At a moment when cries about the end of journalism reach a high pitch, two local tabloid reporters in Philadelphia demonstrate that gumshoe reporting is still alive and more relevant than ever. Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Lake’s “Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love” is a first hand account of two reporters efforts to uncover wrongdoing in the local narcotics unit. Through their work, Ruderman and Laker prove to pessimists that traditional newspaper reporting still has a place in the changing field of journalism.
The opening lines of “Busted” read like a thriller novel. In a short 242 pages, authors Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker, two intrepid investigative reporters with the Philadelphia Daily News, bring readers into the darkest corners of the city where the line blurs between crime and crime fighting. Immediately Ruderman and Lake drop us into the life of Ventura “Benny” Martinez, a former confidential informant for a corrupt Philadelphia narcotics officer who becomes a major source, at a point where the fear for his own life drives him to seek help from these two reporters. “His pudgy, sweaty fingers gripped the handle of a .44 Ruger equipped with an infrared laser to illuminate whoever would be coming for him,” they write. Through the story of uncovering a trail of police misconduct, Ruderman and Laker shed light on a newspaper industry at the brink of collapse, the balance between motherhood and reporting and the stubborn brotherhood that kept corrupt police protected from justice.
In “Busted”, Ruderman and Laker become characters in their own story. Laker, a “sweetheart” who was “oblivious to her ability to make men’s heads turn,” and Ruderman, a “crass” and “pint-size” reporter, become our heroines. They take us into the dusty bowels of the city’s court records where they shuffled through hundreds of search warrants with Laker in “knee high leather boots.” We walk with them from home to home looking for past informants, at one point Laker retelling her account of how she was slapped by Tiffany, another confidential informant. Multiple times through the book, we share their moments of giddiness and excitement as one tip leads to another sordid detail in this network of crooked cops terrorizing the city.
The most novel moments come during the authors’ honest portraits of how they struggled to balance motherhood, dating and reporting. These points in the book remind readers that reporters are not machines, but people who share some of the same insecurities and fears as others. Ruderman describes her son’s jabs at his mom over his frustration that she barely was home. At one point when Karl, Ruderman’s husband, went to the grocery and left Ruderman with her two boys, one asked, “Mom, are you babysitting us?” Laker’s story about how her marriage crumbled before she began her reporting that would lead to a Pulitzer Prize adds depth and sincerity to her character as a relentless reporter.
Their story is as much about their pursuit to root out police who terrorize the community they are charged to protect as the role that “traditional” journalism continues to play in our society. This sub-plot put their reporting in context with the times. As the two reporters pursued a Pulitzer Prize winning story, the edifice of journalism crumbled around them. But the story doesn’t end on a pessimistic note. Instead, it will leave readers with a taste of Ruderman and Lake’s infectious courage and how that courageous reporting will never die, but continue to reinvent itself through new institutions.
NORTHEAST PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – Cecelia Kihm’s life changed the day that two strangers knocked on her front door.
It was April 19, 2011. Kihm, 51, a freckled, sandy-haired pre-school teacher, was at home in her green-carpeted living room watching the television show “Ellen.”
She opened the door to two Army soldiers, standing in uniform on the concrete steps in front of her brick rowhome in the Castor Gardens section of Philadelphia.
“When I looked at them, heat just went down my body,” she said.
Her baby-faced 19-year old son, Johnny, had deployed to Afghanistan a month earlier. Several members of his unit had died already, including three that week.
She invited the soldiers in. After taking a few seconds to collect her thoughts, she asked them to deliver the news.
Her son was dead, they said. Killed in combat.
During sleepless nights since Johnny had enlisted, Kihm told herself that if this day ever came, she wouldn’t react like characters do in movies. No violent crying, no denial, no hitting the messenger.
But she was overridden with grief. She kept saying, “It’s too soon. It’s too soon.”
She went upstairs to tell her oldest daughter, Marybeth, who was 24 at the time.
“I didn’t even know how to say it,” Kihm said.
