The Boy Who Is Not Allowed to Ride His Bike

ACEL MOORE

September 30, 1992|By ACEL MOORE

Philadelphia. -- Despite the fact that Cory is already 9 years old, the woman he calls Grandmom walks him the two blocks to and from school every day, as she has done since he was in kindergarten.

Cory has a two-wheeler, but hasn't learned to ride it. He's unable to play on the sidewalk in front of his house, unless he's being watched by an adult. Nor can he go to the corner store by himself to buy candy.

None of the restrictions is the result of any mental or physical disability. Quite the contrary. Cory is by any measure a healthy boy, who loves being active, and is always interested in new challenges. He is a precocious fourth-grader who not only made the honor role at the Frederick Douglass Elementary School last year, but had the highest score on the reading test of any child in his grade.

His problem is that he lives in a neighborhood that has been taken over by the drug culture.

The woman he calls Grandmom is his legal guardian. She has taken care of him since he was three months old, and takes extraordinary precautions to protect him -- for good reason. Cory's neighborhood is a world where car chases, gunfights and violent death are a part of daily life -- not something seen only in the movies or on television.

There are not many days on which Cory does not hear the sound of gunfire resulting from disputes between rival drug gangs. It's gotten to the point where, unless someone is hit, no one even bothers to call the police. ''The police take so long to come it isn't worth it to call,'' says Grandmom.

Teen-age boys and young men deal drugs freely in his neighborhood, including the corners right around the Douglass School, at 22d and Norris Streets, that he and Grandmom pass by every day. The young men also gamble openly on the street corners.

Cory regularly hears the loud, angry, profane voices of young men. He has seen young men rob elderly citizens. He sees cars race down the narrow streets, sometimes in flight from pursuing police, and sometimes just for fun.

One result is that you rarely see children jumping rope or playing hopscotch in the street. In fact you don't see many children out on the street at all.

Cory hasn't learned to ride his two-wheeler because he isn't allowed to take it outside alone. In fact, he never ventures out alone, or even sits on the porch without an adult present -- summer or winter.

Grandmom is constantly giving him instructions like, ''When I tell you to come in from the porch you come immediately'' -- and he knows why. His small back yard is the only place he can go outdoors unescorted for a little fresh air. ''The air is the same back there as it is in front,'' Grandmom tells him.

As a result he leads a tightly circumscribed existence. When he comes home from school, he does his homework. Then he either watches television, or plays with his Ninja Turtles or Batman figures. He also loves to read and draw.

He is not the only child in the neighborhood who lives this kind of restricted life. He shares his home, a three-bedroom row house, with his brother, 7, and sister, 8, who both follow the same confined daily regimen.

All the younger children in his neighborhood have learned to hit the floor instinctively whenever they hear the sound of gunfire. Other women who live in the neighborhood and are raising children -- usually grandchildren -- tell stories much the same as those Cory and Grandmom relate. (The actual parents of the children, including Cory's mother, have in most cases become casualties of the drug wars in one way or another.)

I have known about this situation in this neighborhood in North Philadelphia, and it is not the only neighborhood in the city where there is apparent anarchy of this kind. I have been reluctant to write about it, because when you do write about a situation like this, there's a tendency for many readers, particularly those in the suburbs, to think that the whole city is like this, and it isn't. Most neighborhoods, even most poor neighborhoods, are not this bad.

I decided to write about it when I thought about Cory having to grow up unable even to play on the sidewalk in front of his house. Something has to be done to change this world of unchecked violence so that Cory's Grandmom does not have to worry constantly that he will be killed by an errant bullet or a speeding auto.

Children in neighborhoods like this one do not get a chance to be children. ''They have no childhood -- they almost have to be born grown-up,'' says Grandmom.

Her greatest fear is of that day, which will come soon, when she will not be able to keep him from venturing out alone. She thinks it's no more than two years off, at the time he starts middle school. By then he must be able to fend for himself. Grandmom will no longer be able to take him to school, since that would cause him embarrassment.

Her fears are not unfounded. In just the first 10 years of his life he has seen and experienced first-hand more violence and danger than most people encounter in a lifetime.

And it's only going to get worse. The leading cause of death for African American males between ages 18 and 24 is homicide.

L Acel Moore is associate editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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