BY JEFF DEENEY Today I saw a pile of teddy bears arranged like a pyramid around the thin trunk of a young tree planted in the sidewalk near the corner of 13th and Parrish Streets. The tree was on a block of two-story Section 8 homes that looked still new, almost like suburban tract plots complete with small squares of green front lawn, driveways and little back yards big enough to fit a kiddie pool and a wash line. I was walking down this same block about a week earlier on a warm afternoon thinking that it didn’t look like a bad place to live. I walked past again after reading in the morning paper that a man was murdered there early Sunday morning.
I don’t know what I expected to see. There wasn’t any evidence of a crime scene, no body shapes in tape on the concrete to mark where the body fell. There were no blood stains, even though the victim died from a gunshot to the neck and there was surely a thick, standing pool of it left behind after the Ambulance sped off. A hard rain fell late that night and it must have washed away any remaining traces of the crime itself. I saw the colorful pile of bears from a half block away. When I got there I knelt down to look at them.
The victim’s name was Rahdean. It was written in magic marker on the bears. I love you, Rahdean…Peace, Rahdean… RIP, Rahdean…I miss you, Rahdean. The bears were soaked with rain water and some of the writing was smudged and hard to read. There was a crumpled and soggy sheet of poster board near the bears covered in scrawled shout outs from Rahdean’s friends on “D-Block.” After reading them I put the paper back the way I found it.
I went around the block to the Dunkin Donuts on Broad and there was an old dopefiend out front, trying to sell baby pacifiers encased in plastic from a cardboard box. Two dollars, he said, rustling the box in my direction. When I opened the door I smelt fried dough and burnt coffee and heard Elton John’s ridiculous falsetto singing the lalalalala ending to Crocodile Rock’s refrain.
AFTERWORD: This was my first encounter with a street memorial, laid out at a homicide scene near the old Richard Allen Homes. The Richard Allen Homes was a sprawling, drug infested lowrise complex east of Broad and south of Girard Avenue that was torn down in the 1990s; tenants complained for years about deplorable conditions including rotted plumbing that dumped raw sewage into their apartments and spiraling violence that made the Allen Homes one of the most notorious projects in the nation. In 2003 these new, suburban tract style houses were completed and while conditions in the neighborhood are vastly improved there are still a couple incidents per year of horrific violence here, and a still thriving though less visible drug market remains (I know a dude who used to cop rocks around this way). Most recently, a Temple student was shot in the stomach for his Ipod a couple blocks from where Rahdean’s memorial stood.
The impression made by this street memorial stuck with me. I started to see more memorials around this time, and suddenly it seemed like they were everywhere in North and West Philly when I was doing my field work. I can’t say whether the practice was new at the time, just new to me, or just a lot more visible because a shitload of people were getting murdered on the streets back in 2007, a very violent year even by Philly’s standards. After seeing street memorials on an almost daily basis for nearly a year straight I decided to put Today I Saw to rest and start the Valley of the Shadow series that focused specifically on the memorial phenomenon.