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From Blight to Blessing

Fairhill community efforts bring new life to former open air drug market

by Allison Beck

Peaches Ramos has lived on the same Fairhill block for 47 years, raising her kids less than two blocks from what was once one of Philly’s most infamous open air drug markets.

“I used to be scared to let my kids come out,” Ramos said. “When they would get out of school, they won’t come out because there was a lot of shooting, a lot of drug activities on the corner. They was like a prisoner of their own home.”

The cemetery across from her corner was its epicenter. Ramos described weeds that grew up to six feet tall, interrupted by abandoned cars and broken furniture that people who were addicted to drugs used to sleep, get high and turn tricks. Many overdosed, ending their lives among garbage, human waste, dead dogs and the final resting places of abolitionists who played an essential role in the Underground Railroad.

Drug dealers were active at all hours selling cocaine and heroin to  substance abusers who lived in the neighborhood and throughout the city. They held onto their territory by force.

“There was a lot of kids that was getting shot,” Ramos said. “Every time you turn around it was somebody getting killed.”

After her teenage daughter’s friend was murdered over a pair of earrings on 9th and Indiana, and another was killed just blocks from their home, something changed for Ramos. 

“I was just like, enough is enough,” she said. “I pictured my daughters. That’s when I got really strong, because it was too many killings, too many innocent kids getting killed.”

Thirty years ago, a then pregnant and fearless Ramos began a neighborhood watch. She was the only member.

Peaches Ramos stands in her home in Fair Hill, a block away from Fair Hill Burial Grounds. Photo by Allison Beck

Slowly it grew into a community wide effort to clean up the Fair Hill Burial grounds. Now, close to three decades later, the space is used for community events, summer camps and historic tours. It’s also home to a community garden, producing fresh, organic fruits and vegetables.

The burial grounds stretch over several acres, dotted with trees and burial plots. Photo by Allison Beck

According to a 2018 study led by UPenn and other university researchers, Philadelphia neighborhoods where vacant lots were cleaned up experienced a 29 percent reduction in gun violence, 22 percent decrease in burglaries, and 30 percent drop in nuisances like noise complaints and illegal dumping.

Before any of that could happen, though, neighbors needed to stop the gun violence that was killing their children. Hector Colón, a fellow block captain, was one of the first to join Ramos’ patrols.

“The situation how it was before, you couldn’t live out here,” he said through a translator.

Hector Colón stands outside of his longtime home. Before joining the neighborhood watches and cleanups, he was considering selling his house and moving to a new neighborhood to protect his children. Photo by Allison Beck

Colón said that neighbors weren’t afraid of reactions by the dealers– they just didn’t want to snitch. 

“I understand that people have situations where they have to make ends meet, but I had a problem with them doing it here,” Colón said.

After attending regular meetings in Ramos’ house, more neighbors joined, eventually setting up chairs in the street where they would sit, block traffic, and watch dealers. Her group connected with police, who began to patrol the area and make arrests under Operation Sunrise, a crackdown on urban blight which has been heavily criticized for being “stop and frisk on steroids” and heavily contributing to mass incarceration.

Quakers and neighbors worked together to replace stolen fencing and nurture the plants in Historic Fairhill’s gardens. The space’s origin story is a major part of its programming. Photo by Allison Beck

The graveyard dates back to the 1700s, when William Penn deeded the land to George Fox, who dedicated the space to be part Quaker burial ground, part community garden, and part play area, with a school on the grounds. The graves of famous abolitionists and women’s rights activists, including Lucretia Mott and Robert Purvis, are located there.

Robert Purvis’ headstone is towards the center of the cemetery. He was one of the founders of American Anti-Slavery Society and the Library Company of Colored People, which were involved in the Underground Railroad and other abolitionist efforts. Photo by Allison Beck

After the Quakers who owned the land sold it in 1985, the burial grounds fell into disrepair, and were eventually taken over by the drug dealers and their customers who frequented the area from the 1980s until the early 2000s.

In 1992, while the neighborhood watch was still active, Fairhill resident Elizabeth Gutierez contacted the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to ask for help cleaning up the burial grounds. A group led by Margaret Hope Bacon quickly began working with the Fairhill group, and bought the land back a year later.

