Published Online:

'Dogtown Hustler': Life in a Philadelphia Gang

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

PHILADELPHIA--In Thomas Gilliam's mind, joining the gang in his neighborhood here was a matter of survival.

"If I hadn't, I wouldn't really had no friends, no respect,'' he says, "I'd be fighting every day.''

He thinks some more on the subject and shrugs.

"It was just the neighborhood,'' he adds.

Mr. Gilliam's neighborhood in the city's Germantown section is an area populated by drug dealers, youth gangs, elderly people, and working-class families struggling to make ends meet.

Gangs have been a part of the landscape in that part of the city at least as long as Mr. Gilliam can remember. An older brother belonged to a gang before him and a younger brother is following in the same footsteps.

At 19, Mr. Gilliam is a wary young man whose reserve fades when he talks about the reputation he built for himself in the streets of his neighborhood.

Clad in expensive sneakers and an Adidas sweat shirt, Mr. Gilliam discussed life in an urban street gang one morning last month at the headquarters of Crisis Intervention Network, a nonprofit community group that works with the city's gang population. He had been ordered to attend CIN's program as a condition of his probation sentence.

CIN was launched in the early 1970's when gang wars throughout the city were claiming young lives at the rate of nearly one a week. Though the gang-related violence that plagued Philadelphia in those years has diminished significantly, CIN continues working with young gang members like Mr. Gilliam in an effort to provide them with alternatives to their dangerous lifestyles.

Failing that, the group's primary aim is much more basic: It tries to keep children and teen-agers from hurting one another when gang rivalries erupt.

"The only thing I've ever seen break up a gang is urban renewal,'' says Bennie J. Swanns Jr., the program's executive director and a former gang member himself.

"A kid doesn't just pick up a gun,'' he adds, "something precipitates it and we try to stop it before it happens.''

Civil War Roots

The network estimates that Philadelphia is home to some 90 youth gangs with 8,000 members.

Some of those gangs date back at least as far as the Civil War, says Sister Falaka Fattah, who runs House of Umoja, a home for gang members in another part of the city.

She says the former slaves who migrated to the North after the war found that banding together with other "home boys'' from their towns in the South could afford them some protection from the hazards of city life.

Today, the street gangs have evolved into closely knit groupings with their own distinct hierarchies. Gang members are ranked, according to their ages, as "peewees,'' "young boys,'' "juniors,'' or "oldheads,'' say CIN counselors who work with the gangs. They say the last category includes men as old as 30.

Were he still an active gang member, Mr. Gilliam would be classified as either a "young boy'' or a "junior,'' depending upon the categorical system in his own gang.

When he joined his neighborhood gang, the "Dogtown Hustlers,'' the group was simply made up of a "bunch of us in the neighborhood that hung together,'' Mr. Gilliam says.

"You fight other neighborhoods to get a name for your neighborhood,'' he explains. "That's what it boils down to.''

"The drugs, robbing people--mostly all of the guys do that, too,'' he adds. For most members, however, those activities came later, according to the youth.

As they grew older, Mr. Gilliam and members of other gangs across the city say they began to acquire weapons--.45-caliber pistols, shotguns, knives, and even some Uzi semiautomatic pistols.

Mr. Gilliam says the Israeli-made Uzis acquired by the gangs that he knows came from drug dealers who used the weapons to protect their drug trade.

"I had a .25 at home but I never kept any big calibers there,'' Mr. Gilliam says.

His mother never knew of his gang membership, he says. His father died before he was born, and he claims to have seen little of his stepfather over the years.

Peddling Crack

Mr. Gilliam and others interviewed for this story say life in their gangs and in their neighborhoods changed dramatically when crack, a derivative of cocaine, first appeared on Philadelphia streets. Less expensive than cocaine, crack is accessible to those who never before could afford to purchase such a potent--and highly addictive--drug.

"We all still be together but everybody sells drugs,'' says Mr. Gilliam. "Ain't nobody worrying about fighting.''

Mr. Gilliam says the drug trade in his neighborhood was controlled by dealers who were noticeable for the expensive cars they drove and the elaborate rings they wore. The dealers, many of them born in Jamaica, would recruit children and teen-agers from the neighborhood to help them ply their trade. Some of their recruits belonged to Mr. Gilliam's gang; others did not.

"You never hear their names but you get busted and they come and bail you out,'' he says.

Mr. Gilliam says his own career in the drug trade began years ago. And he claims to have conducted his most lucrative business in the bathrooms of Philadelphia public schools.

"Last summer, I used to sell a $20 bag of powder [cocaine] that you had to cook,'' he says, "I had a Cadillac last summer.''

"Now--cooked--a little rock [crack] costs $5 a cap,'' he continues. "This summer, you can imagine how it'll be.''

Yet, even as Mr. Gilliam describes the profits to be made in drug trafficking, he notes the devastation that drugs have caused in his own neighborhood.

He describes small children left unattended while their parents smoked crack at a neighborhood crack house--a dwelling rented by a drug dealer to provide customers with a place to use his products.

"The kids got holes on the sides of their sneakers and their toes wave at you like your pinky,'' he says.

"This crack is no joke unless you're on top, then it's all right.'' Mr. Gilliam says. His own drug use, he notes, is confined to marijuana and marijuana cigarettes laced with cocaine.

The years he spent as a member of a youth gang have left their imprint on his life, the young man says. He claims to have been arrested eight times for a variety of suspected criminal offenses, ranging from drug dealing to attempted homicide. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade, and he has been incarcerated in a juvenile-detention facility.

Now, Mr. Gilliam says, he is ready to put aside his former lifestyle. At CIN, he studies daily in an effort to earn a General Educational Development certificate. Several afternoons a week, he attends prenatal and child-care classes with his pregnant girlfriend.

And, he says, he hopes the program can help place him in a "good'' job.

"We're not talking Burger King,'' he notes.

"I looked at this like this is the last chance for you to get yourself together,'' Mr. Gilliam says. "You blow this, you might as well blow your whole life.''

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories