Chasing criminals west of the Schuylkill

david gambacorta philadelphia inquirer undercover gangster
Fitted with bracing illustrations, a harrowing longform story about gun violence and a West Philly drug gang went live this week at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

I haven’t seen it in print, but I’m directing journalism enthusiasts to the online package for a difficult serial investigative piece from veteran reporter David Gambacorta. “Undercover Gangster” tells the mysterious story of recent Philadelphia gun crimes, a secret West Philly drug outfit, and a detective who’s “stuck chasing criminals west of the Schuykill.”

As hard as the truths are here, the presentation online proves vibrant and rewarding, ironically because it mirrors the experience of consuming this in a glossy magazine. The story, a tragic tale of violence in a city that’s awash in guns, isn’t without unexpected twists and turns. It’s rooted in interviews, a scouring of court documents, police records, and more, and it isn’t an easy read.

From Gambacorta:

Jerry “Boog” Brooks, the head of a small drug gang on 55th Street, had asked Foster to hide three of his guns. A minor, accidental neighborhood shooting had attracted the cops’ attention, and Brooks, pragmatic as a banker, worried that his stash houses might get raided. The guns needed to disappear until the heat died down.

Foster pulled out a black drawstring bag and emptied its contents: a .357 Glock, a Mac-10 assault rifle, and a 9mm subcompact. Like a child sizing up presents on Christmas morning, Lockhart likely felt an old, familiar urge stir inside.

david gambacorta philadelphia inquirer undercover gangster

The aesthetic of “Undercover Gangster” is partly indebted to the newspaper’s choice to exclusively utilize illustrations in anchoring the story.

Blocky drop caps, each filled-out with ashy black tones, set off paragraph breaks in the report while Gambacorta’s rich scene-painting is supported with news designer Amy Junod’s visuals—the edges of which are sometimes set to scroll along with user clicks just beneath the copy. Junod’s inky, scratchy linework is minimal but manic. Her illustrations’ occasional grey washes and blotted textures remind me of cartoonist Jules Feiffer’s recent noir comics. Unfortunately, Gambacorta’s narrative journalism is far from fiction—instead, it’s jarring and all too real.

Read the first part of “Undercover Gangster” here.

Illustrations © 2017 Amy Junod for The Philadelphia Inquirer.