The smokeshop and convenience store at 800 East Chelten Avenue has no name, but some residents say it’s buzzing with the wrong kind of activity. They say the shop sells to minors and is home to drug dealing and related incidents. Community members are concerned about the impact of crime on the neighborhood, while law enforcement and local businesses weigh in on the broader issue of safety and revitalization in the area.

The Smokeshop at 800 East Chelten. (GIH | Rasheed Ajamu)

The Chew & Chelten corridor has everything from a chicken spot on one corner to a daycare with childcare drop-off and pick-up on another.  However, some locals consider one corner an "eyesore" that hurts the surrounding community. Community leader Douglas Rucker intends to lead a petition to shut down the convenience store and smokeshop at 800 East Chelten.

Rucker is the operator of the Chew & Chelten CDC, who also grew up in the area. He says that the shop promotes more crime in the area. Rucker has always paid close attention to this location.

He says, “I remember when [H&M Deli] closed down. Then came a company called Yahya. We put a lot of pressure on them and then Yahya went out. And then there’s this new company that’s been here ever since, but there’s no sign up. They tried to say it was a T-Mobile shop, but that’s not the case.”

Germantown Info Hub (GIH) can confirm that there is no sign on the front of the store. There is only an old sign on the Chew Avenue side of the structure reading “ICE” with other things that the former operators H&M Deli used to offer.

Rucker says the idea for a petition arose from residents attending a community meeting in October 2023. In essence, Rucker says smokeshops “contribute to non-proactive business practices that don't align with community wholesome and prosperity.” However, the CDC leader identifies more than philosophical reasons to close the establishment.

For one, Rucker says the store breaks many Philadelphia laws governing tobacco sales. He alleges sales to people younger than 21, not checking IDs, and selling loose cigarettes as significant concerns. During a visit to the shop on Saturday, February 24, around 9:35 a.m., the Germantown Info Hub secured a “loosie” (loose cigarette) for 75 cents without showing any identification. However, we could not confirm whether anyone under 21 has obtained tobacco products.

Rucker mentioned that he has observed some of the young boys he knows are under 21 purchase items, and he has also received reports from individuals who visit the CDC.

Aside from the alleged illegal activity by the store operators, Rucker also says the store allows drug dealing inside and outside the store. He says this activity has contributed to the deaths of four young men in the past year but could not provide details.

The Germantown Info Hub made several attempts to contact the establishment's owner to address the claims against them. After a visit to the store and an unanswered call, we were unsuccessful in reaching them.

Captain Tanisha Richardson of the 14th District says that she is aware of the concerns that Rucker and other locals share about the illegal practices of the store, citing the sale of loosies, the permission of nuisance activity on and around the grounds of the store, and regards to violent crime.

She echoes Rucker’s thoughts about the intersection being notorious for criminal activities, particularly drug sales. She believes that shops that allow such activities in their vicinity are contributing to the problem. On the other hand, Captain Richardson points out that 14th district police no longer intervene in loitering cases or other minor offenses like littering, public urination, or marijuana usage, based on a federal court-ordered program launched in 2021 to experiment with less stop-and-frisk policing. However, if business owners don't want people hanging around their establishment, they can inform the police. She adds that the owners of this particular business have not made such a request.

The 14th District captain shared the following recorded crime stats at the intersection, ranging from February 2023 to February 2024:

  • Two shooting victims
  • One homicide (which contradicts Rucker’s claims of four homicides)
  • Two gun-related robberies 
  • 23 narcotics arrests (not including Code Violation Notices)
  • Eight VUFA (violations of the Uniform Firearms Act) arrests
  • Two shooting incidents

Data gathered by Julie Christie of Resolve Philly shows 85 crimes happened in 2023 between 5300 to 5600 Chew Avenue and 700 to 800 Chelten Avenue, the exact coordinates Captain Richardson provided GIH with. Of these crimes, nine of them were gun-related, and 11 were considered violent crimes. Thus far, there has only been one gun-related crime at the intersection.

Captain Richardson says they are taking several different measures to help enhance police presence in the 14th Police District's community.

“I have ensured that the 14th Police District's Community Relations Officer has established a store security log book for patrol officers to sign in business in that area,” says Captain Richardson. “We also reach out to business owners to encourage registry with the police SafeCam Program. This program does not allow the PPD to control individual business cameras. However, it indicates a willingness of an establishment to share recorded videos that may be obtained and be of evidentiary value to the police department in the event an incident occurs in the area.”

Rashidah Robinson, owner of Care Nest Home Care Agency, who previously shared her plans to revitalize Chew & Chelten, says that, historically, the area has been plagued with violence and drugs. However, she says there has been a “drastic change” in the types of crimes that come with both things. 

“Back in the day, you would see stabbings and fights and a little robbery here and there,” says Robinson, reminiscing on the section of East Germantown she grew up in. “But now it’s just shoot to kill. And you never know who, why, or what. And I think that’s what makes it different.”

This is a sentiment that both Captain Richardson and Rucker share, as well, agreeing that the smokeshop is just one piece of a larger puzzle to solve the neighborhood's crime issue. And while it’s one piece, they all share sentiments that it’s a crucial one.

She attributes this to a decreased sense of community that she says has shifted for the worse over generations after the crack era, which, according to West Philadelphia Collaborative History, reached epidemic levels between 1989 and 1991. 

“[The crack epidemic] broke down the community,” Robinson says. “No one knows each other. So I feel like the violence is more loose, meaning you never know who did what.”

GIH must note that, based on the data gathered, overall crime has been slowly and slightly dropping at Chew & Chelten since 2018, going from 182 incidents to 94 last year. Both gun-related and violent crimes have remained steady. Gun-related crimes were almost cut in half last year, going from 16 in 2022 to 9 in 2023.

While she agrees that the store at 800 E Chelten Avenue has an issue with harboring criminal activity, she says this is a common issue with other businesses in the area, such as the corner stores and the Chinese food store near Chew & Locust Avenue. She says, “They’re not from the neighborhood, so they don’t care. And they allow those boys and those drug addicts to hang on and around their businesses. Whereas me, they can’t hang over here. When I pull up, they already know they gotta step off.”

Identifying the possible harsh connotations of her feelings, she shares her thoughts about wanting to maintain a safe environment.  “Bullets don’t have a name on them. If they’re coming around here, you don’t know what the beef is or who the people are. And I don’t want innocent bystanders on this side of the street getting hit by a stray bullet because you all want to stand on a corner.”

Robinson says that if presented, she would sign the petition Rucker and other neighbors plan to pursue. She says people from the area and citywide need to feel safe enough to patronize the businesses. “These types of pain points in the neighborhood will deter business and won’t help the neighborhood grow as a business corridor,” she says.

Right now, the petition is still in the development stages, and Rucker is looking to get more eyes on the phrasing of it before it goes public. He also looks to get more community members and institutions involved. 

He stands firm in his beliefs about the hazardousness of smokeshops to communities, saying, “They are a dangerous zone in every major city and target mostly the Black and Brown communities.”