Her husband John, just returning from work, collapsed in agony when he saw the two men in his living room. He cried on the adjacent dining room floor.
And Kihm’s middle child, daughter Meghan, who was then 21, threw up after she was told.
“It was horrible,” Kihm said.[audio:http://pavementpieces.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Kihm1_1-2.mp3|titles=Reaction to visiting soldiers]
This scene – a family torn apart by news of a young soldier’s untimely death – is not uncommon. As of April 28, 2012, nearly 6,500 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan since the Afghan War began in 2001. Thousands more have died in non-hostile situations, through circumstances like training exercises, illness, or by suicide.
But all military families who lose a loved one have to deal with a variety of unique challenges, according to Ami Neiberger-Miller, a public affairs officer with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS).
“The experience of military loss is so unique,” she said.
According to TAPS research, more than 80 percent of military deaths are traumatic and unexpected, catching family members by surprise. Military families are often thrust into the spotlight after the death, forced to take up the role of spokespeople to the media and strangers who want to honor the family and the fallen soldier. And some military family members suffer from insomnia, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There’s no rulebook to guide families and help them,” Neiberger-Miller said. “It’s a long journey.”
For the Kihms, just over a year after Johnny’s passing, the sadness that comes from being one of those families, shrunken by war, never ends.
“I always feel like I’m stuck in that two week period, from when we found out until when we buried him,” Kihm said. “It doesn’t feel like we just had a year. It doesn’t feel like it at all.”
Marybeth, now 25, put it more succinctly.
“It sucks,” she said.
“If you’re going to be in it, you’re going to be in it.”
At Cardinal Dougherty High School, Johnny ran cross-country and wrestled. But he was especially drawn to the Marines “Delayed Entry Program,” which gives individuals under the age of 18 a chance to work with soldiers to prepare for enlistment at a later date.
Once a week, he trained with the Marines, and throughout high school he dreamed of enlisting after graduation.
In March of his senior year, though, he changed his mind. After high school, he spent a semester at the Abington campus of Pennsylvania State University.
But his interest in the military wouldn’t stay suppressed for long. After his first semester of college, Johnny returned home for Christmas break and told his parents he had made up his mind: he wanted to enlist.
Kihm wasn’t exactly thrilled, but she had told her son when he was in high school that she would support him if he decided to join.
“I knew that’s what he wanted,” she said.
Johnny and his parents considered both the Marines and the Army, and eventually decided that the Army would be a better fit. He enlisted, and on March 1, 2010, deployed to basic training at Fort Benning, in Georgia.
“I really thought he was going to be alright.”
In June 2010, after completing basic training, Johnny moved to Fort Drum, N.Y., with the 10th Mountain Division infantry unit. He was supposed to stay there until May 2011, when the unit would be deployed to Afghanistan. But the deployment date was moved up two months. They shipped out on March 17, 2011.
Kihm had two phone conversations and four Facebook chat sessions with Johnny while he was overseas. She kept a record of all the interactions in a datebook.
“I would sit by the computer and just look for that little dot to appear,” she said, waiting for him to sign on to Facebook.
Her last phone call with him was on April 15, 2011. The conversation was brief, but he said they would talk more later.
He died four days after the call.
Before Johnny’s death, the possibility of losing her son never felt real, Kihm said. But now, the reality is inescapable.
“Some days it’s more like day one than day two,” she said.[audio:http://pavementpieces.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Kihm-2_1-2.mp3|titles=Cecelia Kihm]
“All this wouldn’t have happened if that wouldn’t have happened.”
While the Kihms grapple with Johnny’s death on a daily basis, they have also found various ways to dedicate themselves to new causes in his memory.
John, Johnny’s father, has taken up volunteering at the Philadelphia Veterans Comfort House, a shelter for homeless veterans.
Cecelia sends boxes of supplies – cigarettes, magazines, Red Bulls – to Johnny’s unit (a pack of cigarettes is accompanied by a note, telling the soldier on the receiving end that they have to promise to quit smoking).
