Yvonne Stephens can’t get any sleep. She’s not the only one.
“The music is so loud you can hear it in Bridesburg,” Stephens, who resides in the neighborhood, said. “I’m at Thompson and Lefevre. It’s loud and clear. We can hear everything.”
If you’re one of Stephens’ Bridesburg neighbors, you’ll probably know what she’s talking about: the incessant drag racing near the river along Lewis Street. It’s been a problem in the neighborhood for a while, but especially since the beginning of the pandemic.
“We need something done,” she said. “We hear drag racing every night.”
“My friend lives two blocks away from here and we can hear it from her house,” said Ireland Conry, who participated in a recent cleanup at Lewis Street, held by state Rep. Joe Hohenstein (D-177th dist.). Her brother, Gavin Conry, who was with her at the cleanup, described the noise as “obnoxious car sounds.”
“And Spanish music being played really loud,” Ireland added.
The cleanup was held because the partying had led to not just excessive noise, but excessive littering. Riverfront North, the organization responsible for owning and operating the Delaware riverfront trail, has expressed its frustration with this particular issue.
“We’ve seen crazy expansion of usage of our trails throughout this quarantine,” said Gina Craigo, Riverfront North’s community engagement manager. “But the amount of trash and overgrown weeds and stuff kind of diminishes people’s perception of safety, at least for the trail usage.”
Craigo, who was also present at Hohenstein’s cleanup, thinks if the corridor is kept clean, people will be less likely to litter.
“If you’re driving down the street and you see all the trash, you might throw out your trash because [you might think] it doesn’t matter.” she said. “You don’t see that as much if public spaces are being taken care of.”
John Nungesser, the Republican candidate running for state representative of the 177th District, cleaned up Lewis Street in July.
“My plan to address the drag racing is to increase police funding to hire more officers so that our police are not stretched so thin and they can have the strength to fully handle the problem,” he said. “We also plan to work with the streets department to have speed bumps along Lewis Street to deter the racers from gathering there. The drag racers pose a threat to the safety of those on our streets and between placing speed bumps along the road and turning the full power of local and state law enforcement on them, I believe that we can rid our neighborhood of this issue once and for all.”
Capt. Pedro Rosario, commander of the 24th Police District, said the gatherings on the street have a “party-like atmosphere.”
He explained that drag racing in the area, including along the Castor/Aramingo corridor, has been a problem since the mid-’60s. The PPD has had “numerous initiatives to combat” the issue during that time, he said, including stationary posts and setting up checkpoints. The problem is at its worst during the summer months, but this year has been especially bad.
“For 2020,” Rosario said, “there was a significant increase right around mid- to late April.”
That means about five to 10 complaints per week during that time – not counting 911 calls for service in reference to these complaints.
“My guess [is] by the end of April everyone had been getting cabin fever from [the] COVID emergency,” Rosario speculated.
Unfortunately, many think the police don’t have the necessary resources to adequately tackle the problem.
“Capt. Rosario is as frustrated as anyone, but he also has his hands full with what’s going on on the other side of his district, which is Kensington Avenue where there’s shootings,” said Hohenstein. “We’ve got to find other solutions.”
Hohenstein said those solutions could include helping businesses in the area install cameras, which the police would have access to. He said that there’s been talks with PennDOT about finding out what cameras they have in the area and whether or not they could provide the PPD with access. A longer-term possibility to combat drag racing could involve the use of drones.
“We would have to get funding for it,” he said, “but in other cities – even in the state – police have begun to use drone cameras to follow drag racers.”
This is good for safety, Hohenstein explained, because it allows the police to track drag racers and observe their license plates. It also reduces the possibility of causing high-speed pursuits.
But, “I think the more immediate effective response could be coming from greater utilization of cameras that are available,” Hohenstein said. “We just have to get an inventory of what cameras are out there both from residents, businesses and from maybe Conrail and/or PennDOT.”
Rosario confirmed that violent crime has used up a considerable amount of his district’s resources. The 24th district leads the city in homicides with 42 so far this year. It had 27 in all of last year. It has the second-highest non-fatal shootings.
“So a large part of my deployment,” Rosario said, “goes toward combating violent crime and the issues along the Kensington Ave corridor.”
“Even with the seriousness of drag racing, the life-and-death issues happening on Kensington Avenue have to take the precedence for the police,” Hohenstein said. “It’s not a good choice for [the police] either way, and they just need more resources. So we’re going to see what we can get for them.”
State troopers had been called in to the district to help with combating the issue, but that didn’t last long.
“Unfortunately, the support [from state troopers] stopped at the onset of the looting that took place at [the end] of May/beginning of June,” said Rosario. “Good news is we are looking at starting that relationship back up in the near future.”
Typically, if drag racers are caught, officers are “content with dispersing the crowd and sending everyone along [their] way,” said Rosario. If there are people who don’t comply, the PPD will “investigate and issue motor vehicle code and/or city ordinance code violations,” if appropriate.
Rosario said the specific violations can range, but vehicles will be live stopped and impounded if police discover expired or suspended licenses or registrations. (Rosario said that Philadelphia’s live stop program was suspended at the beginning of COVID, but resumed at the end of July.)
Craigo and the rest of Riverfront North, which is in the process of building a 10-acre riverfront park in Bridesburg, just want to nip this behavior in the bud before it gets out of control.
With the City of Philadelphia, Riverfront North is “trying to build amenities for the community,” Craigo said. “We want to be a part of people’s opportunity to use open space and recreate safely.”