Standing in front of a small crowd of his fellow Fishtown residents at the corner of Albert and Tulip streets Wednesday evening, Tony Cassetta explained what it’s like to find out you lost a loved one to suicide. The day starts out as a typical one, he said, until “it takes an unforeseen left turn.” The gathering of roughly 150 people, illuminated by makeshift Solo Cup candles held in their outstretched arms, listened quietly.
“That’s just what happened to us.”
Last year, Cassetta and his wife Kiara Love lost their 16-year-old son Calogero to suicide by hanging, which is why it was particularly upsetting for them to see their neighbors’ Halloween decorations include a noose hanging from the rooftop balcony of their home.
“Given the context of what’s happened in our family and losing our son, it was really off-putting and triggering to us,” Cassetta said. “So I discussed with my wife that we should probably go out there and just let them know what’s happened to us and see if they’ll consider removing it.”
But the neighbor, according to Cassetta, “wasn’t receptive.” Nonetheless, it was removed. Cassetta and Love were appreciative, and discussed ways to show their appreciation with their neighbors. Perhaps they’d buy them some flowers or wine, Cassetta thought.
“But before we could even get them flowers, not only did they put it back, but they put it back with a mannequin hanging from it,” Cassetta said. Cassetta and his wife were initially angry, but it’s their “mantra” not to act on emotions. Instead, Cassetta and Love thought perhaps their neighbors needed more context. After posting about the incident in a Fishtown-centric Facebook group, Love wrote a letter to the neighbors, asking one more time if the decoration could be taken down, but to no avail. Instead, the neighbors delivered a letter of their own in response. The message started off as understanding and cordial.
“Firstly, our condolences for such a tragic loss,” reads the first sentence. But that’s where the cordiality would end. In the letter, which, according to Cassetta, was written by the wife in the household, the neighbors flaunt that they had previously left their “6,000 sq ft home with a swimming pool” Philadelphia area for a job that paid $100,000 more in Miami. They moved back to the area, the letter explained, after enduring five years of “vulgar” Latin culture. Long story short, the letter says that writer was “beyond blessed to be back in my culture again,” which includes Halloween.
The words that followed confirmed that the decoration wasn’t going to be removed: “The death of your child has absolutely nothing to do with our decorations … no decoration will be comming [sic] down and you have absolutely no right to ask.”
But eventually, according to Cassetta, the hanging mannequin decoration was moved from its rooftop location around 10 p.m. on Tuesday evening to the ground floor behind a living room window.
“Kind of in antagonistic fashion, they placed the mannequin on the ground floor window facing out so it’s staring at our home,” said Cassetta. “And they left their lights on all night so that this thing could be there looking at us.”
On Thursday afternoon, the Star knocked on the door of the household. A man answered, but refused to comment for this story.
In the meantime, Fishtown residents Omar Zaater and Emily Resnick, who learned about the incident from Cassetta’s Facebook post, took note of how much support the Cassettas received on Facebook.
“A thousand comments and nobody is infighting,” said Resnick. “People are fighting over street cleaning and trash day, but for this everybody came together and it was really amazing.”
In the wake of the Facebook post, Zaater and Resnick co-planned the gathering of residents Cassetta spoke at Wednesday night. Zaater and Resnick merely wanted to show the Cassettas that their neighbors across the street were outnumbered by neighbors across Fishtown who supported them.
“All I want to do is show people that there’s another side to the coin,” said Zaater. “In this case it was showing Tony that there’s other people [in the neighborhood] that aren’t like their inconsiderate neighbors.”
They didn’t, however, want to show up those very inconsiderate neighbors. Instead of having the gathering right outside the house, they walked to the far end of the block.
Noah Hepler, pastor of Atonement Lutheran Church, came out to the gathering as well. He hopped on board when he learned that the gathering would be about focusing “on the virtuous aspects of the community rather than retaliating against something.”
Cassetta said he “didn’t want to antagonize anybody.”
“That’s not how you get to the bottom of this,” he said. “We wanted to switch the focus from an ‘us vs. them’ idea to a general understanding that suicide is an important thing [to talk about] and we can use this to address that issue and not necessarily focus on [the neighbors’] behavior.”
Janet Bernstein, constituent services adviser for state Rep. Joe Hohenstein (D-177th dist.), was also present at the gathering. She read a statement on behalf of Hohenstein and his fellow lawmakers, Mary Isaacson (D-175th dist.) and Malcolm Kenyatta (D-181st dist.).
“We are making this statement to denounce the racist and insensitive act of hanging a person in effigy in view of parents who lost their child to suicide,” the statement included. “Our obligation as elected officials, accountable to our communities, is to respond to hate by rejecting it through our words and deeds and to give a positive message of inclusion to counter the negative, fearful, and hateful ones.”
Despite the actions of his immediate neighbors, Cassetta still held out some hope that they’d learn from their actions.
“I’m not past that,” he said. “Everybody has an opportunity to learn and, obviously, what she wrote from that letter is hateful and it comes from somewhere and I hope she gets some help and gets past whatever hate she has in her heart.”
At the end of the day, what the Cassettas focus the most on isn’t the fact that the decoration was taken down. Instead, they pinpointed the community’s collective support for their family and their cause.
“This is Fishtown,” Love said at the gathering. “All of us here know this is our true soul and to show up and be here is really an absolutely powerful feeling.”