.

The vast majority of crime reported on South Street is minor offenses. Theft alone accounted for over a third (35%). Other common infractions were vandalism and fraud. Just over 2% of all incidents involved a weapon.

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Some residents have asserted so-called “quality of life” crimes, such as loitering, propel increases in more dangerous offenses, like aggravated assault. Ingersoll, of the QVNA, claims the presence of ATVs and rowdy bar patrons on South Street precipitated the shooting that occurred in June.

Billy Penn’s data shows little evidence of a yearly increase along the South Street corridor. There was also no significant change after DA Krasner decriminalized a number of minor offenses in February 2018, including marijuana possession and some prostitution violations.

From 2017 to 2018, only the 400 block of South Street saw a small increase in the total number of incidents. The other four blocks along the corridor saw decreases. Across the area, crime rates briefly rebounded in 2019 but then dropped after the pandemic hit in 2020.

At a recent Queen Village Neighbors Association meeting, attendees repeatedly raised concerns about nuisance businesses and ATVs, which they said were driving them away from South Street.

“We want to patronize businesses,” Ingersoll said. “When people drive down the sidewalks, drive the wrong way, or do donuts in the street at three o’clock in the morning [it can breed fear].”

Business owners in the South Street Headhouse District have their own set of safety worries, said Harris, the SSHD executive director. Their priorities are dealing with shoplifting and staff getting harassed, he said.

“In fact, the majority of our businesses are closed during the nighttime hours,” Harris said, so he’s unsure if stricter curfews or increased evening police presence would address those issues.

For Robinson, who owns Marsh + Mane, the divide between the business district and the surrounding residential blocks runs deeper than different closing times.

“Some people want to whitewash their business corridor,” she said. “There are certain residents that don’t want sneaker shops, or hookah lounges, or anything that they think would bring people who they deem ‘undesirable.’”

Violent crime is exceedingly rare on South Street, including shootings

While crime is generally low on South Street, reports of violence are especially rare, accounting for only a handful of incidents each year.

In the 7-year period analyzed by Billy Penn, there were only two homicides — one in 2015, and June’s nationally-covered, 14-victim shooting. The few weapon-related incidents that do occur tend to be aggravated assaults and robberies.

The number does appear to have ticked up in recent years. From 2015 to 2019, between 1 and 4 incidents were recorded each year. The corridor experienced a small uptick in violent crime during 2021, with 7 total incidents that year.

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Even accounting for this recent increase, the numbers show that South Street is one of the safest areas in the city.

Other areas populated by bars and restaurants also experience small quantities of weapons-related infractions, even when they see higher rates of overall crime. For example, the 3-block stretch of Walnut Street within the Gayborhood and the 5-block stretch of Sansom Street from Rittenhouse Square Park to City Hall both experienced fewer than 5 incidents each year.

Harris believes frequently-cited safety concerns can often conflate real tragedies like the recent shooting with minor inconveniences that are expected of a busy commercial area.

“The boom cars, the loud noise, the things that agitate the neighbors a lot … Sometimes, that’s just South Street,” he said, noting that managing a busy public area can provide its own set of challenges.

When shootings do happen, they occur in two clusters — and victims are mostly Black

Shootings are rare in Queen Village. Prior to this year, the neighborhood saw some of the lowest rates of gun violence in the city, averaging less than 10 victims per year even as the city overall saw shootings creep upwards from already record-high rates.

Even accounting for the June shooting that killed 3 and left 11 injured, Queen Village is not on pace to become a gun violence hotspot. The neighborhood logged 51 victims over the 7-year period from 2015 to 2022, while “hotspot” areas of the city like Kensington and Feltonville saw 70+ shootings each year.

Per Billy Penn’s analysis, shootings in the Queen Village neighborhood tend to happen in two places. One is on South Street, at the 300 block that houses the Theater of Living Arts, cheesesteak shop Ishkabibble’s, and an assortment of pubs. The other is toward the southern end of the neighborhood, near Washington Avenue, at the two residential blocks along the 900 and 1000 blocks of South 5th Street.

Shooting victims in the area are also overwhelmingly Black and male, a stark contrast with Queen Village’s overwhelmingly white residential population. From 2015 through 2022, 48 of the neighborhood’s 51 shooting victims were Black. The other three were white.

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This follows overall trends for Philadelphia, where young Black men are overrepresented among the gun violence victims. But the contrast stands out, given South Street’s history as a haven for Black activists and business owners in a city that can’t escape the legacy of redlining.

Now, a lack of consensus between residents and business owners is shaping conversations about crime and safety — and ultimately who the neighborhood is for.

“When I hear people say it’s unsafe, I often say, ‘Let’s set the aberrant [shooting] aside,’” said Harris, the South Street Headhouse director. “I think there’s a confusion sometimes between uncomfortable and unsafe.”