The Philadelphia Inquirer
By Kia Gregory | Inquirer Staff Writer
One rainy Monday evening, chairman Big Frank calls the meeting to order.
Fifteen men sit before him around a long table in the basement of the Tustin Playground recreation center. There’s a teacher, a firefighter, a construction worker, and a few ex-cons, business owners, and retirees. All are from this Overbrook neighborhood, and, through their connection at the table as the Men of Tustin, call one another brother.
Big Frank, 6-foot-4 and just over 400 pounds, in a navy velour sweat suit, begins with a moment of silence. It’s for cofounder Turahn “Umar” Wilson, who prodded many of them to this table with his nagging plea: “We need you.” Now that he’s gone, dead of a heart attack at 36, the men continue out of loyalty and urgency.
During the two-hour meeting, as children play overhead, Brother William stews about a second grader who missed three days of school because she didn’t have snow boots. “We’re the Men of Tustin,” he asserts, on his feet, “we can do something about that.” The men collect $28 so a young member can buy his prescription medicine. Recently, Big Frank says, they pulled together for a guy who’d messed up a drug dealer’s money and needed $175 to protect his life.
The Men of Tustin have met at 7 p.m. every Monday for the last seven months. With their $10 monthly dues, fund-raisers, and been-there-done-that wisdom, they are fighting for a community of hard work, warmth, and pride that is being pulled down by crime and neglect.
The playground, at 59th Street and Columbia Avenue, sits across from Overbrook High School, alma mater of astronaut Guion S. Bluford, Jr., NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain, and rapper-turned megastar Will Smith. Growing up nearby, many of the Tustin men played basketball, flirted with girls, fought in gangs, and found trouble. Their families weathered white flight and the devastation of gangs and crack.
“Now you have families that are being run by women,” says Big Frank, whose real name is Frank Lindsey. He’s 51 and works as a mental-health counselor. “So there’s really no opportunity for young men to be mentored by men. You got young guys looking up to young guys as an example for what men should look like.”
In the last year, according to police reports, three people have been killed within a mile south of the recreation center, all black men between 18 and 24 shot in the chest and head.
It’s middle-of-the-road as far the city’s high-crime areas go. But there have been enough shootings, burglaries, and robberies to keep residents wary.
Some nights, fights erupt between the Lancaster Avenue and Master Street gangs, several Tustin men say, gangs that some of them were once lost in.
“The grandkids of the people that I ran with are the people doing a lot of this stuff on the street,” says Men of Tustin president James Haley, 57. “Men look up to men, and we need to come out from behind the curtains and skirts and get out there.”
Lindsey, father of a 30-year-old son, is more diplomatic. “Just the presence of men having the same purpose and mindset is influential. We wanted to provide some example of men working together.”
At the rec center, the Tustin men have funded and coached a summer basketball league for 70 youths. They’ve hosted family days, and gospel Fridays. During the winter, they gave out 600 coats.
When a group of teens took to smoking marijuana and drinking beer in the playground, the Tustin men shut it down by holding a series of flea markets, standing by while grandmothers and mothers sold their wares.
“Y’all got to smoke your blunts tomorrow,” Lindsey remembers saying. “Because it ain’t gonna be blunt day today.”
So began an intergenerational dialogue.
“They respect it, because we respect them,” Lindsey says. “Some of them are nice kids. We just don’t know how to relate to them, and they feel ostracized already, so it’s easy for them to act inappropriate.”
More than shooing away guys who sell drugs, smoke blunts, or recruit for gangs at the playground, in front of bodegas, and on corners, the Tustin men try to mentor them in a positive direction.
“If I chase them off this corner, they just go to the next,” says Leroy Edney, nicknamed Brother Beyah. Edney knows firsthand, having spent much of his youth as “a hothead bad guy.”
After his father “jumped ship,” Edney says, “My mother wasn’t in a position to get me the things I thought I needed.” So he got his own money. He spent 28 years in prison for robbing a bank and two supermarkets. Out less than a year, he now donates much of his time to the youth at Tustin.
The Men of Tustin are slowly making their presence known.