One of her more recent efforts was to style pillowcases for the unit members.
And after finding out that the soldiers don’t have anything to put into the pillowcases, she decided that her next goal is to figure out a way to send the troops pillows.
Together, the Kihms established a foundation – the Pfc. Johnny Kihm Memorial Fund – that, among other activities, is raising money through events and t-shirt sales to refurbish a United Service Organizations lounge for military members at the Syracuse airport, near Fort Drum (the Kihms declined to say how much money they’ve raised so far).
And they’ve received countless gifts, tokens of support and donations in Johnny’s name – occasionally from complete strangers – which they in turn donate to the foundation, or use to buy supplies for the care packages.
Ingrid Seunarine, a bereavement counselor in New York City who directs grief counseling programs for Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens, said that it’s common for people to donate time and energy to various causes after the death of a loved one. Doing so, she said, can help individuals cope with the loss, while also honoring the memory of the deceased.
“You have to keep that connection in your heart,” she said.
“It never stops.”
In the year since Johnny’s death, the Kihms have been visited by scores of wounded warriors and other supporters, wishing to pay their respects to the fallen soldier’s family.
Kihm said she has a deep sense of gratitude for the gestures and the soldiers who go out of their way to support them, especially those in the 10th Mountain Division.
“I feel like they’re mine,” she said.
But she also said that at times, unexpected visits, combined with the milestones that pass without her son – Memorial Day, 9/11, his unit’s first extended period of leave – can make it feel “like the viewing day never stops.”
After a few hours of talking about Johnny, with the smell of a home-cooked meal wafting through her living room, the pain in Kihm’s heart surfaced. With her eyes welling up, she recalled a moment that happened at Johnny’s funeral.
During the ceremony, she said, she reached out and touched her son’s closed casket.
Then she put her hand on her husband. Marybeth had her arm around him as well.
Kihm then whispered to Meghan, telling her to reach over and touch Marybeth.
And they formed a chain, linking Meghan, to Marybeth, to John, to Cecelia, to Johnny.
“We were all holding each other,” she said, her voice quivering.
Later that day, the Kihms would bury Johnny at the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia.
But at that moment, they sat together as a family for the last time.
“It was beautiful,” said Kihm, fighting off tears.
PHILADELPHIA- At the corner of North Broad and Vine Street the men of Philly ReNew sat around a long conference table and waited with journals in hand on the first Friday of December.
A broad-shouldered man with a smooth, authoritative voice, stood up from the group and read.
“Through this congregation, through us being together, I’ve got a new belief in how to deal with things in life,” said Benjamin Wright, 47 of Philadelphia, a participant of Philly ReNew. “I got a different kind of pride and I’ve got a different kind of idea and this old battleship will float again.”
Philly ReNew, an ongoing 12-week program conducted by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, was created to help fathers with criminal backgrounds find employment and improve their overall quality of life during the transition from prison to community. Groups of members are called cohorts. Each cohort participates in ReNew’s two phases: life skills education courses at the Pennsylvania Prison Society and case management — utilizing the skills learned during the first six weeks to help members find employment — at the National Comprehensive Center for Fathers in Philadelphia, PA.
Although the focus is on job placement, ReNew takes the process one step further.
“We realized journaling is very therapeutic,” said Pamela Superville, ReNew Program Manager. “We have something in the room called black box journaling.”
The concept of ReNew’s black box journaling is simple: the men of ReNew share entries out of their journals.
Members are encouraged to write in their journals every day to promote positive thinking and actions. During readings, participants are given a chance to discuss entries and reflect on their own experiences to relate with one another — helping each other identify and work through the difficult life situations that can occur post-prison, at home and pre job placement.
“Time to choose the road less traveled and it makes sense to me now, that on a road less traveled, there will be less traffic, so if I stay in my lane there’s nothing but checkered flags and victory laps,” read one member.
