Crime, Victims and Cultural Makeovers: I Missed You Philly!

Philadelphia, PA – Philly is short on many things but criminal intrigue isn’t one of them. Really, Law and Order should’ve come here instead of Los Angeles, a cliched backdrop for any drama. Were L&O‘s producers looking for a wellspring of seedy storylines they needed to look no farther than Philly, a city virtually untapped by television. Here, Dick Wolf would’ve quickly realized the daily police blotter is chock full of opening scenes. Take the last 24 hours for example:

Yesterday a group of children find a bullet-ridden body in a Fentonville park on the city’s north side.

Later, a man who’d been shot dead in his SUV was found near Fairmount Park.

Around midnight, a man was stabbed several times in his chest while waiting for the El.

Lastly, at about 2 a.m. this morning, a shoot out erupted between cops and robbers at a 7-11. The robbers fled into a vacant strip mall nearby, where police found a gun but no shooters.

These are just the incidences reported in media.

Philly has more than its share of kingpins, mobsters, robbers, hit men, sexual deviants and criminal opportunists. But none has haunted the city more over the last seven years than the Fairmount Park Rapist, who’s been linked to one murder and four rapes between 2003 and 2007, the year of his last known assault.

Described as a well-built Hispanic who flees the crime scene on a purple bicycle, the rapist was in the news again this week after a daycare owner who’d been abducted from her neighborhood was found in the park naked and bound with duct-tape. Police have said it’s unlikely the woman, the victim in a failed extortion plot, was targeted by the Fairmount Park Rapist.

Also fueling speculation was that police were out this week raising awareness about the rapist, this month being the seventh year anniversary of his first assault. That year, in 2003, he murdered a 30-year-old medical student. As part of their effort to drum up new leads, police also imparted some useful wisdom about safety. Their message: don’t expect help should trouble find you in park.

At a picturesque 9,200-acres, Fairmount Park is a perfect refuge for scoundrels who prey on female joggers and bicyclists, particularly along the Forbidden Drive section, where numerous rapes have occurred over the years. The area sits in a frequency dead zone, where neither cell phones nor police radios work. The city has discussed installing signal boosters throughout the area, but budget shortfalls have been an obstacle.

But park safety isn’t exactly a priority for police or the city. In December 2008, the city shuttered the precinct tasked with patrolling the park. That responsibility is now spread across three precincts, none of which seem at all interested in making the park safer. When a woman was raped near Forbidden Drive in August 2009, police admitted they don’t regularly patrol the area, claiming their cruisers can’t access the road.

In response, the city did what it could.

It loaned the police department 25 bicycles.

The better part of yesterday I spent tooling around Center City. Near 12th and Chestnut, three blocks from City Hall, I meet Derek, 60, who was spending his day panhandling outside a store. He began panhandling three years ago to supplement increases in living costs. We chat for a fast minute about the weather and how great life is before I ask him how he lost his legs.

“I got shot,” he says, as a passerby hands him a dollar. “Once in each leg with a shotgun, up in north Philly.”

That was in 1983, when Derek was 33.

“Why’d he shoot you?” I ask.

Derek replies, “We had a disagreement.”

A few blocks from where Derek begged for change, residents of Midtown Village celebrated the 5th annual fall festival with music, food and beer. There was a dunk tank and sumo wrestling. People appeared to be having fun. At Jake’s Sandwich Board, even the carved up pig wore an expression of contentment.

The festival was organized by a merchants association that has been trying since 2006 to re-brand the 18-block area as Midtown Village, in a push to shed the area’s Gayborhood image. Over the last decade, a glut of new stores, restaurants and specialty shops have sprung up in this former red light district, which in the 70s and 80s was basically a gay ghetto.

The area began improving in the late 1990s. When developers began eyeing the area for urban renewal projects, many residents feared development would be aimed at pursuing ‘straightification’ of an area where pride-flag-bearing poles jut out like rude appendages from row homes and store fronts on every block.  But these early fears that gentrification would drive out gay culture never materialized. In fact, over the last four years, a harmonious integration of gay and straight cultures has occurred.

Now, a childrens’ clothing store does business next to a gay porn theater. Danny’s sex shop hasn’t deterred people from dining at pricey El Vez next door. Amid the growing number of straight residents – straight families in particular – a gay bar and other gay-owned businesses continue to flourish.

And no one is complaining about it.

For these reasons among others, this gay-straight immersion has been called “revolutionary” and hailed as an example for gay enclaves in other large cities. Steve Duross, owner of a bath-and-body shop, boasts to Philadelphia Magazine that it’s “beyond assimilation.” Developer Tony Goldman tells the magazine that Midtown Village “is social progress.”

Apartment hunting in the city is a grind, and not something I was looking forward to. My job makes it hard to find time for life’s busy work. Basically, I wanted a miracle in the form of a nice apartment at a cheap rate with all utilities included, as well as free cable and wi-fi.

And, because I sold all my furniture last year after the ex left with the bed, I needed a one-bedroom that was also fully furnished. Couch, dinner table, plates, utensils, bed and television – I needed it all.  A short-term lease in a nice neighborhood was also a must-have since I’m traveling again in April and don’t want to get murdered before then.

Rounding out this miracle would be free laundry.

Essentially, I wanted a low-budget extended stay motel room that masquerades as an apartment.

Good luck with that one, bud. Right?

Well, folks, some times you do get exactly what you want. I don’t know how it happens, but it does. It’s a third-floor flat in West Philly, in the same neighborhood I’ve lived in since moving here.

I move in later this month.

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