“It took three years before they could even cut the grass,” said Jean Warrington, Historic Fair Hill’s former director and co-creator of a documentary about the struggle, as she described weeds that had grown taller than she was and piles of garbage left to rot.

Warrington and others began holding weekend cleanups where Quakers and neighbors cleared garbage and weeds from the space, inch by inch.

Ramos saw this as a positive influence on the neighborhood kids in particular, who got to see their neighborhood changing for the better for the first time in their lives.

“The kids aren’t going nowhere,” she said. “You gotta show them something positive. You know they see their uncles and stuff on the corner, they think when they grow up it’s ok for them to go on the corner and sell drugs. You know, you’ve got to show them that there’s something better out there.”

Warrington said that once the lot was cleaned the drug users slowly stopped coming.

“And suddenly– not suddenly, it took a long time– but now you can walk down the street, and we can have a youth group here, she said.

Over the past 20 years, Historic Fairhill has expanded its programming to include historic tours, community events, early literacy and a variety of cleaning and greening opportunities. They’re funded in large part by grants and donations from national, state and local organizations.

Neury ‘Tito’ Caba became the space’s ground manager just before the pandemic started. Trained as a master tailor, he had just moved back home from New York City to take care of his mom, who was ill at the time.

With the support of executive director Kerry Roeder and previous grounds manager Dennis Lucey, he went on to take over as the greenspace director and manages an arboretum and four garden spaces that produce free organic fruits, vegetables and herbs for the neighborhood.

“If it wasn’t because of her, I wouldn’t be where I am,” Caba said. “She had to advocate for that.” Roeder expanded the agriculture program and sends Caba to programs to further his education on a regular basis.

Grounds manager Tito Caba stands on a ladder to string lights along the path of Historic Fair Hill’s cemetery before their annual tree lighting and Christmas celebration for the community. Photo by Allison Beck

Youth programs are a major feature at the cemetery. Twice a week,10 young people come to the garden and learn how to farm, give tours, and clear litter from the surrounding blocks. They also go on trips to other urban agriculture efforts, including Awbury Arboretum, Urban Creators and Grumblethorpe, as well as local libraries.

“Them coming over here and getting our support kind of grants them a different perspective,” Caba said.

He highlighted how the program brings kids doing positive things together. 

“I feel that the company that you keep is also very influential in the decisions you make,” he said. Seeing the kids in his youth program become friends has given him hope for the future.

During the summer, Historic Fair Hill’s four produce gardens provide free, organic produce to community members who may otherwise struggle with purchasing fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs. Photo by Allison Beck

Neighbors say that being able to afford produce in the area is an uphill battle. Carla Santos has been a weekend volunteer for five years and has lived in the neighborhood for over a decade. She said that one of the nearby stores recently charged her $4 for a single bell pepper.

 “That’s why I do what I do for free, because I’m happy to do it,” she said. “One thing I like about it, the food is organic so you don’t have to worry about pesticides. In the end, it’s healthier for you. That’s what I like about it, besides feeding my neighbors.” 

City data shows that about 16.3 percent of Philadelphians face regular food insecurity. A 2023 study showed that North Philadelphia faces a far higher rate than the rest of the city, coming in at 36.9 percent.

Food insecurity is also a major predictor of crime. One study published by Clemson University found that after controlling for other factors, food insecurity is a better predictor of violence than rates of single parenthood, population growth or unemployment. For every 1 percent increase in food insecurity, the study found that their model could predict a 12 to 15 percent increase in violent crime.

A sign in the Fairhill Burial Grounds reads “Zone of Peace.” Photo by Allison Beck

Looking at where her neighborhood is now, Peaches Ramos feels that her struggle was worth it.

“I used to get frustrated. I used to get mad and cry, because my kids used to be stuck in here. But I kept on,” Ramos said.“When you want to do something, just do it and go forward and don’t let nobody hold you back.”

You can learn more about Historic Fair Hill and Fair Hill Burial Grounds on their website, Facebook or Instagram.

Published March 5, 2024