[photos by JUSTIN ROMAN]
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Valley of the Shadow is an ongoing series documenting how those in Philadelphia’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods publicly mourn and commemorate their dead. Jeff Deeney knows these neighborhoods well from his days as a social worker. The object is to cast Philadelphia’s disadvantaged in a new light, brighten the darkest corners and gather-and-share compelling personal stories of loss, grief and remembrance.
BY JEFF DEENEY On the corner of 52nd and Larchwood, across from West Philadelphia’s vibrant and thriving Malcolm X Park, on the south facing wall of the Food Plus corner store, there are two large graffiti memorials. One is for 21-year-old Chris “Cosell” Freeny, the other for a 27-year-old whose street name was Ricey. The Cosell memorial still has a collection of stuffed animals arranged in front of it, though they’re showing the wear and tear that comes with a year’s worth of elemental exposure.
Freeny, the son of a Philly cop, became the focus of Mayor Nutter’s campaign momentarily in January of 2007 when the then-stumping candidate held a press conference on the steps of his childhood home three blocks away. Nutter used Chris’s death as the centerpiece of a compelling argument for fast action against the city’s soaring homicide rate. It was a turning point in the primary, where Nutter emerged as a strong candidate who could connect with both the downtown business community and the neighborhoods.
While we photograph Chris’s memorial a woman named Barbara approaches, volunteering the story of Chris’s murder that was told repeatedly in the newspapers and by Mayor Nutter’s campaign. Chris was on his bike riding down the block when he stopped to observe some neighborhood drama between two groups of local kids. He started a casual conversation with another onlooker who turned out to be the girlfriend of Napheace Ballard, a gun-strapped thug who saw the conversation and assumed Chris was trying to get his girl’s digits. Witnesses said Napheace shot Chris and then rode off his bike.
Of Chris’s memorial counterpart, Ricey, Barbara says, smiling broadly with the warmth of recollection, “He was one of the coolest dudes, he was respectful, a good father, my daughter wears jackets for both Chris and Ricey…” she trails off looking up the block. “Here she comes now.”
As if on cue, Barbara’s daughter Michelle walks up wearing a sweatshirt with Chris Freeny’s portrait airbrushed on it. She says she’s wearing Chris’s sweatshirt today because she wore Ricey’s yesterday and she likes to alternate between them.
Ricey was murdered in 2005 and Michelle still wears a shirt with his image on it every other day. It’s an amazing display of love and neighborhood solidarity.
What was Ricey about? “I knew him for 13 years, I knew him as long as I’ve been on this block,” says Michelle. “He wasn’t in the game or nothin’, he always gave to the community, he had a 2-year-old daughter in his life. There was a huge turnout for his funeral; it’s a shame they never found out who murdered him.”
Ricey was murdered when a burglar broke into his home. The robbery went bad and Ricey got shot.
What about the neighborhood? Is it getting better or worse since Mayor Nutter stumped on stemming the violence last year? Wasn’t there just a big shootout here last weekend, I ask, that led the police on a high-speed chase into Southwest Philly?
“Yeah, I know about that. But this block got better, got way better than it was. There used to be fights over everything — you stepped on somebody’s shoe by accident and they’d want to fight you over it.”
Michelle credits the block’s cool down to an aging population of homeowners and the fact that many of the younger kids have moved to different neighborhoods.
I ran all this by Andrew Schwalm who runs MalcolmXPark.org; he regularly updates his blog with details about neighborhood clean up efforts and cultural events. He says that Michelle’s take on the neighborhood sounds about right; Cedar Park is starting to look like something of a success story. Andrew says he bought a CD that helped finance the Freeny graffiti memorial. Memorial CDs are something of a cottage industry, it seems; stock memorial tracks are interspersed with custom tailored tunes by local producers that shout out the deceased’s crew (in Freeny’s case, the Larchwood Osage Pine Posse, or LOPP).
Friends say Chris got his nickname “Cosell” because his flow on the microphone was as smooth as the legendary sports announcer’s. He’s fondly remembered in the West Philly rap scene; on his myspace page the local rapper the Philly Flyer gives a shoutout to both Cosell and Ricey. The Philly Flyer’s profile has a dimly lit picture of Chris puffing on what appears to be the ass-end of a blunt with the inscription “R.I.P. COSELL LOVE YOU CANNON” underneath. Freeny’s grandmother told newspaper reporters at the time of his death “He never cuss, never fuss, don’t drink, don’t smoke. He works 24-7 to make sure his children have what they need.” A search of court records shows that Freeny was charged with intent to distribute drugs in 2004 and 2006; both times the charges were dismissed.
Napheace Ballard is currently at Detention Center, the Philadelphia County prison health and mental health unit, waiting on a hearing scheduled for October. He’s facing a host of felony charges, one of which is murder. Court records show Ballard was picked up for making terroristic threats and aggravated assault prior to murdering Chris Freeny. In each of Ballard’s previous brushes with the law, the charges were either dismissed or withdrawn.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in PW, City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture.