Crime and No Punishment: How The Disputed Berks Walkway Harms Local Residents
It was around 8PM when Alexandra Danoff was attacked. The end of an unusually cold March, it was the first warm day in ages. She got off the El at Berks station as usual, thinking nothing of the routine shortcut she took behind the Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School (KCAPA) at 1901 N. Front St. The sun had just set and it was barely dark.
When two young men came toward her, hit her, and rifled through her pockets to steal her belongings Danoff was taken aback. But with that attack she became a member of a growing list of victims who were targeted in the same location. That location is the pedestrian walkway that connects Front Street near Berks station to Blair Street near Frankford Avenue, skirting KCAPA’s football field and the Shissler Rec Center. Originally meant to be a convenience for local residents, this walkway has become a hotspot for danger.
The Berks walkway was initially part of a deal between KCAPA and the Fishtown Neighbors Association (FNA). Local resident A.J. Thomson was with the FNA at the time KCAPA was being built.
“Before the school, it was just a huge empty lot,” Thomson said. “If they built the school the way they planned, it would have cut off access to the El [for local residents].”
So the FNA and the school worked out an agreement: KCAPA would make some slight revisions to their plans to keep that access open to residents. However, issues started to arise almost as soon as construction began.
“The school was supposed to get a really nice football field and the school district didn’t give them that, or any nice lighting on the walkway,” Thomson said.
Now, as mandated in the accessibility deal, the walkway remains unlocked at all hours of the night. But without proper lighting, it’s an invitation for would-be criminals to wait and hide for people coming home from a late shift at work or a night out with friends.
“It was a good thing, a great collaboration between FNA and the school,” says Thomson. “It’s still a good thing. But people need to be vigilant, and it needs to be lit better.”
Thomson adds that the understanding from the FNA was that the walkway is on the school’s property. Otherwise, no deal would have had to be made. Property records are somewhat unclear regarding the property divisions and ownership—there appear to be conflicts in the actual City of Philadelphia records—but the school was known to be responsible for the land the walkway is on at the time the deal was reached. Yet the school district seems reluctant to treat that stretch of land as something it is responsible for.
Ellwood Erb, KCAPA teacher and coach of the school’s football team, echoes Thomson’s perspective.
“When the school was planned around 2007-2008, there was talk with the community regarding plans for the walkway,” Erb said. “The school bought property and part of the agreement was to keep the walkway open. It once had gates, but they were removed.”
Part of the problem is that there is a wall that blocks visibility at a corner of the walkway near Shissler Rec Center. Behind the wall, would-be criminals can lay in wait to attack.
The layout of the school property adds to the issue.
“The school district does not care about anything on the other side of the fence,” Erb said, referring to the fence that separates the football field from the walkway itself. “People can walk across the football field and even that is very isolated.”
Two storage sheds on the field also provide hiding places for attackers, and Erb says that the fence on the other side of the field is easy to jump, giving a clear escape route.
Erb stresses that the vast majority of this walkway is on school property, whether the school district will admit to it or not.
“It is in our district blueprint—it’s all one big piece of district property,” he said.
It’s only past the wall that creates a blind corner at Shissler Rec Center, he says, that it’s no longer school property. This division of property further complicates the already disputed parcel of land. Shissler’s portion most likely falls under the responsibility of Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation department, but when contacted, a spokesperson from the recreation center said that they could not speak to the issues on the property. The press contact at Parks and Rec had not returned phone calls from The Spirit as of press time.
However, one problem was made clear by Sergeant John Massi of the 26th Police District: Shissler turns its outside lights off frequently, including during winter, to save energy. While sustainability is wonderful, neighborhood safety seems too high a price to pay for saving energy. Sergeant Massi has been in contact with Parks and Rec as part of the effort to combat the danger of the walkway, and the lighting problem seems to be on the way to being fixed.
“Parks and Rec have fixed the broken lights on the side of Shissler Rec Center and turned on the basketball court lights shortly after notifying them,” Massi said in an email exchange with The Spirit.
However, there is still the issue of the wall that extends into the pathway from the Rec Center, causing a lack of visibility. “They agree to remove some of the wall but this happens to be the most difficult issue to fix,” Massi said.
When the walkway deal was first brokered, the wall was seen by some local neighbors as a good thing: Residents were afraid safety issues would result from opening access to the Rec Center on that side, so only a small portion of the existing wall was removed for the pathway. The wall falls half on school property and half on Rec Center property, making removing the remaining section even more difficult. In fact, the school district has said that it will not put any funding toward removing the wall, and disputes whether it is even on their property—although the dividing line in the concrete is easy to see.
At one time, the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) came up with construction drawings for tearing down the problematic section of the wall and replacing it with a chain-link fence. However, the cost of doing so was estimated at $25,000 and the project ultimately never happened due to a lack of funding. Further research revealed that the wall cannot be entirely removed, since part of it is structurally linked to Shissler, but it could be lowered to a safer level. Plans were also drawn up by the NKCDC for brighter lighting on that side of the Rec Center, but lack of funding prevented progress on that, too. The NKCDC has been speaking with Deputy Mayor Michael DiBerardinis about possible resolution of these problems, as DiBerardinis is a resident of Fishtown and a former NKCDC board member. Sergeant Massi has also been working with the NKCDC, among other local entities, to resolve these problems.
Massi has encountered many crimes in his line of work in that area, including an attack on a 72-year-old woman who had to be hospitalized due to injuries. Most of the victims seem to be women in this location and robbery is usually the crime—along with the physical assault inherent in most robberies—although sexual assault has also been recorded on at least one occasion. The perpetrators tend to be male, particularly young men. A local women’s health organization, which works with sex workers in Kensington and wishes to remain anonymous, has recorded incidents of violence nearby. In a newsletter they distribute to warn sex workers of potentially abusive clients, one incident was recorded in the area of the walkway.
Alexandra Danoff became another victim of this treacherous area when she was attacked by two high-school-aged boys on her early-evening walk towards home. It took her completely by surprise.
“People have given me warnings about walking alone, but I’ve also been living in the city for so long,” she said. “It was early, so I wasn’t even thinking in those terms.”
She saw two young men walking toward her—one maybe 17 and the other around 15 years old, she guesses. Danoff smiled and made eye contact, and as they passed by, the older one hit her in the side of the head, while the younger one started to go through her pockets, demanding to know where her money was.
Danoff is aware that, in many ways, it was an opportune moment for crime. “The geometry of the path makes visibility very difficult,” she said. “There’s such negative space with the parking lot and empty field that’s not lit.”
She adds that she’s not naïve to the tendency of adolescent males, especially in groups, to perpetrate crimes, as they are more likely to act impulsively and not be fully aware of consequences. “I kept screaming at them, kind of shaming them for their behavior, but I didn’t know if they had a weapon or not,” she said.
Later that same night, she heard that a 19-year-old was sexually assaulted by perpetrators that fit the same description as her attackers.
Danoff is not frustrated about the possessions she lost in the attack, but with the effect it had on her relationship to the neighborhood.
“I never used to walk the streets with fear, but now if I’m alone or I see someone in my periphery, I get anxiety and start shaking,” she said. “I never want to prejudge or profile people. It just kills me that that’s the reflex I have now.”
But Danoff stresses that she is trying to focus not just on this one negative incident, but on the community as a whole and how these systemic problems can be combatted.
“I feel like I need to be able to challenge the root of the problem and not just those individuals who attacked me,” she said. “I was betrayed by my community for that one brief moment in time. But the most dangerous thing you can do is let that change how you see the community as a whole.”
Danoff believes that lack of education and lack of a sense of community, due in part to socioeconomic differences in the neighborhood, contribute to this string of attacks. The root of the issue is deep and complex, and it is critical to consider the deeper possible causes when talking about this kind of issue. But in the meantime, combatting the immediate danger should be simple: Provide better lighting, lower the wall, perhaps even install some security cameras. Yet taking these simple steps has proved absurdly difficult so far.
It is thanks in large part to the organized grassroots efforts of neighborhood residents and organizations like the FNA and NKCDC that progress is being pushed for. And it is disappointing that the school district, which is tangled up in this problem at every level, does not want to take responsibility for this stretch of land. The issue is one of ownership: There is a lack of accountability on the part of the school district and, to an extent, Shissler Rec, fueled by disputed boundaries. Ultimately, some entity must be held accountable, if only to make it possible for action to be taken. When local residents are in danger, there is no time for city institutions to take a hands-off approach and dispute their responsibilities.