Block captains hope cleanups will keep streets safe from gun violence

Sammy Caiola, Love Now Media
Nate Riley, resident of the Logan neighborhood in Philadelphia

When Nate Riley moved to his block in the Logan neighborhood of Philadelphia in 2021, he was surprised that there were very few elderly people spending time outside.

“Because of the violence, there’s a sense of alienation between the ages,” he said. “Older people, they’re afraid of the younger people … they look at them more as being a problem instead of embracing them.” 

He worked with the city to start a free summer program where senior residents distribute lunches to children. This spring, he wants to organize a cleanup day where young people will be paid to tidy the block alongside their senior neighbors. 

“Poverty creates crime and violence,” he said. “To have a little child be able to come out of her home and see it’s a clean environment allows for them to have pride.”

The City of Philadelphia’s block captain program has existed for 79 years, according to a city spokesperson. It empowers residents to become resource hubs in their neighborhoods, connecting people to needed city services such as property repairs and garbage pickup. Block captains can also apply for block party permits, paint curbs and fences and set up free libraries.

The citywide network of 6,000 block captains may also play a role in preventing gun violence in neighborhoods where shootings are clustered. Data from the Office of the Controller shows that since the number of shootings began to climb during the COVID-19 pandemic, North and West Philadelphia have seen the city’s highest occurrence of gun violence. 

“Block captains are the fundamental building block of any good community,” said Councilmember Curtis Jones, who has been involved with the block captain program since the 1970s.

“Nobody at a granular level knows the neighborhoods like the block captains.” Jones called the block captain a pathway forward.

Keeping neighborhoods clean and strengthening communities

Any Philadelphia resident can become a block captain by gathering signatures from at least 51% of their block and then requesting approval from the city. 

The city provides block captains with supplies for gardening and trash collection so that they might organize one or more community cleanup days per year.

Jones said many block captains also address public safety by installing porch lights and security cameras and reporting abandoned buildings and vehicles.

“Imagine a vacant property on a block that gets utilized as a stash house,” he said. “A clean lot is not as attractive to the criminal elements.” 

In an effort to bring volunteers together, Jones hosts a Block Captain Boot Camp each fall. “Participants receive safety training and supplies such as grabbers, or security tools such as ring doorbells,” he said. The city also trains junior block captains, ages 12-18.

“The better they coordinate, the better the neighborhood is,” Jones said of block captains.

For Gil Coleman, who served as a block captain for 20 years in Nicetown before leaving the city, organized cleanups were a highlight of the job.

“A lot of times when we’d do the block cleaning, we kind of brought the block together. It was a time when the community or the block would get to see who their neighbors are, and that was a good thing.” 

In 2015, Brenda Mosley and other female block captains in Kensington transformed an unkempt lot into a space for children to play outside.

Mosley said the parents in the area weren’t letting the children play outside then.

“Because of the trauma and things taking place in the community with the opioid epidemic and the drugs – they shielded their children,” she said. 

So Mosley asked the New Kensington Community Development Corporation for funding to add swings, play structures, and a soccer area.

Meanwhile, she and the other block captains started forming relationships with nearby drug dealers. She said the dealers now agree to move elsewhere when there’s going to be an event at the lot. 

“It’s always a sense of safety because we live in this community, we know this community, we know what times things is gonna happen,” she said. “We respect [the drug dealers] and they respect us.”

In 2021, Mosley started running a summer camp at the field. Currently, they’re gearing up for an Easter event. 

“The role of a block captain is never stopping, never giving up, always looking for ways to connect, ways to collaborate,” she said. 

Interrupting violence

For Coleman, the role in Nicetown involved peacefully disrupting drug sales, group fights, and other activities that posed a danger to the neighborhood.

“We keep an eye on the block, let the people know what’s going on,” he said. 

When people approached him with concerns about a house or a corner where criminal activity occurred, he’d go with a few other neighbors and try to de-escalate the situation.

“I’ve chased three separate sets of drug dealers away at one point or another,” Coleman said. “I’ve said ‘you can’t do that activity here. You’ve got to take that around the corner and off the blocks.’”

That kind of work can be dangerous, said Jon McKay, founder of Philly nonprofit Life Outside the Streets. He wants to supplement block captains with residents trained in de-escalation and restorative justice and who can step in when conflict arises.

“Now you got extra support. We’re bringing in a violence interrupter to support you,” McKay said. 

Block captain Nate Riley (left) and nonprofit director Jon McKay (right) have been discussing how block captains can mobilize to prevent neighborhood violence.
Block captain Nate Riley (left) and nonprofit director Jon McKay (right) have been discussing how block captains can mobilize to prevent neighborhood violence. 

Arguments are the motive for 50% of shootings in Philadelphia, according to the city’s 100 Shooting Review Committee Report, released in 2022. Drug transactions drove 18% of shootings.

McKay, who ran for Mayor of Philadelphia in 2023, said he’s providing the training through his nonprofit organization but hopes to partner with the city on the initiative.

In some neighborhoods, block captains may be able to lean on nonprofit organizations that already do violence interruption work, such as the House of Umoja in West Philly or Frontline Dads in North Philly. They can also check with Philadelphia’s  Office of Violence Prevention for resources.

McKay also wants to get more young people excited about becoming block captains, given that many people in these posts are getting older. 

There is currently no directory of block captains in Philly. 

Some residents have called for that list to be released, citing a need to hold block captains accountable and make resources more accessible. 

“Connecting block captains to one another is key to making neighborhoods safer,” said West Philly resident Mecca Robinson. She is interested in taking on the role and plans to start attending meetups with captains on neighboring blocks. 

She also wants to knock on doors, introduce herself, and encourage people to do small things for one another, like offering spare trash bags and helping with property maintenance. 

“Just a general hello, a smile, ‘do you need some help?’ Just those simple gestures,” she said. “Keep love present in any situation. no matter how tough it is, no matter how your day’s going … it works.”

Representatives from the Mayor’s Office, who coordinate communication for all city departments, confirmed the number of block captains there are and when the program began, but did not make a representative from the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee, which oversees the block captain program, available before our publishing date.

McKay said he plans to keep pushing for additional conflict resolution training for block captains and other residents. 

Nate Riley, who captains his block in the Logan neighborhood, said he would be interested in getting an education on trauma to help young people in his neighborhood.

“No one is addressing the trauma and the mental health issue,” he said. “So we have that compounded with the negativity from the streets, we are where we are today … if they had training and really know how to connect with the youth, it can be effective.”

This article was originally published by Love Now Media on March 1, 2024.