Righteous Dopefiend

A renowned scholar takes his pedigree to the ’hood.

By F.H. Rubino
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 4 | Posted Dec. 29, 2009

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Philippe Bourgois immerses himself in homelessness and drug addiction.

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.

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Comments 1 - 4 of 4
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1. Anonymous said... on Dec 30, 2009 at 01:19PM

“fascinating ,i watched the down fall of kensington, the ok corral, legalize it ,tax it,the cops , and das office are the most corrupt people in philly, sgt tepper,det cudjik, to name a few, stop glorifying ,the cops,if i had a badge,i know iwould make money,though ,shake downs, only in america”

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2. Anonymous said... on Jan 3, 2010 at 11:56PM

“It's difficult living in Kensington. All the narcotic unit do is shakedown drug dealers. Then they get mad when the residents go outside to watch what they are doing. The residents get sent back into their home, while the dealer can continue to stand in the corner to make some more shake down money.”

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3. Michelle said... on Jan 8, 2010 at 10:30AM

“It is such a mess in Kensington can you believe it's 2010 you would think by now they really need to work on the problems not put every one in jail they need HELP! People Heroin is an illness these young kids get hooked, and they are living down there. These poor girls are selling thier souls for $5.00 $10.00 to get a bag!! Then these so called pimps have these girls living in their run down rows making them pay up, because they are stuck! Stop turning the other way, but it seems thats all they do!!!”

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4. Anonymous said... on Jan 18, 2010 at 01:13AM

“It all makes me sick!!! I watch drug deals go down in day light as the cops pass on by! You can see who is who it doesn't take long! Shit look at the color of whites they are Gray illness has taken over! So much more can be done it angers me to see this mess! Yes, i am a Mom who is going insane knowing my child is an addict, and more should be done! Before i get that call or knock on my door, which ever parent or loved one is waiting for, and hope it never comes???
What a crazy and upsetting life we fear with these drugs out there! You men getting off on these young girls this could be your daughter,sister, a family member your wife think with the right head! You all will pay maybe not now,but you will have a God or hire person to answer too!!! May the dear Lord guide my child to the help she needs and all you others you are worth sooo much more!!!”


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