By Frank Rubino
The downtrodden commercial strip on North 60th Street between Market and Arch Streets includes a barber shop, a check-cashing joint, a hole-in-the-wall Chinese takeout and a bar. The Market Street end is marked by a prominent, three-foot-high metallic “60” that overlooks the block from its perch on a SEPTA El stop.
To passersby, unfamiliar with this West Philly neighborhood’s street culture, that giant “60” marks an El station. Period.
But to many who live in the vicinity, the big “60” symbolizes something more. This is a home turf of the 60th Street Posse, also known as “Six-O,” which controls organized criminal activity on this and surrounding blocks.
“They got about 20 to 30 members,” says anti-gang activist Malik Aziz, who has first-hand experience with gangs. He once ran with North Philly’s infamous Oxford Street gang and served a decade in prison before righting himself and co-founding Men United for a Better Philadelphia eight years ago.
Aziz, 56, says members of Six-O, one of several descendants of 70’s-era West Philly mega-gang the Moons, sell crack, move automatic weapons, commit robberies and worse. “They’re pretty ruthless,” he says. “They have hostilities with 56th Street (a rival gang), and they’ll shoot each other on the street without thinking twice. There’s been gang-related killings up there for sure.”
What’s worse, according to Aziz, is that gang-related killings occur all over Philadelphia these days.
In the 1960s and early ’70s, when epic street gangs such as the Moroccos, the Zulu Nation, the Valley Nation, the Moons and scores of others battled ferociously during Philadelphia’s well-documented gang-war era, the reality of street-gang violence across the city was undeniable. These days, however, police (who declined to discuss anything specific for this article) seem reluctant to acknowledge its existence. But just because no one in authority wants to talk about gangs doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Aziz and other streetwise activists say there are numerous new-wave gangs in Philadelphia. While they tend to be smaller and less regimented than their forbearers, they are greedier, better armed and nearly as prolific.
“The cops say there’s no gang problem, and you got gangs all over this city,” scoffs Aziz, as he began to tick off some gang names: the Richard Allen Mafia, the Erie Avenue Mafia, the Empire, the Lemon Crew, the Albanian Blood Brothers, the Norris Street Crew, Underworld, Diamondworld .
Aziz, who travels each year to Chicago to make a presentation before other members of the National Gang Crime ResearchCenter, adds that many of Philadelphia’s new-wave gangs — often called posses, squads or cliques — are also known by the same monikers made infamous in his day on the streets.
“Say there’s a gun battle over drug turf between a gang from around 12th and Oxford, which used to belong to Oxford Nation, and 8th and Diamond, which was part of Zulu Nation,” he explained. “If somebody gets shot, a lot of times the neighborhood people will still say, ‘They killed that boy from Zulu Nation.’ The names have been handed down from generation to generation, and the territorial mentality in certain neighborhoods has never died.”
New-wave gangs, unsurprisingly, are largely comprised of teenagers, many of whose parents know the old-school traditions all too well.
Take Aziz’s longtime friend “Kareem” (not his real name), whose 17-year-old son “Jerome” (also a pseudonym) reputedly runs with Six-O.
Kareem, who is 59, headed Germantown’s feared Brickyard gang four decades ago. He spent 19 years in state and federal penitentiaries before getting off heroin and staying out of prison for good. Today, he lives a tranquil life, save for the angst he suffers over his youngest child.
“I worry about him,” he says soberly. He has reason to. He already lost a son in 1993 when the boy was shot and killed by his best friend while the two were playing with a loaded gun.
Kareem, who sports a graying beard and an Islamic skullcap, is especially concerned about Jerome’s continuing habit of hanging around 60th and Arch Streets, the neighborhood Jerome grew up in. Kareem, a father of five who relocated his family to Overbrook more than a year ago, fears that Jerome might be targeted (read: shot on sight) if he strays near, say, William L. Sayre High School at 58th and Walnut Streets, just a few blocks from Six-O’s turf, because of Six-O’s ongoing beef with the 56th Street gang.
But that’s a hypothetical. Jerome’s juvenile legal problems are real.
He loves basketball and is smart enough to have mastered a Rubik’s Cube on his first try. But he’s also been on probation since being released in mid-October from a youth detention facility outside the city, where he served 19 months for participating in a West Philly street beating and robbery of a victim he describes as “a Chinese man.”
Weeks after being released, he got into trouble again, this time for allegedly threatening another teen. A judge ruled that Jerome had violated his probation and remanded him to the Youth Study Center, where he is now awaiting a December court date.
Jerome contends he never threatened the other youth. He likewise denies membership in Six-O, although the tattoo he had inked into his right forearm on Nov. 7 tells Aziz and others something else.
The tattoo includes a “6” and an “O” divided by a vertical sequence that reads: “6NS2.” Asked by a reporter last month what those letters and numbers signify, Jerome shrugged, “North of Market, but I ain’t in no gang. I used to rock the block (read: sell drugs and take part in other criminal activity) up there with the dudes that be doing that. But now I just go up there to see my friends.”
“What the tattoo tells me is he’s a full-fledged 60th Street member,” counters Aziz.
“Plain and simple. That’s what he hollers. That’s what he claims. And that’s what he’s reppin’.
Shawn “Frogg” Banks, a former gang member turned documentary-filmmaker, seconds Aziz’s statement. Banks knows Jerome and has tried to redirect him and other teens away from the gang life.
“I would think he’s still affiliated, still full-fledged Six-O,” Banks said. ” Of course he’s going to say he ain’t with that. The code of the street tells him to deny it. He’s probably like, ‘You might find that out on your own, but you ain’t hearing it out of my mouth.'”
Kareem isn’t convinced his son is full-blown Six-O. He does believe Jerome is stuck in follower mode, tagging along with his lifelong buddies whether they’re doing right or otherwise.
“I believe his active participation is probably not exactly what (Aziz and Banks) think it is,” he says. “He does what his little group does. If they get in trouble, he’ll get in trouble, but if they stay out of trouble, he’ll stay out of trouble with them.”
He pauses before adding, “and if they get in a fight and need some help, he’s going to be there for them, even if that means going back to jail.”
Asked whether he frets about the prospect of Jerome losing his life on the treacherous turf around 60th Street, Kareem alphabetizes his concerns: A, that Jerome will, in fact, die in the street, B, that he’ll kill someone else and C, that he’ll follow in his father’s footsteps and spend years in prison.
To try to preclude these options from becoming reality, Kareem says he’ll continue to counsel his son and surround him with as many positive influences as he can.
“But if he wants to be from 60th Street and develop a whole gang mentality, that’s something I’m powerless over,” he acknowledges. “His whole attitude’s got to change. Until that happens, he’s gonna be stuck on 60th Street with them other guys.”
A version of this article originally appeared on the website Metropolis, an editorial partner with AxisPhilly.org.