Members stayed positive and supportive of each other. They clapped, hollered and praised peers for their passionate prose during journal readings.
In order to participate men must be 18 years of age or older, high school graduates, unemployed or living below poverty level and a legal parent of a minor child, because ReNew is a father initiative program — helping the men become better, more responsible parents.
Cameron Holmes, ReNew Life Skills Educator and Job Coach, draws on his own criminal history to motivate group members to change the way they think, act and cope with the difficult issues that arise after prison.
“The 22 years I spent away, although I didn’t think it was just or fair … I understood it,” Holmes said. “But I really think it makes it not a waste if I’m able to help someone else avoid going through that same situation.”
Paul Mowatt, originally from Camden, NJ, came to ReNew to hone his interviewing skills for job placement, but discovered how love can be more powerful than money.
“My son’s birthday is Sunday and I can’t go out and buy him anything,” Mowatt whispered from his journal, “but I can show him my love. Mr. Holmes told me that … I don’t have to focus on what I can’t do and focus on what I can do.”
PHILADELPHIA – Like a sheriff without a badge, outgoing Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell called his career-long quest to stem the gun violence in his state “an abject failure” and “a lost cause” in a conference call earlier this month with Philadelphia reporters. In the Wild West of Pennsylvania state politics, Rendell acted as if the masked robbers had ultimately overrun the general store.
One thing is for sure, however, whether you’re a cowboy or a bandit, you will not have trouble obtaining a firearm in the state any time soon.
Despite municipal homicide rates that are double or even triple the national average, Pennsylvania continues to be one of the easiest places in the country to illegally buy a gun, thanks to a General Assembly too cowed by the state gun lobby to pass reform legislation, said State Representative David Levdansky.
“We have a legislature that is risk averse to do anything that would offend the NRA,” he said.
In 2008 Levdandsky ran up against the politics of gun reform first hand, when he was asked by Governor Rendell to sponsor the Lost and Stolen Amendment. Lost and Stolen is a law that would require gun owners to report their lost or stolen firearms, thereby both absolving themselves of responsibility and cutting down on the black market business of selling “lost” guns for a profit on the street.
Levdanksy, who is white and an avid deer hunter from Westmoreland County in the 39th District, was tapped to prove to the outlying counties that the amendment was in fact a reasonable, “common sense” law that did not infringe on anyone’s 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. But Levdansky’s calls fell on mainly deaf ears, and the law was voted down despite support from the Pennsylvania State Police, Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association and Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association.
“You have what I call the gun rights extremists,” Levdansky said, “Who take the position that they will accept nothing at all. … [They] want to use any piece of legislation that is introduced as a political motivating tool.”
A spokesperson for the NRA-ILA, the branch of the National Rifle Association committed to legislative lobbying, denied the effectiveness of Pennsylvania’s proposed gun bills, stating that they have no impact on cutting down crime, and instead exit merely to make life more difficult for licensed gun owners.
CeaseFirePA, founded in 2007, is now attempting to create some political clout of its own in an effort to finally challenge the NRA for control over Pennsylvania’s guns. Joe Grace, the organization’s Executive Director, said that while he’s disappointed Lost and Stolen did not succeed, the act of even brining it to a vote represents dramatic progress.
“It was the first vote on a gun bill in ten years,” Grace said. “Then we really got to work.”
In the intervening two years, CeaseFirePA has pushed cities across the state to pass their own versions of the state bill, and today 47 different municipalities have some kind of similar ordinance on the books.
“There’s never really been a sustained viable alternative to the gun lobby,” Grace said. “That’s what we’re seeking to build.”
Grace said the issue highlights the regional divide between Pennsylvania’s urban and rural districts.
“Folks couldn’t get the issue out of Philly,” he said. In fact, Harrisburg, the state capital, has the highest per capita murder rate in Pennsylvania, and statewide more than 1,200 people die annually from gun-related incidents.
Grace denied that race played a significant part in the political wrangling.
