‘Them That Do’ Profiles of West Philly block captains: Anita Harris, 5300 Wyalusing Avenue

Posted on 20 November 2013

Editor’s Note: West Philly Local is proud to present the third in a series of vignettes of local block captains drawn from Them That Do, a multimedia documentary project and community blog by West Philly-based award-winning photographer Lori Waselchuk. Check Them That Do for more information, updates and additional photos.

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Anita Harris in The Farm at N. 53rd St. and Wyalusing in July, 2013.

Anita Harris’ inspiration to become block captain didn’t seem particularly ambitious when she started. “I needed something to do,” she explained.

Anita was already working fulltime as a secretary and raising her two daughters.  She simply wanted to make her block of 5300 Wyalusing safe and clean.

But I’ve learned to listen closely to Anita, because behind her efficient language is an ocean of commitment.

Early in Anita’s term as block captain, she met Skip Wiener of Urban Tree Connection. Skip’s organization was working with residents in the Haddington neighborhood to plant flower gardens and trees to rehabilitate crime-ridden vacant lots. Anita joined their efforts and was able to help build several gardens on and around her block.

Five years ago, Skip told Anita that he wanted to start growing food.  It was then that Anita devised a monumental plan for the ¾ acre abandoned lot behind her house.  The lot was once a construction company’s storage site, but it had been abandoned for over 30 years and still contained buried drums of oil and other hazardous construction waste.

“Why don’t we build a farm?” Anita asked as she showed Skip the property.

Skip remembers seeing the lot for the first time. “It was a nightmare. You couldn’t see a foot into the property because the weeds were so high. The space was being used as a chop shop, there were fires, nighttime prostitution, and drugs. It was a very dangerous place.”

For five years, Skip and Anita worked with residents, the city, volunteers, and organizations to clear the lot, remove the waste, replace the soil, and build an urban farm.  It has been slow and intense work, but The Farm at North 53rd and Wyalusing is fully functional with three greenhouses, a packing shed, cold storage and compost stations.

The Farm produces and supplies fresh vegetables and herbs that are sold to Neighborhood Foods farm stands throughout Philadelphia. Anita spends her Saturdays picking, packing and selling the produce at the vegetable stand on the 600 block of North 53rd Street, right around the corner from her home.

The 53rd Street farm stand will open once more this year on Saturday, November 23rd from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. to help families prepare for Thanksgiving.

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Meet Milena Velis: Her “scary” pumpkin illustrates a frightening reality

Posted on 14 November 2013

2013 West Philly Local Pumpkin Carving Contest Reader's Choice Winner Milena Velis

2013 West Philly Local Pumpkin Carving Contest Readers’ Choice Winner Milena Velis.

On first glance, Milena Velis’s carved pumpkin seems out of place.

A thick, padlocked chain marks an X in front of a fence. In the distance, the moon rises above a school building framed by bare, gangly trees.

It’s an image in stark contrast to the werewolf, skeletons, pumpkin heads, and haunted forest that comprised the entries in West Philly Local’s 2013 Pumpkin Carving Contest. But while Velis’s pumpkin may not show a spooky motif synonymous with Halloween, it could be considered the most frightening of them all.

After all, what’s more terrifying than the School District of Philadelphia shuttering 24 schools—including local University City High School and Alexander Wilson Elementary—and laying off nearly 3,000 staff members in the face of steep budget cuts and choked funding?

The chilling implications of the public education crisis on Philadelphia and its families is largely why Velis’s pumpkin, which took two days to design and nearly three days to carve, won Readers’ Choice in the contest. To the many West Philly Local readers who voted, her pumpkin symbolized the “scariest thing” to happen to Philadelphia this year. Velis said this was her intention with her Scariest Pumpkin category entry—to memorialize what happened at the beginning of the school year.

