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Mad Max Drugs on Hot Philly Streets

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A couple of years ago, while helping a friend with an errand, I wound up near East Somerset Street in Philadelphia's Kensington section. It was a bright summer afternoon, so I didn't think twice about lingering on the sidewalk for a cool 20 minutes. During that time I was approached by no less than five people offering to sell me heroin, crack cocaine, and an assortment of prescription drugs. The blatant, in-your-face salesmanship of the dealers went beyond being ballsy. It had an end-times feel, like I had walked into a Philly redux version of Mad Max.

Although my immediate neighborhood is rather nice, since moving here more than a decade ago I have found that the big Kahuna in the immediate region is heroin, followed by a variety of prescription drugs hawked by a new class of "criminal": ordinary people trying to make extra money by selling prescription drugs to friends and strangers.

In other words, you don't have to go far here to meet Klonopin or Xanax-trading moms or their stroller-pushing "distribution" daughters. Walk the streets in some parts of the Riverwards and you might see impromptu sidewalk haggles over this pill or that. Although there are standardized prices (think of an auction!) -- four Klonopins for ten dollars with Xanax coming in at fifty cents more and Percocet drawing a top six dollars a pop -- people engage in unorthodox trades: ten Percocets to fix that toilet, twenty to clean out a basement, a dime bag of dust in exchange for old time Valium and a case of Coors Light.

Make no mistake: I think drugs are awful. Drugs kill and waste lives. They destroy families. I don't even like marijuana. Give me a glass of red wine with dinner and I am happy.

I don't like it when I see mothers with cigarettes casually blowing smoke into the faces of their stroller-bound babies. Experience tells me that women seem to be smoking more than men. Every time I see a woman light up I think of my mother (a heavy smoker) who died of lung cancer, and my two sisters (both former smokers) who came down with cancer because of smoking. Whenever I see a woman light up, I want to say: Stop, put the cigarette away; you're killing yourself. You may think you're sexy now, but when the lung cancer surgeon rips open your chest, you can say good-bye to Victoria's Secret!

While cigarette consumption in Philly's Riverwards is way too high, it's an even sadder fact that drug use is far too prevalent. The use of drugs, of course, attracts violence and theft. A bag filled with baking soda but sold as drugs near the Huntingdon El stop can cause a user to retaliate; conversely, a user who "borrows" bags on credit but then refuses to pay is often the target of Storm Trooper-like home invasions, a quick beating on the street, or worse. Many of these incidences are minor and never get reported.

How did I come to know this? One cannot live here for 11 years without encountering various manifestations of the problem. I compare it to living in Center City and the inevitable "forced" interactions with students or the elderly.

From my house, West Kensington is a fifteen-minute walk. While great things are happening in West Kensington -- the renovation of houses and lots -- most of the area is still in formation. For me, the Kensington area represents the freeing effect of walking along a broad industrial highway where one can still see an open sky. This is why the area is ripe for transformation. It has become a magnet for artists such as Philly sculptor Warren Muller (Bahdeebadu, 1522 North American Street).

There are amazing things about Kensington that have nothing to do with hoodies or Percocet. There are Northern Liberties-style "green" spaces, the House of Grace Catholic Worker House (which operates a free dental clinic), the new coffee houses and galleries as well as the peace-loving "newbies" -- usually hipster types with tats, beards and Buddy Holly glasses -- who see the gritty environment as an art form. While the hipster uniform may be the ultimate in conforming non-conformity, actions always speak louder than dress.

A couple of years ago there was a University of Pennsylvania-sponsored Kensington "safari," meaning that a busload of Penn professors and anthropologists toured Kensington streets in the style of those Center City tourism buses. For one day the academics were able to get a first-hand look at prostitution and open-air drug transactions under the El.

Images of an Ivory Tower bus filled with Margaret Mead and Jane Goodall types in wide-brimmed sun hats staring at the natives through binoculars would be amusing if it weren't such an exercise in futility.

"It's not hidden from view. You can see it along many streets. People scattered as the bus passed," The Inquirer quoted one professor as saying then. The absent-minded professor was talking about the same things that I see everyday when I take the 39 bus to the Huntingdon El station. I laughed at the phrase, "People scattered as the bus passed." To a professor stuck in an Ivory Tower, the sight must have been shocking. Hey, there's real gritty city life going on here! Of course the natives are going to run. Nobody likes to be on the statistical end of an anthropological study.

"Oh, look at that one will you!"

"Get a load of her -- no teeth!"

"Check out the hunchback!"

"Look at that prostitute in the beehive hairdo!"

While it's the business of universities to do serious studies -- often these studies wind up in glossy binders or as graphs in textbooks where the print is too small -- they rarely, if ever, produce any kind of change in society.

So what kind of change do 'the experts' want for Kensington?

Many say that the Northern Liberties neighborhood should be Kensington's role model. Kensington advocates, in fact, like to talk about "tipping points" and "a positive transformation of the area led by artists and entrepreneurs."

Well and good. But here's the rub: why call for a massive immigration of artists, as if this group constituted a financially stable demographic? Generally, the opposite is true. Artists, as a rule, don't have much money, so if a thousand artists move into an area you're going to have people looking for cheap lifestyles. A neighborhood filled with only artists would quickly fall apart. Kensington needs a vibrant business influx. So far the general logic has been that where artists go, business follows, but what happens in a failed economy when business isn't moving?

I don't know the answer to that. What I do know is that too many people in their late teens and early twenties here need jobs rather than hanging around on stoops whiling away the hours in a perfect storm of boredom. An idle, bored mind inevitably invites the Boogeyman of Drugs to come in and take a bow.