Teen whisperer

Before you call the cops on Philly's teens, get some courage and talk to them

Downward spiral at playground
Our editor opines on the stigma of Philadelphia’s teens and the downward spiral that’s occurred as a result. | Image: Daniel Ruyter

I might have mentioned this before, but I’m in a friends group that volunteers to lock up a city playground each night.

About a year ago, the park received a $1.2 million improvement, revitalizing the playground equipment and basketball court. 

Honestly, it’s probably one of the nicer things we have in our section of East Kensington. 

The playground is open from 9 a.m.-10 p.m., and on most nights, especially winter nights like the ones we’ve had, it’s a ghost town. I’m able to lock up and head back fairly quickly. About a week ago, on my night to lock up, I encountered a group of teenage kids who were hanging out in the playground.

I informed them that 10 p.m. is closing time for the playground and that it reopens the next day at 9 a.m.

And then all hell broke loose. 

“I’m not going anywhere, get the fuck out of here, yo!” one of the boys shouted. “You ain’t closing shit.” 

I told them I have no horse in this race as I’m certainly not going to get into a four-on-one fight with a bunch of boys over a locked gate. I replied simply, “boys, I’m not here to make you leave, I’m here to lock the gate. If you’d like you can tell the same thing to the police when they get here.” 

“You gonna call the cops on me for sitting in the park? You’re a bitch. A pussy ass bitch,” another boy replied. “Fuck outta here.”

Here’s the tipping point however. Here’s where things could’ve gone two ways. The way it went down and they way it could’ve now that the ball was in my court. The last thing I wanted to do was call the cops on these kids. I’m simply locking the gate so that my kids wouldn’t be subjected to hypodermic needles or human waste that used to be prevalent on playground equipment before the remodel and subsequent installation of a new fence. I have no beef with them, even though they looked ready to set shit off with me. 

So I explained that. Well, I embellished a bit. 

“Guys listen, I’m not calling the cops. There’s no reason for that. But maybe it’ll help to explain why I do this,” I began. “Before this park was clean there were needles all over, people pissing and shitting everywhere. It was foul. Now that we have a new park, my goal and the goal of a lot of people in the neighborhood is to keep it the same way you see it now. I have a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old that come here almost every day. I do this for them. It’s 10:15, man. I’m tired and I need to get back home to those kids.”

They got up off the tables, grabbed their stuff and walked out. 

While they wouldn’t admit it, since I’m sure there’s some weird, macho teen pride associated with it, they heard me. They listened to reason and responded in a way that proves Philly’s kids aren’t a lost cause. 

I was in the car just this past weekend in South Philadelphia when a group of about 25-30 teens assembled, riding their bikes up Washington Avenue. “These kids are terrifying,” said my passenger. “Philly teenagers are the worst, they’re really scary.”

“For as many kids who live in homes with absentee parents, who are hooked on drugs or in and out of the system, you have kids living in single-parent families working multiple jobs to give that kid a warm bed at night.”

When I asked why, she explained through the stories of flash mobs in the streets, teens randomly punching people trying to knock them out, obnoxious language, etc., before then adding that they have no home training and that parents are to blame. 

I don’t blame parents. For as many kids who live in homes with absentee parents, who are hooked on drugs or in and out of the system, you have kids living in single-parent families working multiple jobs to give that kid a warm bed at night, hoping that while they’re away doing so, that kid isn’t getting into trouble. 

Or in my case regarding the playground, looking to start it. 

So I only have this message for both Philly teens and to the people who judge them. 

For you kids, especially you kids of color, know that a call from the cops, even if you’re let free, is a death sentence. You’re stigmatized. You’re viewed as a troublemaker, and when it comes to police, they’re there to do a job. In Philly, you’re gonna get arrested, you’re gonna get processed and congratulations you’re now a part of the system and perpetuating a statistic. 

To the ones who look at these kids collectively as a nuisance, or problem, know that perhaps it just takes a little explaining for them to see where you’re coming from. I could’ve been involved in a brawl but I wasn’t. Instead, I took these kids for four humans with brains and rolled that dice that reason would prevail over hostility. 

It doesn’t always work, but you don’t know if you don’t try – first. 

Take it from me as living proof. 

  • Kerith Gabriel's Headshot

    Kerith Gabriel is the editor-in-chief at Philadelphia Weekly but somehow hasn’t figured out that means he doesn’t have to write nearly as much. Journalism has been in his blood since his beginnings as a sports writer over a decade ago for the Philadelphia Daily News.