‘We are brave people’: Overbrook community won’t let gun violence define them

A group of community leaders gather at Baker's Playground for a peace rally on Saturday, July 20, 2019. (Miguel Martinez/WHYY)

A group of community leaders gather at Baker's Playground for a peace rally on Saturday, July 20, 2019. (Miguel Martinez/WHYY)

Last Sunday morning, Leah Small woke up with a heavy heart.

On Saturday night — during an annual cookout and basketball tournament at Baker Playground in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia — two men fired at least 20 gunshots into a crowd of more than 200 people. Seven people — ages 18 to 28 — were injured and sent to the hospital. 

Small’s family has lived on the same block as Baker Playground for decades. After hearing about the shooting, she wanted to bring positivity to the neighborhood, and to prevent Overbrook from being painted as a “bad community.” 

Leah Small at Baker’s Playground. (Miguel Martinez/WHYY)

“I just got on the phone, called as many connections as I had or could reach out to and just see if we can all band together and take that negative from last week and turn it into a positive,” Small said. “This is not a bad community. We are ready to take it back.”

Small and other Lansdowne Avenue residents organized a “Stop the Violence” cookout and rally to bring the neighborhood together after last week’s shooting. As speakers shared stories of their own experience with gun violence and their hopes to see a crime-free Overbrook, a red banner hung behind them that read “Put down the guns!” and “Kids lives matter!”

A group of community leaders gathered at Baker’s Playground for a peace rally on Saturday, July 20, 2019. The rally was in response to a shooting last weekend where seven people were injured during a cookout. (Miguel Martinez/WHYY)

As many in the neighborhood lamented that there are not enough activities for kids in the neighborhood, there was also an information table with fliers for programs such as community cleanups and basketball tournaments.

Joy Watson is the acting vice president of the Baker Playground Advisory Council. She’s lived in the neighborhood for 30 years and hopes last weekend’s shooting won’t instill fear in people to avoid the recreation center. 

Melinda Small and Joy Watson at Baker’s Playground. (Miguel Martinez/WHYY)

“We are brave people and we need you still be coming to Baker, still enjoying Baker and we are going to grow and get more equipment in here so it can be even safer,” Watson said. 

Watson said the advisory council is working closely with Councilman Curtis Jones, who was in attendance, to install security cameras and bring activities for young people back to Baker, like summer camp and a basketball league. 

Councilman Curtis Jones attends a peace rally at Baker’s Playground on Saturday, July 20, 2019. (Miguel Martinez/WHYY)

Jones said although he thinks bringing back those programs is important, he can’t say confidently that they will result in stemming gun violence.

“Yes, we’ll get more programs and yes we’ll get more kids here, but will that stop the violence?” said Jones, who represents Overbrook and other sections of West Philadelphia. “That’s a whole other set of lessons that we have to teach at these activities, so that when you see two kids on the basketball court, one hard fouls another, well they have to learn how to dust themselves off, shake hands and live for another game.”

Taylor Brown, 10, and Nolan Brown, 9, play at Baker’s Playground. (Miguel Martinez/WHYY)

Markida Pace has lived at 56th and Jefferson streets — just a few blocks from Baker Playground. She was born and raised in Overbrook and moved back two years ago after spending a decade living in Colorado.

When she moved back, Pace said she noticed a lack of unity in the neighborhood and decided to create Love’s Healing Touch — a cleanup every Wednesday night at Baker Playground for both kids and adults.

Part of the goal is to help the children build better bonds with the adults in the community.

The peace rally and cookout at Baker’s Playground in Overbrook was in response to a shooting last weekend where seven people were injured at the playground. (Miguel Martinez/WHYY)

“So that they know when their parents aren’t around that they have somebody else that’s there for support or just there period,” Pace said. “I feel like that’s what we are missing in our community.”

After last weekend’s shooting, Pace was fearful, especially because her 16-year-old-son Mekhi was watching the basketball tournament when the shooting broke out. 

“For him to come running home telling me he almost got shot was heartbreaking,” Pace said. “I was really ready to run back to Colorado before the summer is over because I don’t want him growing up living around this.”

But after seeing the turnout for the barbecue and peace rally, she feels more content with staying put. 

She brought her 7-year-old-son Javion to check out the rally and to play on the swings — his favorite part of the playground.

“To see there’s people out here who want to make change, it makes me feel totally better,” Pace said. 

Speakers at Baker’s Playground speak about their experiences with gun violence. (Miguel Martinez/WHYY)

Pace said her other son Mekhi, however, won’t be ready to come back to Baker and feel safe for a while.

The shooting won’t deter her from continuing the weekly cleanups. The kids need it, she said. 

“The kids need somebody bringing them together and doing something positive and showing that they care,” Pace said. “You don’t have to be mine for me to love you the same. And that’s what the kids need more of.”

For Leah Small, her plans to uplift the Lansdowne Avenue community aren’t ending with the rally. She plans to start a Lansdowne Avenue advisory council to organize events for the whole neighborhood. On Aug. 3, Baker will host a basketball tournament and barbecue, while Heston Gardens, which is directly behind the playground, will run a resource fair. 

“When you have things missing, it leaves the kids to go try and figure out other things that may not be so positive to do,” Small said. “So if we can give them a focus a little bit and bring it back to the positive, it may help. We’re trying to be great pillars in our community.” 

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