Overbrook residents defiant after shooting disrupts a cookout attended by hundreds

Aaron White only heard about the shooting at Overbrook Playground Sunday morning. He describes the shooting as an unfortunate event in what he considers a quiet part of the neighborhood. He took his three-year-old daughter for a swim Sunday afternoon. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Aaron White only heard about the shooting at Overbrook Playground Sunday morning. He describes the shooting as an unfortunate event in what he considers a quiet part of the neighborhood. He took his three-year-old daughter for a swim Sunday afternoon. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Leah Small remembers when the 5400 block of Lansdowne Avenue was not in good shape.

It was the late 1980s when she was a girl growing up there, and the crack epidemic was taking a toll on the neighborhood.

“I remember being called out of the park because of the infestation of drugs,” she said of Baker Playground, which is on the same block as the house where she grew up.

Small said the playground has changed a lot since. She credits diligent neighbors who fought hard to clean up the grounds and make it a good place for the local children.

Still, she said, for a lot of outsiders, a bad reputation follows her section of Lansdowne Avenue.

Small’s worried the shooting over the weekend at Baker Playground in Overbrook is only going to reinforce a stigma that paints the neighborhood as a violent area.

An annual cookout, which dates back a couple of years, ended in violence Saturday night after two men opened fire on a crowd of more than 200 people.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross said Saturday that at least 20 shots were fired. Seven people — ages 18 to 28 — were injured and sent to the hospital, most with wounds to the arms and legs.

The suspected shooters were just as young as the victims, estimated to be 18 to 25 years old.

“Everything that comes from [Lansdowne Avenue] isn’t bad,” Small said, as she sold water ice by the playground. “I’m not a bad person.”

Leah Small’s family has lived on the same block as Baker Playground for decades. She’s worried the shooting over the weekend at Baker Playground in Overbrook is only going to reinforce a stigma that paints the neighborhood as a violent area. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

She laments that the shooting happened at an event that’s supposed to give children something to look forward to when school is out for the summer.

“You come out, there’s basketball tournaments, you have the vendors out here, you have the food trucks out here. It’s actually a good atmosphere,” Small said.

Small and several others said the neighborhood isn’t without its flaws. Neighbors complain of home invasions and young people breaking into fights after quarrels that sometimes start on social media.

But firing guns into a crowd of hundreds — that’s different, they said.

Talking on their porches Sunday afternoon, several residents on blocks surrounding the playground echoed Small.

“This is not everyday life,” said Takiyah Applewhite, as she played with her friend’s toddler. “I would not be sitting out here if that was happening every day.”

Applewhite said the neighborhood has a lot of children and elderly residents, who for the most part remain tight-knit.

“The people that live out here, we look out for each other,” she said.

She believes the perpetrators came from outside the neighborhood.

Sandy Brown lives in Southwest Philadelphia and she said she’s confident that the neighborhood is safe. She comes to Baker Playground every week so her 12-year-old daughter can go for a swim. They came back on Sunday afternoon. Several other families did too.

Many families spent their Sunday at Baker Playground pool in Overbrook, despite a shooting that injured seven people there the night before. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

On Brown’s side of town, a similar shooting took place on Father’s Day, breaking up a graduation party. Five people were injured, another person killed.

Brown blames the city’s pronounced gun violence on a lack of activities for young people.

“They don’t have anything to do,” she said.

Some neighbors wondered if more police presence at the picnic would have discouraged the shooters.

Residents hope the cookout will return next year, with a community-police partnership in place, though many fear it won’t.

As first reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, police are working to determine if any “communication issues” played a role in the lack of police at the cookout.

In a statement, Deanna Gamble, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Kenney, said the mayor asked Parks and Recreation to increase security at all permitted events for the rest of the summer.

For his part, Aaron White was determined to not let what he described as an anomaly at the playground stop him and his three-year-old daughter from enjoying the pool.

“You could die falling down the steps in your house, so what’s the difference?” White said. “The only thing you need to do is be observant and careful.”

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