Neighbors walk together in response to recent violence in Mt. Airy

When 23 year-old Nafis Armstead was shot to death last week in East Mt. Airy, it galvanized folks to come together and walk some of the meaner streets of a sub-section of the neighborhood, dubbed “Dogtown” by a younger generation co-opting the 70s gang name. Philadelphia District Attorney, Seth Williams, 8th District Councilwoman Cindy Bass, 14th District Police Captain Joel Dales and a host of victim services volunteers, community activists and concerned neighbors joined together in a show of unity.

The town watch walking group, organized by East Mt. Airy Neighbors board member, Vernon Price, gathered in front of Treana’s Little Castle daycare center, which had been a part of the crime scene just seven nights before. No one has been charged with the homicide and police are still searching for one suspect.

D.A. Williams stated that the goal was “to be a healing presence”, to both people who are likely be shot and those who are likely to do the shooting. Williams said the outreach effort is also to give residents an opportunity to meet him, their City Council representative and members of various community service organizations.

Terri Youngblood of Northwest Victim Services remarked that the agency had its hands full with seven cases in the last two weeks. She said that in the three years she has been with the agency, she has seen “a lot more handguns” being used to commit crime. Mark Hartsfield, a volunteer with Philadelphia’s Town Watch Integrated Services told Newsworks that Sharpnack Street has had town watches in the past, but “the problem is sustaining the energy and the volunteership to make a town watch thrive and therefore be successful in what it does.” How best to sustain a town watch has been a key question for many years, but those with longevity are seen as a deterrent to crime.

The message is “we’re here for them,” said Councilwoman Bass. She called on people to stand up for their neighborhood, refusing to allow it be overtaken by criminals. Bass, who is herself a Mt. Airy resident, expressed outrage at the violence. “We won’t have it!” she exclaimed.

Across the street from the meeting point, family and friends of Nafis Armstead served up barbecue and relit the candles in a roadside memorial piled with stuffed animals inscribed with messages of love, erected the night he was slain.

Nafis Armstead, 1988-2012

Diamond Armstead, a tiny, wisp of a woman clad in a tee-shirt memorial to her lost husband and a pair of his basketball shorts is milling around the barbecue scene with her young brood. With three young children clinging to her, Diamond is calm and in control of her emotions. She has to be. Diamond explained that the children do not understand what has happened to their father. Nafis Armstead was the father of four children: step-daughter, Diamond Zayaz, daughter Naylon, and sons Samaad and Midas.

Only his eight year-old step-daughter, young Diamond, is old enough to have some idea of what death actually means. “She had a breakdown today,” Diamond shares.

She and husband were childhood sweethearts and had been married for five and a half years. When in 9th grade Nafis went to Arizona to live with is mother, they stayed in touch. So close were his friendships back home, that some of his friends eventually moved out to Arizona. So did Diamond. By then both she and Nafis each had a daughter from another relationship. They married in February 2007 and moved back to East Mt. Airy. Their first son, Samaad was born the following year. Their youngest son, Midas is only a year old.

“He was my best friend,” Diamond says, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

A walk to remember

The walk commences and makes its way towards the shooting site. Williams, Bass, and representatives from Men United for a Better Philadelphia and Northwest Victims Services shake hands with Diamond, offering their condolences, making sure she has their contact information. Diamond holds on to her children and joins in the walk with her sister, Krista, but is nearly overcome with tears over the outpouring of support she has just received.

“There’s just so much support. I wish everybody else had this much support,” she cried.

As the precession makes its way down Sharpnack towards Germantown Avenue, Williams shakes hands with bystanders, such as local hip-hop collective The Phrat who are busy shooting a music video. Numerous neighbors run up to chat up Bass, who warmly greets each one. Though a literature drop and email blast had occurred, some neighbors did not know of the event and are curious as to what is going on in their block this evening. It is a question Williams, Bass and Dales are more than happy to answer, hoping to build trust.

Rounding the east corner of Germantown Avenue at Hortter, Diamond and her family come face to face with the home they shared together with Nafis when he was alive. Since his death, they have moved to Diamond’s mother’s home on Marvine Street in the city’s Logan section. Diamond said the thought of living in the house without her husband is just too painful right now. She recounts the many evening walks taken with Nafis up and down their block together in all kinds of weather, and how he took their children around trick or treating on the same block this past Halloween.

The group makes a right turn on Musgrave Street and walks to the spot where Philadelphia police officer Marc Brady was killed on July 15. They form a circle to offer up a prayer to guard the neighborhood and bring people together, then continues up Meehan Avenue to Chew Avenue where they turn one last time, walking past a seedy corner bar.

Four year-old Samaad asks aloud “Where’s Daddy?” “We’ll see him again someday,” Diamond reassures him, stroking his face.

Along Chew Avenue, the memories continue to flow for Diamond as she slowly strolls hand in hand with Samaad. She pauses in the middle of the 6700 block, and points out as the home where Nafis was raised by his paternal grandmother. Nearing the end of the block, a Chinese food take-out joint sparks the recollection of the last meal she had before going into labor with their first-born son.

The vigil concludes with a group prayer on the corner of Chew and Sharpnack directly opposite from where it had convened, and an appeal from the District Attorney for residents to help fight crime. Williams urges neighbors to help addicted family members get treatment, volunteer at recreation centers and community organizations, form a town watch, create a local literacy program, “and to be a presence like you were tonight.”

As the town watch wraps up, Bass parts with an encouraging promise, “We’re here, we’re going to be here, we’re going to be back again, we’re going to organize.” Bass noted that she and Price are working to put together a meeting on crime and safety for the entire 8th District.

“Violent crime is problem through-out this entire city. We have to do something about it and now is the time. We can’t wait for tomorrow,” the councilwoman asserted.

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