A follow-up to the state of the city’s drug trade.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following report—the product of a partnership between Phawker and PW and funded by a grant from J-Lab and the William Penn Foundation—ranks the city’s 10 worst drug corners the way Philly Mag ranks pizza or bars or bikini wax salons. Sarcasm aside, the story is no joke, rather it is the product of six months of old fashioned shoe leather reporting, arrest statistics crunching and dozens of interviews with the police, academics, neighbors and drug buyers. The hope is that we can spark a new conversation about drug policy in a city where vast stretches—block after block, neighborhood upon neighborhood—have been ravaged by an illegal drug trade that impacts everyone directly or indirectly whether they know it or not. Maybe, just maybe, our wishful thinking goes, by yanking the readers out of the comfort zone of their safe and happy lives and dropping them at ground zero of the city’s 10 hottest drug war zones, the beginnings of real change—in perception, in policy, in understanding and empathy—could be enacted. Hopefully, that’s where you come in.
In 2007, I wrote a cover story for this publication called “Top 10 Drug Corners,” which ranked the city’s most depressing and dangerous drug corners like Philadelphia magazine ranks pizza or bars or bikini wax salons. After all, when you strip away all the blood and guts and stray gunfire, drug dealing is, at heart, competitive retailing of a rare and precious commodity: Feeling good. There is, of course, a huge market for such a commodity, especially in places that are inhospitable to legitimate business and industry. Which is why the drug trade always seems to flourish in places where angels fear to tread. Philadelphia, one of the poorest major cities in America, has many such places.
In many of the city’s neighborhoods, the opportunities for gainful employment are so scarce and hopelessness so abundant that a vacuum has been created—and nature, of course, abhors a vacuum. With no noise of legitimate enterprise to fill the air—no rumble of a truck toting freight, no murmur of conversation from shoppers mingling on the sidewalk—the most prevalent sounds arise from the underground economy.
“Wet, wet, wet.”
“You smokin’ that crack?”
“What you need?”
Eight different come-ons, from a vast collection of different Philadelphians—white, black and Latino; young, middle-aged and graying. And all these offers speak to the same basic truths: Philadelphia is awash in the narcotics trade. And like all illicit economies, the drug trade begets a brutal gangsterism whose stock in trade is violence—on an industrial scale. The statistics are as astonishing as they are appalling. “We’ve had 16,000 shootings here in the last 10 years,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Reed. “Sixteen—THOUSAND!”
That averages out to four Philadelphians being shot every day, or one citizen every six hours. Since 2008, more Americans have been murdered in Philadelphia than killed in Iraq. In other words, we have the equivalent of an undeclared shooting war raging semi-visibly in the city’s most desolate and depleted neighborhoods. And Philadelphia is hardly the exception to the rule. Rather, depressingly enough, it is the rule.
As a result, the poorest of the poor in Philadelphia are cut off from the most basic aspects of personhood that the rest of us take for granted. They live in constant fear of seemingly random violence, which, sustained year after year, has created an increasingly common mindset—which some would call cynical and others would call being realistic—that the powers that be either cannot help them, do not care to help them, or, even worse, somehow profit from their suffering.
“Who do you think lets all these drugs in here?” is a question I have been asked, countless times, when sources in the city’s poorest communities flip the script on me and start questioning their questioner. There is a profound hopelessness reflected in that query, a conspiratorial world view that powerful forces have allied against them. It could be easily dismissed if it weren’t so common, and for that matter, understandable. Logic would dictate that if somebody (or many somebodies) wasn’t profiting from all this carnage, it would have been stopped a long, long time ago. Ridiculous, right? And yet, how do you explain that the cycle continues day after day, year upon year, with little change: The bullet-riddled hive of corners, blocks and neighborhoods lorded over by teenagers with guns strapped to their hips; the little boys serving as lookouts calling out ‘5-0,’ warning dope-slingers off the streets when the cops show up; the neverending line of zombie-fied addicts shuffling up to the dope merchants dispensing their daily fix at pretty much the exact same spots, every day?