“It is true that a disproportionate number gun homicides involve people of color,” Grace said, “In fact, young men of color. But I think the issue doesn’t really play itself out [in the state capital] as a quote on quote racial issue.”
Racial issue or not, Representative Levdansky does not share Grace’s relative optimism on the subject. Voted out of the Senate in November, Levdansky sees a long uphill battle for gun control advocates following the election of conservative gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett into the statehouse.
“I think the prospects are dire at this point,” he said, echoing Rendell’s own gloomy predictions.
Corbett has already publicly stated he would sign into law the so-called “castle doctrine” bill if it passed across his desk. Such a bill would expand citizens’ right to shoot in self-defense, a right they already have in Pennsylvania. Governor Rendell vetoed just such a bill in November, believing it would encourage a potentially tragic, “shoot first, ask questions later” sort of mentality, he said.
As the legislature remains paralyzed, guns continue to flood into the state, with more than 4,000 people barred from obtaining a Pennsylvania weapons permit carrying instead a legal permit from a less restrictive state like Florida.
PHILADELPHIA – At first glance the pure white cat seemed asleep, serenely impervious to the empty liquor bottles that encroached on its resting place in a trash-strewn alleyway on the 3000 block of North Philadelphia’s 32nd Street. The cat was in fact dead, a feral victim gone completely unnoticed in North Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, an area with a violent crime rate consistently ranked in its city’s top percentile. This dubious honor made more infamous by Philadelphia’s homicide rate, which currently hovers just above three times the national average.
Gun violence is a daily way of life in Strawberry Mansion, where according to several residents, obtaining a pistol is as easy as walking up to a corner and asking for one, and where the specter of violence leaves no one in the community untouched.
Rick Ford knows all about life on North Philadelphia’s streets. Ford was born in raised in this neighborhood. He learned to hustle during the heyday of Philadelphia’s crack epidemic in the 80s and 90s, when at least one murder occurred every day.
“Twenty years ago I was the villain down here,” Ford said, gazing down Diamond Street’s stretch of redundant row houses. As a result of this “street lifestyle,” he also spent a period of time homeless before finally deciding to turn his life around in October of 1990.
Standing outside a local church on a recent Saturday morning, Ford looks more like a politician than a former drug addict. His expressive eyes are muted behind a pair of Armani dark glasses, and his black overcoat and crisp white shirt covers the scars left by old bullet wounds.
As he stands talking on the sidewalk, various members of the community stop their cars to pay their respects. It’s not for nothing that people in the neighborhood refer to him as the Mayor of Strawberry Mansion.
Today, Ford runs a youth athletic league, is a leader in the community organization Men United for a Better Philadelphia and gives talk at schools about the allures and dangers of guns and gangs.
But in an area flooded with illegal firearms, the temptation for some can be overwhelming — with potentially lethal consequences.
“These kids can get a gun quicker than they can get a job,” Ford said. “If I needed a gun now, I’d just go right to a corner.”
As he said this he pulled out his cell phone with a flourish and dialed his nephew Lance — not the nephew now in jail for murder, but the one, currently at home after his latest stint in prison — to prove how easy it was in fact to find a gun.
Ford concentrates his efforts on the youth of the neighborhood, the kids who have not yet become entrenched in the cycle of crime and recidivism. What frustrates Ford is that the new generation’s motivations for violence seem to be growing ever more trivial.
“What’s all this killing about?” he said. “We’re the only culture killing each other. It’s black on black crime, senseless stuff, senseless nonsense.”
For Ford, sports have the potential to be so much more than a casual game played between teammates. Baseball is a chance to bring kids from different blocks together, to inspire a sense of camaraderie that transcends whether you live on 30th or 32nd Streets, and can be the difference during a territorial dispute turned violent. An argument that might before have been settled with an exchange of blows is now just as likely to include a splattering of bullets.
Tyrone Williams, community liaison for the Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood Action Center (NAC), feels the weight of neighborhood killings just as Ford does. He sometimes finds himself wondering whether he did enough to try and stop them.
