A renowned scholar takes his pedigree to the ’hood.
Get off the El train at the Somerset station. Descend a couple of flights of stairs. Step out onto the sidewalk. Welcome to purgatory.
“It reminds you of the ninth circle of Dante’s ‘Inferno,’” says University of Pennsylvania professor and cultural anthropologist Philippe Bourgois of the intersection of Kensington Avenue and Somerset streets.
The 53-year-old Bourgois, a tall, boyish man wearing a down jacket, jeans and a stud in his left ear, doesn’t quite blend in with the neck-tattooed toughs huddled on either side of the avenue, the cane-wielding, old-school junkies ambling by, the unkempt women straining to make eye contact with drivers or the pock-marked young men hawking pills and new syringes.
But the internationally renowned scholar and author, whose latest book, Righteous Dopefiend, is the subject of an exhibit running through May at Penn’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, is here frequently. He lives off-and-on at a nearby apartment from which he’s conducting a National Institutes of Health-funded study of HIV and other health risks facing residents of a West Kensington neighborhood that long ago went south. Basically, he’s immersed himself in a sea of dope.
His pedigree notwithstanding, Bourgois is frequently mistaken for an addict looking to buy Xanax, Percocet, the methadone-like pill Cyboxin or a $1 set of works with which to shoot heroin, readily available nearby under various names such as Godfather, Déjà Vu, Blue Eyes or Viagra.
“I fit the physical profile,” Bourgois explains while walking with colleague Fernando Montero, his breath visible in the cold. “The police think everyone around here who’s white and thin is an addict.”
Being even mistakenly linked to the drug trade is hazardous here, a lesson Bourgois learned one evening in May 2008. He was chatting up a half-dozen street dealers when a cadre of raiding plainclothes officers stormed through.
“They came running in with their guns drawn, and they weren’t wearing uniforms, so I thought it was a robbery,” he remembers, adding the cops issued conflicting orders: “Get down!” and “Don’t move!”
Unaware he was supposed to lie facedown in the street, Bourgois raised his hands. The mistake prompted one officer to knock him down and another to kick him. Hard.
“It knocked the air out of me,” he says. “It didn’t hurt that much at first, but 10 hours later in the jail cell it hurt like hell.” He was released after 18 hours with fractured ribs.
Bourgois now carries in his wallet a letter from Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey that essentially orders cops to leave him alone.
“I didn’t sue,” Bourgois says. “I understand why they didn’t believe me when I told them I was a Penn professor. I wouldn’t have believed me either.”
He insists he isn’t angry at police, who in his opinion are being misused in society’s failed war on drugs.
“It’s such a bizarre cat-and-mouse operation,” he says. “They’re constantly arresting addicts and low-level dealers, and it doesn’t make a dent in the drug scene. They’re frustrated.”
Bourgois grew up in Manhattan’s affluent Silk Stocking district only blocks from impoverished, drug-wracked East Harlem. The juxtaposition of haves and have-nots made him aware that Americans don’t all get the same deal—that some must vie from birth with substandard schools, health care and basic public services while attempting to resist the ever-present lure of the drug world.
Since earning his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1985, he’s lived among crack smokers in New York and heroin addicts in San Francisco, finding his academic niche in street vice, though he limits his intake of mood-altering substances to a beer or glass of wine with his wife, Laurie Hart, also an anthropologist.
He landed at Penn two years ago and finds Philly fascinating.
“Philadelphia is the poorest city I’ve ever worked in,” he says. “It has the highest per-capita arrest rate of any large city in the United States. It’s a city that’s in distress, and its population is being so battered by law enforcement.”
He’s saddened to report that the once-manufacturing-rich Kensington neighborhood he’s studying is rife with a dangerous infection plaguing non-college-educated youth today: joblessness.