This list arrives with some major caveats: First, there is so much drug dealing in the city—and the mechanics and geography of the drug trade is so fluid—that narrowing it down to the Top 10 corners is a fool’s errand: It could well be 20 corners, or 50 or 100. Furthermore, even the most extensive combination of face-to-face interviews, boots-on-the-ground surveillance and crunching of arrest stats will at best result in a snapshot of a moment in time, and the enduring accuracy of that resulting picture is debatable. The truth is, the locus of the most heavily trafficked drug corners is constantly shifting in reaction to supply and demand, police activity and internecine turf warfare. If one corner is not active at the moment, then the action most likely lurks around the next corner or will be awfully soon.
Most will sensibly interpret this as a list of corners to stay away from. Others will, ill-advisedly, use it as a buyer’s guide. The point of this list is not that all of Philadelphia is consumed by the drug trade, but rather that one particular part of Philadelphia (and a relatively small one at that) suffers the lion’s share of the ravages of the illicit drug trade: All 10 drug corners on our list are located in North Philadelphia’s Kensington and Fairhill sections.
Which is not to say that no one is fighting the good fight there. Neighborhood activists are always in play. And judging by the numbers, the police have focused their attention on this area of the city. In fact, a map of the city’s corners where five or more drug-related arrests were made for the 15 months from 2010 to the end of March 2011, demonstrates that no other region of the city is the scene of so many narcotics busts as the real estate stretching from Lehigh Avenue to Westmoreland Street, and from Kensington Avenue to Broad Street. But in fact, within that section of the city, the majority of arrests were concentrated in an even smaller area—from Lehigh to the south to Westmoreland, roughly a half-mile stretch, and from Kensington to N. Fifth Street, a distance of just less than a mile.
In a city with a prison system that is already bursting at the seams, the police are working harder here on a purely statistical level than anywhere else. But a simple walk through the neighborhood reveals how little good that has done. In the face of all this blight-pocked urban dysfunction, the list of viable remedies is short: We could remount something like Operation Safe Streets, making police so visible in the neighborhood that drug dealers simply cannot operate as they do now—out in the open in broad daylight. But the cost of that program was about $4 million a month in police overtime and ultimately deemed unsustainable. Even though an argument could be made that Safe Streets was worth every dime, the city no longer has the political will or financial resources to maintain what was essentially a police occupation of wide swaths of the city.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of the streets I walked in North Philadelphia is that the people risking their lives to either sell, take, or often sell and take drugs, are carrying out these deeds quite literally in the shadows of the old factory buildings that once upon a time employed thousands of hardworking Philadelphians who actually made things. Up until the 1960s, Philadelphia was a crucial pillar of the American manufacturing base. North Philadelphia was a working-class enclave. The many thousands of rowhomes both east and west of Broad Street were built to serve this population of workers; and the Broad Street Line subway was built in the 1920s to move passengers from the northern part of the city to City Hall quickly and conveniently.
But today, neighborhood-sustaining ‘good jobs’ for workers without college educations are scarce to nonexistent, and too many residents use that North Philly subway line not to attain marriage licenses and construction permits, to engage in the legitimate commerce of Center City, but to make it on time—or not—for court dates at the Criminal Justice Center. Solving the drug problem by purely economic means would require a level of public and private investment on a scale that is simply not tenable in this day and age. Barring some massive New Deal-style public-works initiative that revives the manufacturing base of the United States, the prospect of employing our way out of this problem seems remote at best. So finally, this leaves us with our last and perhaps most intriguing, promising and politically hazardous possibility.
We could legalize drugs.
That is itself the topic for another great many articles, and we will take no position on it here, except to say that if we legalized narcotics tomorrow, surely the violent young men slinging dope on the corners of North Philadelphia would be rendered as obsolete as bootleggers after Prohibition. But until then, I give you, for better or for worse, the Top 10 Drug Corners in the City Of Brotherly Love circa 2011.
Visit Phawker.com to read the full story.
An Interview with Steve Volk
On Aug. 25, Volk appeared on NewsWorks Tonight with Dave Heller to talk about his 6-month-long investigation. Click here to listen.
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