“[Violence] cuts through the fiber of the community,” Williams said. “It tears it thread by thread. If the guns weren’t so easy to get, I don’t think these murders would occur. Some people just act differently when they have a gun.”
In an affirmation of the heartless nature of the violence, Williams’ boss at the NAC, Executive Director Lenora Jackson-Evans, had her own son killed in March of this year.
The question of how these guns find their ways so easily from under the countertops of licensed weapons dealers and into the pockets of repeat offenders and teens is a complicated one, with both city, state and national implications. In the past few years, several gun control laws have been proposed in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, only to be voted down in the face of a well-organized, well-funded gun lobby.
Last month’s November elections were not encouraging for advocates of gun control legislation, with the Democratic Party losing its tenuous control of the House and Governor’s Office.
In response many cities, including Philadelphia, have passed their own versions of bills like the Lost and Stolen Amendment, a law meant to crack down on an illegal weapons trafficking tactic known as straw purchasing.
In a straw purchase a buyer who is licensed to own a firearm sells them to unlicensed buyers under the table. A felony under federal law, these transactions provide a simple means for someone without a permit to buy a weapon. The Lost and Stolen Amendment makes this process harder by forcing permit holders to report missing weapons.
Philadelphia’s Lost and Stolen Amendment was passed in 2008, along with four other gun ordinances, all of which were immediately challenged in court by the National Rifle Association. Two were ultimately struck down because of a state preemptive statute that limits the rights of cities to enact their own gun control policies.
“[The ordinance] does some good,” said Martha Johnston, a senior attorney for the Philadelphia City Solicitor’s Office. “But it would be better if it were statewide.”
Gun control ordinances enjoy a diverse base of local support including Mayor Michael Nutter and the City Council, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey and the grassroots organizations that rallied in support of gun reform, including CeaseFirePa, Mothers Against Guns and Mothers in Charge.
According to a 2008 study published by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, in the seven states already enforcing a Lost and Stolen requirement, there is a 67 percent reduction in the number of crime guns traced back to sources within their borders.
Paper statistics aside, all such policies are ultimately only as effective as the extent of their enforcement.
Office Ed Fidler, a 13-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Force, scoffed at the effectiveness of policies targeting illegal weapons holders.
Due to circumstances outside of his control such as jail overcrowding, men arrested for violating the Uniform Firearms Act (VUFA), are rarely held for long.
“Why are people with four, five gun arrests still on the street?” Fidler said.
After a six-year stint with a patrol unit, Fidler is now an investigator in the Crime Scene Unit. He is sent to fresh priority crime scenes — a homicide, a discharge of an officer’s weapon or a police shooting — to catalogue and analyze any evidence left behind. More often than not, this includes firearms.
Among your average hustler, 9mm handguns manufactured by Hi-Brite or Bryco are popular because they are small, lightweight and cheap, Fidler said. However, assault rifles like the AK-47 and its knockoff cousin, the 7.62mm SKS, are often favored by drug dealers because of the intimidation factor that accompanies their increased firepower.
Holding up a SKS involved in the 2008 shooting death of Sergeant Stephen Liczbinski, Sgt. Steve Crosby was blunt. This firearm is not meant to hunt deer or anything else, Crosby said sharply.
“This is meant to kill people,” he said.
Sitting later amidst the debris of his cheerfully cluttered desk, Crosby reflected on his own 11-year stint on the force. A former carpenter and electrician, Crosby came across as equal parts tough guy and proud father, reveling in his exploits as a young patrolman while later showing off a photo of his oldest daughter, an aspiring singer and actress.
Like Fidler, Crosby expressed frustration with a revolving door system that often allows repeat VUFA offenders to walk free.
“The solution is keep them in jail,” Crosby said.
Jail was not the answer for Ford, however. For him, rehabilitation starts with the spirit, not the penal code. “The key to this thing is love,” he said.
