Playing with fire
Many warn that the plan to close 37 schools could spark violence between youth from rival neighborhoods.
by Benjamin Herold for NewsWorks, a Notebook news Partner
Brickyard. Dogtown. Haines Street. Somerville.
For thousands of teens in Northwest Philadelphia, the names signify a potent mix of neighborhood loyalty, turf rivalry, and gang conflict that has been passed down for generations.
Take Dayton Melton.
The 15-year-old hails from Brickyard, in lower Germantown.
Melton says he’s fought kids from Somerville, on the other side of Chew Avenue, dozens of times.
The first fight happened when he was 6.
“Some boy started poppin’ fly, like ‘Y’all from Brickyard, why you down here?’ So my cousin, he just hit him,” said Melton.
That’s just the way things are, he said.
“Brickyard and Somerville, they been through it, they going through it, and they gonna keep going through it.”
For decades, that mindset has helped fuel violent neighborhood beefs across Philadelphia.
Now the District wants to close 37 schools, making those rivalries a major source of concern. Officials say the unprecedented downsizing will save $28 million per year and allow the District to improve the schools that remain. But to make their plan work, thousands of students will be forced to cross turf boundaries, then sit in class alongside neighborhood adversaries.
Many in the city are questioning how school closings will impact academics, budgets, teachers, and surrounding communities. But the overriding concern has been safety.
In Northwest Philly, Germantown High would be closed. Hundreds of teens from Brickyard, Somerville, and at least half a dozen other neighborhoods would be thrust together inside Martin Luther King High.
Strawberry Mansion, Vaux, University City, and Bok Technical high schools would also be closed, creating similar dynamics in North, West, and South Philly.
“It’s a potential powder keg,” said Kelley Hodge, Philadelphia’s safe schools advocate.
District officials downplay such concerns, saying today’s neighborhood rivalries don’t compare to the gang warfare of the 1970s.
“I am not saying that conflicts don’t exist,” said Chief Inspector Cynthia Dorsey, the head of the District’s office of school safety. “It doesn’t mean that we have to accept them.”
But in barbershops and rec centers, on street corners and inside law enforcement circles, people in Northwest Philly are nervous.
They warn that almost anything can ignite neighborhood feuds.
And they accuse the District of failing to recognize that it’s about to create the biggest spark in decades.
“The School District has not put together a strategy to prevent young people from responding violently to each other,” said Malik Aziz, a Philadelphia-based gang specialist and trainer for the National Gang Crime Research Center.
A question of numbers?
Waterview Recreation Center is located a couple of blocks from Germantown High.
On a chilly January evening, the center’s 16-and-under basketball team trekked up Haines Street for a game against Simons Recreation Center.
Simons is near King High.
With under five minutes to go, the game was tied. A Simons player leveled a Waterview player with a hard foul.
After the game, players casually slapped hands.
Times have changed, said Waterview’s Khalil Billa.
“Back then, you could say it was ‘hood wars,” said Billa, 14. “But now, it’s not really nothing.”
District officials agree.
William Wade, the second-year principal at King, swears the Brickyard-Haines Street-Somerville battles that scarred Northwest Philly 40 years ago are no longer an issue inside his building.
“When the gang warfare was happening, Germantown probably had close to 4,000 students, and King probably had close to 3,000 students,” said Wade. “We just don’t have those numbers any more.”
Enrollment drain is one of the major reasons the two schools are slated to merge.
Roughly 6,300 public high school students live in the combined attendance zone of Germantown and King. More than 5,000 attend charters, selective admission schools, or schools in other neighborhoods.
Including Dayton Melton.
If Germantown is closed, Melton won’t be “reppin’ Brickyard” inside King next year. He already opted out of his neighborhood school to attend Roxborough High.