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Naming the Dead

Jonathan Menjivar

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Yong Lee Standing on the Street Memorial
(Jonathan Menjivar)
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From the sidewalks of St. Paul to the cobblestones of Philadelphia, Pa. Girard Avenue crosses the entire city east to west. And often it's a dividing line: Gentrifying Center City neighborhoods stop at Girard. Reporter Jonathan Menjivar was at 28th Street and Girard recently, where he found the sidewalk impossible to ignore.

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The first time I noticed the memorial at 28th and Girard, I was standing on top of it. I was feeding a meter and fumbling around for quarters when something on the sidewalk caught my eye. There were all of these names and dates written in what looked like Wite-Out. Each name got its own tiny cobblestone. A lot of them said R.I.P. and they looked like little tombstones. Philly can be a rough town - the kind of city where you're always watching your back - but it's still startling to see this kind of literal concrete evidence that a neighborhood is dangerous.

Girard Avenue is a mostly commercial strip that runs east-west across the entire north side of Philly. On my side of town, new restaurants and music venues are slowly pushing out the fast food joints and thrift stores. (The strip club, however, doesn't seem to be going anywhere). At 28th Street, commercial means a laundromat, tattoo parlor, a dollar store, a vet, a beauty supply shop and a hair-braiding salon. The memorial is right outside of a sneaker store called Yong's Sneaker City, and I thought someone there might know something about it. So I went in.

"Yeah, we did it," said John Lewis. He was working the afternoon shift.

"It's a lot of our friends that died." I ask him if he knows how they died. "In the street. Shot. You know." Someone else in the store pipes up and says that a couple of them died from natural causes, and John shoots back, "Who? Which ones from natural causes?"

"Uh…Roller."

"Roller? Oh yeah."

Later, I find out that "natural causes" for Roller meant a drug overdose. John tells me that the person I really need to talk to is the store's owner Yong Lee. But he won't be back for an hour or so.

The day is hot. Everyone I stop outside on the street doesn't want to talk to me. They say they don't know anything about the memorial or that they've never noticed it before. An old guy in the laundromat across the street tells me, "I don't think I know any of them. I may have known them by sight, but they're dead, so I don't know them by name."

Eventually, Yong Lee comes back. He tells me that he's the one who made the memorial. And to understand why, it's helpful to back up a little. Yong was 15 when he emigrated to Philly from Korea. He was in his third year at Penn State when his father had an accident and he knew he had to do something to help out. "I was the only son in the family," Yong says. "So you know how this Oriental custom is."

Yong's Sneaker City has been in the same spot for 23 years, and it's kind of become a neighborhood hang-out. Yong got to know a lot of his customers and some of them became friends. One day he printed out a scanned picture of one of the guys who'd died and hung it just above the door of the store.

"I started with one picture," he says, pointing up at the 12 or so faded printouts, "and then people, you know their family asked me, can they put the pictures up there. So you know I say, OK, c'mon bring them down here." He pauses briefly. "I had more, but I ran out of space which is bad. You know, I don't want to see a lot of people die."

Yong felt like he wanted to do more. And then about four years ago, on a really hot summer day, the store was empty and he had some time on his hands. And he was looking up at his little gallery and thinking about all these guys who'd spent time hanging out in the store and he thought, "maybe people might, you know, remember those guys if I put it outside on the street."

So he went outside and started writing their names.

"I think I used exterior paint," Yong says, "Yeah, white paint."

Cobblestones don't allow a lot of room for words of remembrance--just dates and names, really. And a lot of them are nicknames. There's Sweet Pea, Wink, Baby Hulk, J. Boy, Black Ernie, Worm, Big Squeek and Curly Joe.

And then there's One Arm Marky.

"He only had one arm," Yong says, explaining the obvious. "He was crazy. He used to uh, you know, ride motorcycle with one hand. And he'd do…what you call that?

"A wheelie?" I suggest.

"Yeah. And uh, he got into fight with this pretty big guy." Yong's laughing now, "with one arm, he knocked this guy out.

We're standing over the memorial, and Yong leans his hand against a tree right next to it. We're scanning it, passing over the weeds growing between all the cobblestones and cigarette butts people have left behind, when this big guy shouts out to me, "That's a good man right there."

His name is Dallas, and he tells me that Yong really takes care of the neighborhood. "Like if you're $20, $10 short," he says, "and you're a good customer, he lets you go. He got the newest, the latest, and the greatest stuff. He's a real good merchant, man. I really respect this guy right here. Good dude."

I suggest that it seems like Yong is more than just a shoe merchant.

"I mean, I mean," Dallas continues, "he's a human being first of all. And he understands. And I'm a black guy and I got the ultimate respect for him like that."

A lot of the men on the memorial - they are all men by the way - sound like they were kind of rough guys. But Yong remembers all of them fondly. He points out another stone for someone named Julius Piccard who he tells me was a good friend and JBM member.

"Junior Black Mafia," Yong clarifies. "It's kind of a...vicious street gang."

"So when you say he was a good friend, what do you mean?" I ask.

"I mean you know, even though he might have a different life, I didn't look at him like he was a gangster or none of that. I don't know. Maybe that's why people still like me around here. I mean, this is kind of one of the worst areas in Philly. But I'm still alive."

Yong laughs a little nervously. He says he was robbed at gunpoint once, but mostly he feels safe here. Even though he moved out to the suburbs years ago, sometimes he'll still get beers with guys from the neighborhood. Once he took a bunch of his friends down to the Jersey Shore for a deep sea fishing trip. Most of the guys had never been fishing. A lot of them had never even left Philly. And there they were, out on the ocean in a boat Yong had chartered and paid for.

"They say I'm down, like their people," Yong says. "You know I'm like one of them. I've been here for so long, I mean, I'm almost like a black even though I'm Asian."

Yong is in his fifties now, and he says that sometimes he thinks about retiring or trying something else. He's looked into selling the business a couple times, but most of the people he's talked to have told him that they've just heard too many bad things about this neighborhood. So he has to stay.

"Yeah," Yong says sighing a little. "I'm pretty much stuck here."

Stuck, but also pretty much home.

  • Music Bridge:
    Detruisons Tout
    Artist: Benoit Pioulard
    CD: Temper (Kranky)

Comments

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  • By rick lemond

    From valley center, CA, 02/12/2009

    Moving story. Most of us walk through life with our eyes looking straight ahead, never seeing what is at our feet. It's good that you saw this, you could have walked on by.

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