“My mother was an alcoholic,” Ford said. “I found my mother on the floor dead. She did the best she could. But I wasn’t getting that ‘I love you.’”
In a neighborhood where fearful gas station attendants fortify their convenience stores, where decrepit, boarded up houses vie for attention with weedy empty lots and grimy take-out windows, hope is a precious commodity.
“I’m tired of the vigils,” Ford admitted. “[Tired] of the teddy bears, the yellow tape. Two nights ago, three people were killed in a ten-block radius.”
He may be tired, but Ford said he’s come too far to give up now.
“The struggle continues,” he said, “But victory is certain.”
PHILADELPHIA – Battling against neighborhood drug dealers and a rough economy, business owners in El Bloque de Oro are keeping a tight grip on their Latino traditions to sustain and revitalize their community with cultural programming.
In the Fairhill district of North Philadelphia, El Bloque de Oro is known as the Golden Block of Latino culture, art, music and food, but this commercial district does not appear as lustrous as it sounds. Taking many hits over the years, including a “badlands” reputation that was popularized by the novel Third and Indiana, community members struggle to maintain their beloved neighborhood.
“El Bloque de Oro is a community that is still embattered by very challenging economic pressures and that brings all of the ills of drug addiction and high levels of crime,” said Carmen Febo-San Miguel, executive director of Taller Puertorriqueno, an organization that promotes Latino art and cultural programs in the area.
Obtaining data from internal police memos, Philadelphia Weekly published a 2007 report listing the nearby intersection of Third Street and Indiana Avenue as number two for the top ten drug corners in Philadelphia.
Many business owners in the area do not agree with the dire portrayal of drugs in their community.
“There’s still some drug users in the surrounding neighborhood, but you don’t see them as rampant as they were in the 80’s,” said Christina Gonzalez, 39, President of Centro Musical.
The economic recession has also hit the community hard.
“We are going through a crisis right now, but little by little we are starting to come back” said Wilfredo Gonzalez, owner of Centro Musical.
Marta Diaz, 63, of Diaz Meat Market has worked hard to clean up this undeserved bad publicity by performing social work with local business owners to promote the area. Diaz has lived in her artfully decorated home above her husband’s meat market for 38 years and says she has seen the rise and fall of the area.
“Someone made up the term badlands to refer to our community because there was a lot of controversy and problems for a while,” Diaz said. “This was because of all the new people coming in and out who had no perception of how to take care of their neighborhood and the traditions that we keep in this community.”
The Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises is working to revitalize the area with a vibrant, Latino-themed design. They predict that repairs of the signature golden sidewalks and street lamps designed as Caribbean palm trees will create a safer and more attractive commercial district. Business owners are positive about the changes and hope this will bring in tourism and boost up the rich cultures that enliven this commercial district.
According to Diaz, there is a unified sense of cultural pride and passion in the neighborhood, and business owners urge people to look deeper and see what truly lies at the heart of their community.
“We think that one day this will change and I feel satisfied with the people who have worked with the community for many years and seen it fall and rise.” Diaz said. “We aren’t giving up and we continue lifting ourselves up and keep working hard.”
PHILADELPHIA- Unapologetically charming in nature and replete with seasoned Philadelphia and New York talent, Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” is packing them in nightly at the Walnut Street Theatre.
The production is quickly becoming another piece of the foundation that has made the venue a luminous and thriving presence in the city’s performing arts community. The theatre has seen a respectable roster of esteemed actors—Jessica Tandy, Robert Redford, Audrey Hepburn and Lauren Bacall, to name a small fraction—grace the stage over the years. Now in it’s 202nd season, the Walnut Street Theatre in Center City, near South Broad Street, gives truth to the adage “getting better with age.”
Rebekah Sassi, Director of Institutional Advancement for the Walnut Street Theatre, is ebullient with the response that “White Christmas” has garnered from audiences.
“There’s a real nostalgia and currentness with the show,” Sassi said. “It’s getting huge word of mouth.”
