Darryl Thomas (center), owner of Philly Cuts on Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia, listens as state Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, talks to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro. Shapiro visited the community landmark on Saturday, Oct. 22 2022 (Capital-Star photo).
For Darryl Thomas, Philly Cuts, the barbershop he’s run on Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia since 1997, is more than just a place to get a trim and talk sports.
“It’s a meeting place for people of good will,” Thomas, an institution within his community, told the Capital-Star on a recent Saturday morning, as he and his staff prepared for a visit by Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro.
“We pride ourselves on providing an intimate space where individuals and elected officials who have the community’s best interest at heart,” can have a platform, he said.
And intimate is one way to put it.
Space in the narrow storefront quickly becomes a premium as patrons and stylists who efficiently keep clipping away jockey for position with local elected officials, journalists, and community advocates who have come to hear Shapiro pitch his candidacy and his policies.
This West Philadelphia community has seen some of the worst of the gun violence that’s shattered the lives of scores of city residents this year, taking a toll not just on families, but also tightly knit school and church communities, as well as workplaces.
It’s a ripple effect that Will Mega, an educator and an administrator in the city’s school system knows all too well. The trauma of the seemingly unending string of shootings across the city has a multiplier effect, he explained.
“The Roxborough [High School] shooting impacted my school,” Mega said referring to last month’s deadly ambush shooting near the city school that claimed the life of one teenager, and injured four others.
“I deal with the trauma that has trickled in from the street,” Mega continued, explaining his challenges as calmly as he might explain school policies to one of his students. “There is a tie. If someone is shot or killed, it’s felt in families, with friends, and in the barber shop.
“These are the fires that I spend my day trying to put out,” Mega, who already is contending with the same staffing shortages plaguing schools across Pennsylvania, concluded. “Because we don’t have the resources to address them.”
Maxwell Brown is one of those people who’s trying to do what he can to provide a balm for the violence and a safe space for the kids in his neighborhood.
Brown, a former offender who served 14 years in Rockview State Prison in Centre County, runs a website called GettingTheMaxOutOfLife, where he bills himself as a transformational life coach and motivational speaker.
One program he offers, “It Works for Me,” aims to provide support and assistance to single-parent households and low-income families struggling to pay the bills, by “[empowering] its participants to to recognize how much power and control they have over their lives and its destiny through their actions, attitude and behaviors.”
In an interview outside Thomas’ shop, Brown told the Capital-Star that the people who live in his neighborhood need to learn that government won’t solve their problems, but it does “find solutions.”
But he said he also believes policymakers in Harrisburg fumble those solutions for a simple reason: “They don’t look like us.”
“Pennsylvania is not a big city state. It’s a rural state,” he said. “They don’t know how the urban areas function. They don’t know how to deal with the issues.”
A case in point — the Republican-led effort to impeach Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who has pursued progressive “de-prosecution policies,” that GOP lawmakers argue have driven the increase in murder in the city.
As the Capital-Star reported earlier this week, new research has shown that there’s “no evidence” linking progressive prosecutors to homicide spikes.
And the study whose findings Pennsylvania Republicans used to drive a critical assessment of Krasner that was released this week has been widely criticized for its faulty methodology, according to The Intercept.
Community members who spoke to the Capital-Star for this story said they have their differences with Philadelphia’s top prosecutor, but they don’t hold him responsible for the violence in the city.
“It’s grandstanding,” Kenny Payne, who works in tech sales, and who has been getting his hair cut at Thomas’ shop for 20 years, said. “This is West Philly. They [Republican lawmakers] comment on crime, but they don’t have any solutions.”
During a Q&A session with the crowd, Shapiro, who’s been hustled into stylist James Browne’s chair for a quick touch-up, outlines some of his plans.
Schools should be “opportunity zones,” the two-term attorney general said, adding that he wants to put more police officers on the street who “get out of their cars and walk the beat,” and “make the investments that deal with the underlying drivers” of crime.
It’s a practiced patter, but one that resonates with Thomas, his patrons, and the supporters who already are on-side. And it’s the only place they’re going to come to hear it.
“This is the barbershop,” Thomas said, underlining the central role of his shop and local salons play in the life of the Black community in Philadelphia and so many cities across the country. “Everyone comes here.”
And later, after Shapiro, the politicians, and journalists have all left, Thomas, his staff, and the community advocates trying to make their corner of Philadelphia a little bit better, do what they’ve always done.
They get back to work.
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