Center City wrestles with teen violence and its image

    Philadelphia Police have now arrested a suspect in a series of attacks on women in Society Hill.

    But publicity about those assaults and packs of teenagers who tore through Center City on a Saturday night last month highlight a challenge for city officials: reassuring suburbanites that the city is a safe place to live, work and recreate.

    For fifteen years now, suburbanites have come to Center City in much bigger numbers for dinner and entertainment, and thousands have moved downtown. But that progress is undermined by incidents of random violence, like the flash mobs on South Street that made national news two years ago.There were arrests, prosecutions and an increased police presence after those episodes, but the problems haven’t gone away entirely.

    On Saturday, June 24th, pack of youths made their way from a gathering in North Philadelphia to Center City, where many people were attacked at random.

    Maria, who asked that her last name not be used, was shopping for a wedding dress with her cousin, Cecilia, when they stopped for a break at a Walnut St. cafe. Maria saw something that struck her as odd.

    “I saw a guy running down the street without a shirt, and I saw a cop car reversing down the street,” Maria said.

    Suddenly, a young man jumped on an outdoor chair, reached in the restaurant window and grabbed Cecilia’s cell phone from her table.

    Maria reacted quickly.

    “I jumped the window and ran after them. I ran after the guy to have somebody stop him,” Maria said. “As I started to run I got punched in the face by this girl, and she looked at me and confronted me, and said, ‘what are you going to do?’ I ran away. I got scared because there were a group of them.”

    Ceclia remembers the words of the girl who punched Maria as more threatening.

    “What are you going to do, whore? That’s what she said to her,” Cecilia recalled.

    Police responded quickly and arrested three young people a few blocks away. They’re awaiting trial. But the randomness of such attacks in well-lit, busy places like Walnut Street are unnerving to those who read or hear about them.

    Stacy Irving, director of Crime Prevention for the Center City District, said her organization is concerned about the effect on visitors.

    “It not only undermines a sense of safety for the public, whether they live here or only visit to come to the theater or go to dinner, it does create a sense of fear,” she said.

    Irving says since the flash mob incidents two years ago, businesses and police have gotten smarter. They’ve linked all the players in a rapid text-messaging system that serves as a warning and rumor control system.

    “Business would contact me saying ‘we see a large group at 10th and Market, a large group at 12th and Market,’ I would notify the police,” Irving said. “Or the police would contact us and say, ‘we have a large group coming through the gallery, please notify businesses.'”

    As police staffing has fallen with budget cuts, the department has faced a tough decision: whether to diminish patrols in neighborhoods where gun violence is a serious issue, or in Center City, where residents are more affluent and crime rates lower.

    Police officials say they’ve beefed up downtown staffing since the flash mobs, in recognition of Center City’s importance as a job center and magnet for tourists and suburban visitors.

    Deputy police commissioner Kevin Bethel says his officers have learned to react quickly and forcefully, and don’t just chase kids around.

    “We’ve moved past the ‘tag and you’re it’ mode.” Bethel said. “We’ve become very aggressive in making arrests, i.e. for riot if they create such a ruckus that it rises to that level.”

    Some convicted in flash mob attacks have gotten tough sentences, and the city is doing its best to convince visitors the streets are under control. So how is the battle for hearts and minds going?

    Maria and Cecelia left a preliminary hearing for their attackers arm-in-arm. Both are shaken by their experience. Cecilia, who lives in the suburbs, said her friends had mixed reactions to her attack.

    “Two people said they don’t want to come out here anymore. And I was the one who said, ‘no, even though I am scared myself, it doesn’t happen often, you should still go. There are great restaurants there. Just be aware,'” Cecilia said. “But I had one friend who said ‘absolutely not, I’m not taking chances, I’m not going.'”

    The good news for Center City boosters is that many former suburbanites who’ve moved downtown share positive impressions with their suburban friends. A survey by the Pew Trusts last year found 81 percent of suburbanites rated the city as a good or excellent place to visit. Only 38 percent said it was a good place to live.

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