“By the men being here,” says recreation leader Celestine Marks, “the kids see I have somebody who’s going to be here for me, and they look forward to that.”
At the meeting, Haley, sitting near a sign about the after-school program, serves with a clear purpose.
He lost his son and two nephews to drugs and violence. And he wasted much of his life on the streets.
“For the destruction I caused,” he says, “I just want to see some successful stories in our neighborhoods.”
Haley grew up in a broken home and was arrested at 11.
“I was one of the first guys who helped start the youth study center,” he says, “and it just started from there.”
He graduated into being a feared gang leader. “People didn’t know I was scared to death. But I was more afraid of letting them know I was afraid.”
When Haley was 20, a leader in an anti-violence movement told him something he’d never forget: “Are you willing to die for something you don’t even own? You think you own that corner? Stand there for half an hour and see what the police do.”
“It took 27 years later for that light of wisdom to come on,” says Haley, flecks of gray in his beard.
In the meantime, he became addicted to heroin and did stints in jail. Once, he says, while his wife lay in the hospital with cancer, he sold everything in their home.
“I finally said, ‘God, I’m done.’ I was tired of hurting people who loved me.”
Haley, still married, now owns a general-contracting business. He also buys and fixes up abandoned property. He’s been clean for 25 years.
“I know I’m a miracle walking,” he says. “People told me I’d be dead at 12 . . .. I want to show people there is hope.”
Half a mile from the playground, on the 1600 block of North 57th Street, Haley is converting an old eyesore into a catering hall. He plans to hire Overbrook youth to run it.
“I want to be able to show…” He pauses. “The main thing kids say is, ‘If I stop selling drugs, how will I make money?’ I want to tell them, ‘I can’t help you make drug money, but you can make a living.’ ”
Lindsey, who grew up two blocks from Haley, boils it down to choices.
“We’re all victims of the same situation,” he says. “We’re born poor and black. It’s not an affliction, but it’s a situation. Either you rise above it or succumb to it. We’re here because we see a need.”
At Tustin, the baseball field is mud and red clay, and it floods when it rains. The basketball court is a patch of brutal concrete.
About a dozen youth come to the after-school program, where Tustin men volunteer. Anwar Jones, 15, comes for the boxing program. One afternoon, upstairs in the muggy gym, he delivered a flurry of punches as Brother William Edney, Beyah’s brother held up mitts.
A high school junior, Jones says he was 5 when his father was murdered. He lives with his aunt. Edney trains him, seeing his risk and potential. Across the hall, the karate instructor, a petite, six-degree black belt, trains her small class. In another room, a handful of girls sit at old, slow computers.
At the Men of Tustin meeting, the treasurer reports the account has $28. The focus turns to a coming fund-raiser at a nearby banquet hall. Tickets are $20. Sales have been slow.
“The more we sell, the more independent we come,” says Big Frank. “God bless the child that has his own . . .. Remind people we’re not doing this to put a buck in our own pocket. We have a positive purpose. Keep that in mind, gentlemen.”
Big Frank asks whether there’s any new business.
There’s registration for a flag football league; and two ping-pong tables are being delivered in a few days. Brother William stands up and hands each man a flier.
It’s an advertisement for a bundle of communications services, including Internet access, for $30 a month and a $150 computer system. Tustin kids need to have computers, he stresses, if they are to succeed in school.
At the barbershop where he works, a half-mile from the playground, he says he gives free haircuts to students who earn As and Bs on their report cards. He’ll even take Cs. “And they can’t even make that,” he laments.
“We’re going to change that,” chimes Brother Beyah.
He assures them the computer and Internet service works; he’s had it for four months. He wants the company to come in for a presentation.
“We can put computers in our children’s homes,” he says. “Let’s stop this ballgame b.s. or we’re going to drop the ball. I’m not trying to drop the ball when it comes to our kids.”
Big Frank puts a motion before the group. He proposes they use $800 from proceeds of the planned fund-raiser to provide one computer and a year of Internet access to four Tustin families via a lottery.
“All in favor?” Big Frank asks.
The decision is unanimously approved..