On a hot summer day in June, my partner Tess was on the phone while I was downstairs in the basement (what I call my “command center”), still working as we approached the end of the day. Astoundingly calm, I could hear Tess ask her friend to hold and then proclaimed down the basement stairs: “Dave, there’s a man in the backyard, looks like he’s trying to steal something”.
Naturally, I ran up the stairs, probably in about 4 leaps total, and came upon my living room, which has a transparent sliding glass door. The curtains were already pulled back, and Tess’s account was scarily accurate. There was a half-naked man in my backyard, half-way through stealing my wheelbarrow over the fence I shared with the alleyway.
As I saw the man, I turned back to look at Tess and she was still on the phone, apparently undeterred by the current situation. I then opened the glass door, and with more colorful language than I should include here, asked the man what he thought he was doing. He immediately stopped and said he was sorry, explaining that he just needed a better cart for his things. You see, Tess and I live in the East Kensington part of Philly, which is uncomfortably close to the heroin epidemic of north Philadelphia and related homelessness. From my own personal experience, I would just say it can get pretty bad in certain parts. But the area itself has made national news for the extent of the heroin and opioid epidemic here. Even Dr. Oz has managed to opine on Kensington. If you are looking for a more credible source, the New York Times has a piece as well.
But I digress. The man was attempting to steal my coveted wheelbarrow, just a mere few weeks after I had purchased it from Home Depot. And I must say, this man does have a good eye; this is a premium wheel-barrow. It’s 4-wheel drive, allowing for tight twists and turns in limited spaces like alleyways you might be stealing it from, and has a rather advanced ergonomic handle. The storage part itself also has a well-designed leverage joint for easy unloading with minimal effort. This man was about to come across the Rolls Royce of wheelbarrows – a wheelbarrow my partner has also commented we don’t actually need as our backyard can be walked across in a matter of a few steps – but not under my watch.
After informing him to stop what he was doing, he attempted to apologize again, and asked if I desired that he put it back where he found it. At this point I was still loaded with the energies of having to potentially protect my own life and my partner’s (this is not the first break-in in Philadelphia I have had to deal with) and told him to get the heck out of you know where. Even though he was basically innocuous at this point, I was not interested in prolonging the exchange.
Thankfully, the man then abruptly hopped over my fence and ran away. I called the police, who did respond quite quickly. I showed them multiple pictures of the ordeal via my house camera, but they advised if he hadn’t done anything egregious or physically harmful, that the status quo was currently to leave addicts in the area alone. I was agitated, but having bought my house in the neighborhood here 4 years ago, a little surprised.
I decided then to take matters into my own hands and use the most potent weapon of our time – social media. Below is a snippet of my post on the neighborhood Facebook group, as growing amounts of used drug needles, stolen remnants of neighbor’s amazon packages, and now attempted robberies in my own backyard had become too infrequent to bear without action.
A neighbor responded to my desperate post; one I had never met before. All he knew was I was a neighbor in need, and via my pictures, may have noticed the man doing similar illegal things in the past. Despite our minimal connection, he agreed to build a metal gate for the alleyway on my side street. I checked with as many neighbors as I could to confirm they were agreeable to this, and the response was unanimous- “yes, do it”.
My benefactor neighbor, who fortunately is also a metal fabricator, at first clearly explained that the gate would not have much cosmetic value – it would be functional only. For someone who just had his property trespassed and had to chase away a (harmless) intruder, I frankly did not care how the gate looked, and I was delighted that someone was willing to build this thing for me and my neighbors at no cost.
In spite of this initial expectation setting, the final outcome of the gate was anything but bland. I came home one day a few weeks after our initial email exchange, and there it was in all its glory, a metal, most definitely functioning gate, and with a shrine to Danny Devito- aka Frank Reynolds, potentially the most Philly thing of all things:
When I first saw the gate, I must disclose, I made a terrible mistake. You see, I saw the beautiful metalwork of the gate, and upon seeing a seemingly fat, balding man with large glasses, and too excited to read the words before sharing with my neighbors, mistook him for another Philly legend, Benjamin Franklin. Perhaps, Danny Devito is in fact Ben Franklin reincarnated. Both are creative geniuses and have changed the world in their own regards. But this gate was a tribute to Devito himself, unbeknownst to me at this point, and I immediately emailed Ben, my benefactor neighbor, to thank him a thousand times and tell him how much I appreciated the Ben Franklin art.
Ben politely explained to me in his reply that the design was in fact Danny Devito and hoped that I still enjoyed it. And of course I did, but I also had to embrace the mistaken identity and related humiliation. My neighbor also corrected me upon seeing it. But the fact remained, my neighbors and I now had a beautiful metal gate to discourage any potential trespassers, and all done humbly by another fellow neighbor, purely out of the goodness of his heart.
I was a bit taken back by the entire gesture. Eventually, the gate had taken on a small following of its own, and as a token of appreciation for the gate and since Ben would not accept any compensation, I created another post of the gate in a larger neighborhood Facebook group that went semi-viral, even resulting in the Philadelphia Inquirer doing their own interview and article of Ben and myself, and the newly-named Devitogate.
But the best part about this new, free house security construction my neighbors and I now had, was the feeling of camaraderie it created in the neighborhood. A neighbor I didn’t know, saw me and others in need, and responded. In the quarantined year of 2020, any human interaction is valuable, and this was basically a gold-mine. I also personally noticed while walking my foster dog around the neighborhood, the effect it had on people just walking by. You see, usually it’s the dog who stops to look and investigate things while going on walks, but when a person walked by my gate, they were the ones stopping to look and appreciate the work of art, while their dog was anxiously pulling away. It was a pleasant irony to witness.
When the Philadelphia Inquirer came to interview us, I was super grateful because it allowed me to (social distantly) thank Ben in person and let him know how much this meant to me and all the neighbors. Ben does some outstanding stuff in general, so please check out and follow his Instagram page and if you need any metalwork, he is definitely your guy, especially if you like It’s always Sunny in Philadelphia.
It would also be great if we could somehow get the show to do an episode on the Northside of town, I’m sure the writers could surmise some awesome plot where Danny becomes a cult leader of a small Kensington neighborhood who designs a metal gate in his gracious image.