Word really gets around in Philadelphia, with many shows playing to full houses. Yet, even before “White Christmas” opened, the theatre has received enthusiastic response from numerous productions ranging from their interpretation of the iconic musical “Les Misérables” in 2008, to the recent production of “Curtains” that ran from Sept. through Oct. 2010. Although the theatre community is diverse as a whole, the Walnut Street Theatre holds a special place among them all, and for good reason.
The Walnut Street Theatre boasts 49,000 season subscribers—the largest subscription base in the world.
“When we run seven weeks with a production, we run at 85 to 86 percent capacity to begin with,” Sassi said. “So that does lead to really great, wonderful full houses.”
The current number of subscribers is down from an all time high of 52,000 several years ago. It’s not a significant drop, Sassi said, but they continue to try and make up for the differential. The theater also has a very high renewal rate.
“We renew at 82 percent,” Sassi said. “Even so, that leaves us with 10,000 new subscribers to identify, cultivate and sell going into every season.”
Sassi said that the present state of the economy has made it even more important to be mindful of spending on the administrative end. She cited the fluctuation of health insurance rates for theatre staff as an example of analyzing expenses on a yearly basis.
“What rate increases do you anticipate are going to come in 2011 and 2012?” she said. “How do you mitigate those increases to provide your wonderful staff with the greatest level of benefit that you can?”
Although the squeeze of the economic recession affects certain business elements at the Walnut, it by no means smothers the artistic vision that the creative staff brings with productions like “White Christmas.”
“The last thing we can do is retrench in terms of artistry because it leads to a very bad downward spiral, so you have to maintain that level of excellence on stage,” Sassi said. “You have to hire the best actors, the best directors — you have to make beautiful sets. You can’t scrimp on that sort of thing.”
By carefully managing expenses and being proactive in attempts to increase revenues, the staff has been able to invest in maintaining the historic landmark.
“We’re excessively proud of this historic building and the level of attention to detail that we’re able to pay with maintaining it,” Sassi said. “We do view ourselves as stewards to the building.”
The Walnut Street Theatre draws a large amount of its prestige from the city itself. Douglas Wager, head of the graduate directing program at Temple University, explained that Philadelphia was a notable figure in housing out of town “pre-Broadway tryouts” for productions in the twentieth century—many of which played at the Walnut Street Theatre.
“It has a long history of being a national center for the development of theater,” Wager said.
Many actors favor the Philadelphia theatre scene due to its location as well.
“Because of its proximity to New York City it has also become a place for artists who are very comfortable because they have access to the major theater scene,” he said.
Actress Maggie Anderson, an ensemble member of the Walnut Street Theatre’s current tenant “White Christmas,” as well as its past productions of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “The Producers,” cites the nurturing quality of the city that fuels her artistic drive.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to be really broad as a creative artist,” Anderson said of working in the city. “I was surprised at the number of opportunities here for me to do different things that feed into my passion for acting and my craft.”
Still, out of hundreds of theater companies, the Walnut Street Theatre remains what many would consider the crown jewel of the community.
“I think of the theatre environment in Philadelphia as an ecosystem,” Sassi said. “I feel as if the Walnut is the reef and we really are providing a stabilizing, sheltering force for theatre and other cultural activities that happen in Philadelphia.”
After the glitz of “White Christmas” has faded away, the Walnut Street Theatre will embark on a new artistic endeavor. In 2011, it will launch an 18 city, seven state tour of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie”, marking the first time they’ve ever taken out a tour of their work.
“Touring is generally very expensive and you have to have cachet,” Sassi said. “I think with our 200th anniversary celebration we had a couple of years ago — our name recognition went up a little bit.”
No matter what new project the Walnut Street Theatre undertakes or the level of recognition they achieve, they’re intensely focused on their prime objective of supporting the city.
“The end goal, whether we’re creating something new or reviving something classic is to serve the community,” Sassi said.