“Part of it is just that there’s something so unbelievable about the permanent closing of schools that it does take a while to process it. That’s true for a lot of people,” Velis, a 29-year-old Cedar Park resident, told West Philly Local. Continue Reading

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‘Them That Do’ Profiles of West Philly block captains: Maureen Tate, 4800 Florence Avenue

Posted on 13 November 2013

Editor’s Note: West Philly Local is proud to present the second in a series of vignettes of local block captains drawn from Them That Do, a multimedia documentary project and community blog by West Philly-based award-winning photographer Lori Waselchuk. The first profile ran last week.

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Maureen Tate became a gardener because of a killing.

In the 1980s, during the era Maureen calls the “The Crack Period,” Cedar Park neighborhood residents organized drug vigils on the corner of 49th Street and Baltimore Avenue where they would stand in shifts all night and ‘stare down dealers’ to try to prevent them from doing business.

“We were trying to regain control of our streets,” Maureen explained.

Another intimidating location was the vacant lot at the corner of 49th and Florence Avenue. “The corner lot was trashed all the time and it was dangerous,” said Maureen, who has been the block captain of 4800 Florence Avenue since 1982. “The neighbors were feeling really threatened.”

When a Vietnamese immigrant was murdered in his home next to that lot in 1983, she and her neighbors decided to act. They removed the trash, built flower beds and filled them with daisies, lilies, and tulips. They named it Florence Garden. “Our garden made us feel we were reclaiming that space and staking our presence.”

The transformation required patience, and several years of work. Maureen laughs when she thinks about how little she knew about growing things. “Everything I know about gardening, I learned at Florence Garden.”

She and a handful of others maintained Florence Garden for 20 years. It won second place in the city’s garden contest in 1989.

“It was beautiful.”

Eventually the city sold the property in a sheriff sale and developers built four townhouses.

Cedar Park is now experiencing a period of more stability and reinvestment. “It’s such a relief to see happy people on our street.” Tate remains very active on her block as well as with Cedar Park Neighbors. She continues to garden in public spaces, organizing crews to build and maintain flower beds around Cedar Park.

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‘Them That Do’ profiles of West Philly block captains: Gregory Pac Cojulun, 5000 Osage Avenue

Posted on 06 November 2013

West Philly Local is proud to present a series of vignettes of local block captains drawn from Them That Do, a multimedia documentary project and community blog by photographer and videographer Lori Waselchuk. We profiled Waselchuk in 2011 upon the release of her book Grace Before Dying. She lives in West Philadelphia and Them That Do begins with stories close to home. West Philly Local will publish a ten-part series featuring a block captain profile every Wednesday.

Waselchuk is an award-winning photographer and author. She began Them That Do as a 2012 Pew Fellowship for the Arts.

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Thirty years ago Gregory Pac Cojulun walked into his first neighborhood meeting. He walked out a block captain. “I was ambushed,” Cojulun said with smile that hinted that all was forgiven. “I just wanted to see how things were going and they nominated and voted for me.”

Now in his sixties, Pac Cojulun needs a cane to walk, but rarely sits down. He is still the block captain, but his bigger commitment is given to Malcolm X Park.

Cojulun likes to network on behalf of his neighbors. “I’ve met a lot of different people in different agencies. I’ve gotten to the point I can call people up and they recognize me.” He is also the president of the board that maintains Malcolm X Park, which he says can demand 60-70 hours of his time a week.

“Our park was a thug park in the 60’s and 70’s. Nobody wanted to come through it,” said Cojulun. Through a grant from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society nearly twenty years ago, a small group of residents began to clean up and restore the park. Today the park is an active cultural and social center in West Philadelphia. Cojulun says that it has been a slow process to revitalize Malcolm X Park and the board’s ability to plan programming and make improvements depends on donations.

Cojulun’s pride, though, is apparent. During a recent theater event, he walked slowly around the park’s centerpiece, a large round gazebo, checking in on young and giggling high school actors. He proudly watches and greets them as they prepare for a theatrical performance. “We try to make sure everything is done right, and make sure the people are happy,” he said.

