When, exactly, does people sitting in a public park become a loitering nuisance?
When a gunman shot a 34-year-old woman after a Germantown Avenue altercation spilled over in Vernon Park in July, some neighborhood residents refocused their collective attention to that very issue.
The common thread: The northeast corner of the park, where people congregate near a deli that sells take-out booze all day long, is the problem, and the easy access to alcohol fuels bad behavior that can intimidate passersby.
With her business clearly targeted by residents, Lee’s Steaks and Deli owner Lisa Ky posts “No Loitering” signs and says she can’t control what customers do in a public park.
Observe and report
The Philadelphia code defines loitering as “idling or lounging in or about … so as to prevent others from passage, ingress or egress, or to idle or lounge … in violation of any existing statutes or ordinances.”
NewsWorks sent writers and editors to central Germantown at several points during the past few weeks to get a good feel for what it’s really like at Vernon Park.
Is it a comfortable place to pass a few moments on a sunny afternoon, or a haven for loiterers?
What follows is what we saw, and experienced, during nine such visits.
We also invite you to share personal stories or observations about Vernon Park in the comments section or via email.
Thursday, July 24 (2 to 3 p.m.)
Two pairs of men flank both sides of the park’s entrance near the deli. Further down the fence along Germantown Avenue, two larger groups of men stand around talking.
None are drinking, but at least one person in each group holds a black bag from the store.
Four bicycle cops pass by on the sidewalk.
None looks toward any of the groups of men; none of the men seem to notice the cops.
A middle-aged woman comes out of the deli. She sits on a stone bench just inside the park and takes two cans of Arizona iced tea out of her bag. She smokes a cigarette, alone.
A man walks out of the deli and sits on an overturned white bucket near the entrance to the park. He bursts out laughing, talking to two young women.
An older man with white stubble on his face and holes in his jeans sits down against the fence holding a can in a black bag. Two other men talk to him.
The groups interact with one other. Another lady comes out of the store with a black bag filled with cans. She talks with the man sitting on the bucket for a few minutes, swaying back and forth with her eyes half-closed.
Two men in suits and fedoras hand out fliers to people walking by. They stay for five minutes.
Friday, July 25 (2:30 to 3:30 p.m.)
A group of about 12 people, including a young child, congregate by a statue in the corner of Vernon Park closest to the deli.
On this beautiful sunny afternoon, people are on pretty much every bench in the front half of the park, near the Black Writers Museum and playground. The sound of riding lawnmowers fills the air.
A middle-aged man stands next to a statue that’s been tagged with grafitti near Germantown Avenue. He has a can in his hand, and occasionally gulps from it.
A handful of people are out on the sidewalk near the deli. Tensions quickly rise among group members.
One man pushes another man away from him across the sidewalk toward the park’s fence. Yelling and screaming ensues. Profanities are clearly audible from about 50 yards away.
The First Presbyterian Church in Germantown’s bells toll.
A man takes something out of a black plastic bag and puts it in his pocket. He then stashes the bag under a bush near the deli’s wall.
“Here we go again,” says a woman sitting on a park bench as the screaming picks back up.
A man in a white T-shirt yells at others in the park from the sidewalk. Arms are flailing. Loud claps are heard, as are threats.
There is yelling, pacing and threatening, but no swinging. The battle never seems far away from a physical altercation, but one never blooms.
The screamed profanities continue reverberating.
“Leave me the f— alone!” screams a woman in the group, pointing at the man in the white T-shirt.
“I don’t give a f—!” he responds.
The young child looks on from about 10 feet away.
Monday, July 28 (1 to 2 p.m.)
Inside the deli, two men buy dollar cans of beer. Outside, six men and two kids sit and/or stand.
Over the course of an hour, the group directly outside the deli increases to nine adults.
Seven people congregate in Vernon Park’s entrance pathway. Five or six guys sit near the statue in the middle of the path.
Two guys drink out of black plastic bags. Each has a bench to himself. One of the men is slouched over.
One male follows a writer and sits next to her each time she switches benches. He smells badly; it’s likely an alcohol stench.
Another man notices this happening, approaches and says the follower “has molested other ladies.” No record of such offenses is presented, but the man was exceptionally creepy.
A shouting match erupts on the entrance path, the details of which could not be discerned.
Monday, July 28 (5 to 5:30 p.m.)
Four people stand in line inside the deli. Three people are drinking in the park.
Another trio congregates on the Germantown Avenue sidewalk. One sits on a milk crate. There’s not much room on the sidewalk to walk around them.
Three more men arrive in the park. Each sips from a can or bottle inside a black bag.
