Three rehabilitated drug dealers in North Philadelphia made the leap to legitimate employment by turning their old drug den into a clothing store. Sound crazy? Despite the blight, the poverty and the despair, a father and two sons decided to take the craziness they call life in North Philly and make it work to their advantage. They call it the All Crazy Paint Shop.
It looks like any other block party - with a DJ, lots of food, and neighbors enjoying themselves on a warm summer night. But elected officials and local reporters were also on hand to celebrate the grand opening of a new business in this poor, crime-ridden section of Philadelphia. The All Crazy Paint Shop is located on a spot where just months ago, you could score a vial of crack cocaine. So, the block party was also about showcasing the three men who demonstrate what can happen when untapped creativity and sales skills are channeled into a legitimate business instead of selling drugs.
Edward "Joe-Joe" Terrell, 42, has been dealing drugs, hustling in and out of jail since the 1980's. His two oldest sons started selling crack and other drugs when they were in high school. Terrell Thorne, now 20, says he just wanted to be like all his classmates. He wanted to wear nice clothes and take girls out on dates, but he didn't have any money. So at 15 years of age, he started dealing drugs.
"I know I wasn't going to be doing this for long. It was just a quick thing to get fast money. That's all there really was and there wasn't, there ain't no use to doing it anymore. It's not worth it no more. This time we got bigger and better plans now, I mean. Our goal is to keep, keep on going," he explains.
Now he's joined his father at a legal trade and is working hard to put his past behind him. Edward Terrell said he hopes The All Crazy Paint Shop will help his kids realize their true potential as honest citizens, so they won't have to return to a life of crime.
"So now you know I try to do my best. Hoping to do it for my sons. You know but they ain't got to sell drugs. They can use their talent to get whatever they want in life," Mr. Terrell says.
His family's new business operates out of the house where he used to sell drugs. Outside, the front door is decorated with a brightly painted T-shirt and inside, Terrell Thorne says, anything can get painted, from clothing to furniture. "We do everything, watches, belt, pocketbook, sneakers, whatever," he says.
Terrell Thorne's brother, Alex Rodriguez, also tried his hand at drug dealing and spent time in jail. But he says he is proud of his new, responsible lifestyle.
"I feel good because I am doing something legal now. I know little kids done seen us doing the wrong thing. Now they look at us a different way," he said.
It's a change that's welcomed by long-time residents like Virginia Berrin. She's lived on this block for 37 years, and known the Terrell family for most of that time. She's happy they're trying to better themselves.
"They are trying to be better. They was a little bad but now they are doing it a little better. So I'm with them. After they you know trying to get out of that drug business and stuff like that. I'm with anybody to try and do better. Trying to better themselves, you know," Ms. Berrin said.
The owners of the All Crazy Paint shop also have the support of their local Ward leader, Eleanor Brown. "This is one of the better things that has happened in our community. They will leave footprints they can step in and they will leave footprints they can follow. They are instrumental in letting us look up and be about something. So not only do they have the support with my heart and my prayers, but financially, all I have they can get," Ms. Brown said.
But the local official is keeping a watchful eye on the Paint Shop, because she knows when it comes to fast money and dealing drugs it's easy for people to slip and make mistakes.
In fact, some of the neighbors call the Terrells' new enterprise a joke and a sham and say they expect that the men will be dealing drugs out of the back of their shop in a matter of weeks. Eleanor Brown says she understands their animosity.
"Sometimes change is a threat to you. Change means you have to be responsible to you. And a lot of them do not want to be responsible for change for themselves. So they want to hold you back for not changing you. And it's okay. Because this way you know who the players are for you or against you. And you deal accordingly," she said.
A surprise guest at the block party was Philadelphia Police Commissioner, Sylvester Johnson. A little over one year ago, determined to take back the city's blighted neighborhoods, he and the mayor created Operation Safe Streets. The Program targets open-air drug markets like the one that used to be on this corner using 24-hour police surveillance. The constant police presence has convinced some drug dealers, like the Terrell's, to get out of the business.
Commissioner Johnson says he is pleased with what they've chosen to do instead. "No, I didn't expect to see something like this happening but I'm glad it is happening. I want to see people involved in criminal activity especially in the area of drugs do something productive. Because it is one thing when you are dealing the drugs which is really a business, but I would rather see them go into a good business rather than into the illegal business. So I think this is a testimony of what Operation Safe Streets has done," he said.
With close to 300 drug corners shut down citywide and police keeping a watchful eye on the streets, children living in this community say they're beginning to feel safe.
Thirteen-year-old Tamisha Broagden lives around the corner from the Paint Shop, and says she likes the changes she's seen in the neighborhood and her neighbors. "I think it's nice. He stopped selling drugs to make his own paints and his shirts and all that and his sons are helping him. It's nice," she said.
Police departments across the United States are working hard to make their communities safe to shut down the drug trade and stop the violence it fosters. It's a big challenge, but Commissioner Sylvester Johnson says Philadelphia has shown it can be done and he hopes that message will spread. He'd like to see more signs like the one on the Terrell's new business: "Drug Shop Closed! Now All Crazy Paint Shop."