In Tacony, a call for action and accountability

City officials listened to residents express their fears about crime in Tacony and disturbances at the library.

Capt. John Walker speaks to residents Tuesday, Feb. 25, during a meeting addressing concerns about crime in Tacony. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

An event held to address lingering concerns about an incident that forced a library to temporarily close turned into a nearly two-hour discussion about crime in Tacony.

The Tacony Library, which received a $7 million renovation in 2017, was closed for a week following a Feb. 3 after-school fight among students on Knorr Street that spilled inside its walls.

Lynn Williamson, a member of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s executive team, said staff members were shoved after trying to shield kids from the violence. Similar incidents of unrest involving teenagers have occurred over the last several months. 

“We made the administrative choice to close the library for that period of time because the staff were afraid, and they needed support,” she said during the meeting.

Crisis and trauma support professionals were brought in for employees, and the library, which reopened Feb. 10, will have beefed-up security for at least another month, Williamson said.

She said that while behavior issues happen at libraries, it’s “very uncommon” that a staff member would be pushed while trying to break up a fight.

One parent said she doesn’t take her child to the library anymore because of the unruly behavior of teenagers there.

Williamson was quick to add that Tacony Library is a beautiful building that offers plenty of resources and programming for the community.

Lynn Williamson, of the Free Library of Philadelphia, speaks to neighbors Tuesday, Feb. 25, about a disturbance that forced the Tacony Library to temporarily shutdown. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

Others at the meeting, which was held Feb. 25 at CityReach Church and attended by a mass of city officials from various departments, demanded increased safety throughout the neighborhood.

A mother who lives across the street from Vogt Recreation Center said she’s afraid to walk around and won’t let her son play there anymore after witnessing multiple daytime shootings. She now drives to playgrounds in the suburbs.

“If this summer is just like last summer, I have no choice but to leave,” she said. “Otherwise, I put my child in danger.”

Georgeanne Labovitz, a business owner and president of the Tacony Community Development Corporation, said her daughter was working at Vogt and had to rush kids inside after hearing gunshots. 

She also said it’s dangerous to walk Tacony’s main business corridor, Torresdale Avenue, at night.

“We are at our wits’ end,” Labovitz said. “We need action. We need accountability.”

Capt. John Walker, commander of the 15th Police District, pinned much of the blame on rental properties. He said he’s working closely with Sixth District Councilman Bobby Henon to find a way to prevent single-family homes from being turned into rentals and crack down on absentee landlords.

Walker, as he has since coming to the Northeast in 2018, spoke about a comprehensive approach to the crime problem, bringing in city agencies to help misguided teenagers and young adults.

“We just have to get together, and I think we are finally as a city, to understand this problem is greater than an individual crime or an individual person,” Walker said. “The life of an individual is difficult. Everybody doesn’t have the same opportunities.”

The captain was part of a panel that also included representatives from Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, the District Attorney’s Office, the Commission on Human Relations, the Mayor’s Office of Violence Prevention, Hamilton Disston School and Townwatch Integrated Services.

Shondell Revell, the city’s director of violence prevention, said there is a need to bring services to those involved in drug dealing and gun violence and work with their families.

There was some pushback to that approach by residents at the meeting.

“I feel bad for these people that have bad home lives but, you know what, they need to be accountable,” Labovitz said. “In my world, there’s right and wrong, and, if you do something wrong, you have to pay for it.”

Walker said police have been “locking up and throwing away the key” since he joined the force 30 years ago, and it hasn’t led to a sufficient reduction in shootings.

With a new police commissioner in town, a couple of neighbors suggested splitting up the 15th District, an idea that has been bandied about for years. The district is 11 square miles and responds to nearly 200,000 calls a year. 

“I don’t think it’s going to happen as far as splitting” but there is a possibility of adding officers, Walker said.

Capt. John Walker speaks to residents Tuesday, Feb. 25, during a community meeting at CityReach Church to address crime problems in Tacony. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

Last week’s forum wasn’t entirely negative. Several people stood up and said they were committed to Tacony and making it better.

“My husband and I are devoted to this community,” said Wanda Novales, who runs CityReach Church along with her husband, Mark. “We have left our jobs. We are here to stay.”

Alex Balloon, director of the Tacony CDC, said the average home price has increased by $65,000 in the neighborhood since he was hired seven years ago. 

“Tacony is only getting better,” he said. “We’re going to stand here with this community, and we’re going to face these problems head-on.”

City officials plan to hold a follow-up meeting in May. ••

Jack Tomczuk can be reached at jtomczuk@newspapermediagroup.com.