The group on the sidewalk grows to six.
During this half hour, there is no screaming or threats of violence.
Tuesday, July 29 (2 to 4:30 p.m.)
It’s such a nice day that people sit on every bench in the park.
Six of them drink from black plastic bags. A dozen others are standing or sitting near the park fence, just feet from the deli. No drinks or plastic bags join this group.
Most are men in their twenties or thirties today.
Two men toss red dice and throw $10 bills on the path.
Clearly intoxicated, a man wearing no shirt under a jean jacket finishes the last drop of a 40-ounce bottle a half block away from the deli.
The group outside the deli has changed over. There are 12 people there now, a much quieter, older group. There’s a child with them. No one appears to be drinking until two people arrive with bottle bags within a few minutes.
Wednesday, July 30 (11 to 11:10 a.m.)
A man approaches a writer who just rode his bicycle to the park and asks if he’s OK.
“The cops are going to think you want dope, so you have two minutes,” the man says.
Told that the reporter doesn’t want anything, the man continues, “Seriously, two minutes.”
The writer takes out his phone. The people on the bench behind the fence start “freaking out,” concerned about the phone.
“The guy starts pacing back and forth, saying all sorts of stuff but mainly that he really needs me to go now,” the writer reports. “All the women start dancing, yelling that they want me to take a picture. This makes the first dude more agitated.”
Feeling threatened, the writer leaves within 10 minutes of arrival.
Thursday, July 31 (12:30 to 1 p.m.)
A woman in nursing scrubs stands near the park fence. She talks to a man wearing a dirty white T-shirt. He is smoking a cigarette and sipping from a can in a black bag.
Three teenage boys sit on the stone benches on one side of the monument near the park’s entrance. A Philadelphia Parking Authority officer walks up Germantown Avenue toward the deli checking meters.
Once again, every bench in the center of the park is taken.
For about 20 minutes, a quartet of men stands in the park’s primary entrance. They’re essentially sentries. If you wanted to enter Vernon Park, you’d have to walk through them. They yell back and forth with the boys on the stone bench.
Within a few minutes, the group leaves. Soon, two men come up and stand on either side of the sidewalk at the entrance.
On this day, there’s more activity in the park, but less on the sidewalk than during previous visits.
Friday, Aug. 1 (10 to 11 p.m.)
A survey of Vernon Park from the confines of a Philadelphia Police Department patrol car indicated little activity within the park’s interior.
In the shadows of the park’s northern boundary, a group of teenagers sat one-deep against a fence, doing nothing to suggest illicit activity save for an impending violation of curfew.
While seated in the park proper, their activities seemed to be spillover from an adjacent seafood restaurant known as the Crab House, an eatery that local officials have described as a focal point for quality-of-life violations and other infractions.
Tuesday, Aug. 6 (10:30 to 11 a.m.)
The deli hasn’t been open for a half hour and already, a crowd has already formed on the sidewalk.
Ed Feldman has just told his G-Town Radio “Morning Feed” audience about the times he’s walked through this scene and been offered marijuana for sale. He notes that he thinks many come to the park from nearby methadone clinics.
No such offers are made as a writer slaloms his way though a crowd similar to that seen during most previous visits here.
The visit continues onto the Greene Street side of the park.
During previous visits, this side was free from the Germantown Avenue side’s unsavory activity.
Though many people wait on benches across from the Joseph E. Coleman Northwest Regional Library at Greene St. and Chelten Ave., they are much quieter than the groups near the deli.
That the museum building serves as an unspoken line of loitering demarcation becomes clear.
Children regularly swing and slide at a playground, free from harassment. Still more groups of kids have lunchtime picnics under the trees.
On this day, a sizeable portion of the park’s Greene Street side is abuzz with the activity of the Germantown Life Enrichment Center’s youth-soccer summer camp.
The boys work on drills with Yomi Awodesu and other counselors.
The girls rotate into a scrimmage overseen by Walter Stewart, who says he’s looking forward to the start of the Soccer Sisters United season. That youth program, too, uses Vernon Park for its practices.
He’s heard about the concerns regarding loitering at the other side of the park, an estimated three soccer fields of land away.
“We have no problems over here,” he tells NewsWorks. “I think the people in the park respect what we’re doing back here and pretty much stay away.”
With a blow of his coach’s whistle, Stewart then returns to helping youths utilize at least this part of an embattled park for its intended purpose: Having fun in a safe environment.
This story was reported by Michael Buozis, Marcus McCarthy, Daniel Pasquarello, Neema Roshania, Aaron Moselle, Matthew Grady and Brian Hickey. It was written by Hickey.