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Short story by West Philadelphia expat chosen by Maile Meloy for 2013 Montana Fiction Prize

Posted on 30 October 2013


Emma Copley Eisenberg / Photo by Keith Alan Sprouse.


The short story “44 True Things About Being Gone,” written by Emma Copley Eisenberg while she lived on 45th and Springfield in 2011, was chosen by writer Maile Meloy as the winner of the 2013 Montana Prize in Fiction and appears in the current issue of CutBank Literary Magazine. The story is set in West Philadelphia and features a friendship between a young, queer, white woman from West Virginia who works at a coffee shop in Center City and a young black male PhD candidate who’s recently left a Rastafarian community in Germantown.

The Baltimore Avenue corridor features prominently as well as other notable Philadelphia locales, and the piece benefited from feedback from the members of local Kelly Writers House-affiliated Backyard Writers club. Eisenberg says, “West Philadelphia is essential to this story. I wanted to highlight the connections and friendships I saw springing up in the neighborhood that crossed lines of geography and class and sexuality and race. People living in close proximity make these relationships more likely, but there is something about West Philadelphia that makes them magic.”

By the way, Eisenberg also contributed to West Philly Local while she lived in West Philly.

To read the story, click on the link below.

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“Show them that you care”: A Q & A with PPD Detective Joe Murray

Posted on 25 October 2013

Detective Joe Murray of PPD's Southwest Detectives Division with his father at a recent family wedding (Photo provided by Det. Murray)

Detective Joe Murray of PPD’s Southwest Detectives Division with his father at a recent family wedding (Photo provided by Det. Murray)

Use Twitter? Then you know Detective Joseph Murray of the Southwest Detectives Division (or at least you should).

Det. Murray, known around West Philly as “The Tweeting Cop,” began using message boards in 2006 as a way to connect with the community he serves. That social media engagement evolved into Twitter three years later, when the 33-year-old detective opened an account under the (retired) handle, @TheFuzz9143. Now tweeting under @PPDJoeMurray, Det. Murray updates West Philadelphians about crime, missing (and sometimes then found) pets, and even his favorite Pearl Jam album—while also opening the digital floor for tips and feedback—on a near-daily basis.

But Det. Murray’s community involvement doesn’t stop with the computer screen. Well aware that his position with the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) is considered a “desk job,” the third generation police officer makes a concerted effort to also have a physical presence, whether it’s through cruising West Philly in his car, buying coffee at Green Line or Rival Brothers, popping into a few local businesses for a quick hello, or checking up on old complaints he’s received. “It’s up to me to engage people so I try to do my best,” Murray, who was promoted to detective in 2005 at 25-years-old, wrote to West Philly Local in an email.

And his efforts are noticed by the city at large. This September, Det. Murray, along with 52 other emergency responders (including Southwest colleague Lt. John Walker), received an Award of Valor from the National Liberty Museum for his valiant work nearly 14 years on the force—which includes closing the 2011 triple shooting at Lorena’s Grocery Store on the 800 block of North 50th Street. The shooting, which resulted in the deaths of siblings Porfirio and Lina Nunez, and Porfirio’s wife Carmen—employees of Lorena’s Grocery Store—is one of Murray’s recent cases that he finds most heartbreaking among the “far too many.”

“A family from the Dominican Republic was assassinated for no reason. A robbery with nothing taken,” Det. Murray wrote to West Philly Local. “That gets my blood pressure up even typing it now. There was satisfaction when we caught the killers but that does not bring the family back.”

For Det. Murray, the cases that “help everyone involved”, though, balance the distressing ones like the 2011 triple murder. And he’s especially encouraged when he never sees a person he’s booked or their name again. “I have come across thousands of people as a detective. A lot of times I see them a few years down the line working in a restaurant or at a store. That makes you feel good to see,” he wrote.

West Philly Local had a chance to chat with Det. Murray about being honored by the National Liberty Museum, his love for West Philly, the importance of engaging the community, and—of course—donuts.

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