A young mother parks her stroller at the edge of the playground to sit with friends who watch children skitter down the slides. Young girls pedal by on bicycles, dodging a soccer ball as well as the boys who are chasing it. A group of friends shake a blanket over freshly cut green grass to sit down and enjoy a picnic.
It’s a beautiful August day in Philadelphia, and there would be nothing particularly unusual about this scene, except for one very startling fact. This is Kensington, one of the cities poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. It’s a place so notorious for heroin and crack use that addicts come here from all over the tri-state area. And this park? It’s McPherson Square, long known by locals as “needle park” because most mornings, they could fill a bucket with used syringes and bloody cotton balls. For what seems like generations now, it had been so thoroughly claimed by illegal drug users that most of the mothers who live around here wouldn’t have considered stepping foot in it, let alone letting their children play in the grass.
But now Kensington, whose name still conjures images of drugs and prostitution, is slowly transforming, thanks to an innovative strategy targeting two former “anchors” for the heroin trade – McPherson Square and the “el” stop at Kensington and Somerset. This coordinated effort spans two police districts and partners City Councilwoman Maria Sanchez with the managing director’s office, the parks and recreation department, SEPTA police, and the Fairmount Park Conservancy. Neighbors see the partnership’s affect on pushing drugs and crime from the area, and are grateful for it. Phyllis Martino, whose community development organization Impact Services is one of the major drivers of this change, puts it this way: “The city is, finally, investing time and resources to try and reclaim this area for civil folks.”
In a city that’s grappling with some of the highest rates of abandonment, crime and deep poverty in the nation, it raises a burning question: Is this effort sustainable? And if so, can it be replicated?
Thus far, this intelligent approach, which puts long term gains over short term results, seems to really be working. So much so, in fact, that business owners along Kensington Avenue are feeling genuinely optimistic. “It’s a thousand percent better than what it used to be, it’s really a wonder,” said Sam Kuttab, owner of the Quick Mart, which sits across from the park at Kensington and Indiana. Where neighborhood kids used to prowl the streets attacking adults for no reason, Kuttab said, he’s now more likely to see them seeking out a police officer, just to talk. “Now they believe they’re here to stay, and they see the changes that are happening, the lines of communication are opening up. It’s like they no longer see the police as the enemy.”
“That drug business? It looks like a ghost town now, compared to what it was,” said Fred Calvello, whose flower shop was driven off the avenue after 63 years in business because of the constant robberies, and because, finally, his customers were starting to feel so threatened by the “zombies” on the sidewalk that they wouldn’t even get out of their cars.
Kuttab credits the police, but also all the other things that resulted from increased government attention: The new playground, the after school programs for kids, fresh landscaping, the more than 100 new trees that have been planted.
Sanchez now wants to start analyzing the effort so that she can see what works, what doesn’t, and whether it can be replicated in some of the city’s other troubled neighborhoods. “This is one of those shining examples of what can happen when you get all hands on deck,” she said.
Police get serious.
Twenty-fourth Police District Captain Charles Vogt grew up in Kensington, and remembers seeing his first overdose in the park when he was in the second grade. “It was right there on the steps of the library,” said Vogt, who is now 50 years old.
But what was then a small problem had gotten much, much worse by the time he took over the 24th district, last February. That’s why Vogt had a ready answer when Managing Director Rich Negrin asked what it would take to reclaim the park.
“I told him we’d need a 24 hour police presence, and we’d have to sustain it for a long period of time,” Vogt said.
And that’s exactly what he did. There’s now a police van stationed in the park 24 hours a day as well as officers on constant foot patrol. He and 26th District Captain Michael Cram have teamed up to staff a bike patrol that covers both of their territories, warding off new hotspots and getting the vacant houses sealed up before they become drug houses.
Then, last November, SEPTA Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel III came in with a serious effort at Kensington and Somerset, the transit station that had been so thoroughly dominated by drug dealers and users that SEPTA riders had stopped using the station altogether. They’d walk eight blocks to the station at Huntingdon Avenue instead, or even the 10-block stretch all the way up to Allegheny. Nestel came in with a surveillance team, distributed announcements to all the drug dealers that a serious crackdown was coming, and followed it up with six officers on 24-hour foot patrol at that station as well as two others, at Cambria and Boudinot streets. He says he plans to keep them there.
No easy answers, no magic solutions.
While the people who live and work along Kensington Avenue are pleased, no one thinks the problem is solved. There’s still a long way to go.
On any given day, you’ll see people walking on the Avenue, clinging to walls and fences as they weave toward the ground in that slow, telltale manner of a heroin addict. Prostitutes are showing up at some of the other nearby metro stops, most particularly at Huntingdon Street.
Just the other morning, Vogt had to meet with a thrift store owner at Kensington and Monmouth, who’s been having new problems on his corner. “We have a 24-hour presence to the north and to the south of this guy, so some of the problems are being squeezed into his block,” Vogt said.
The outreach organizations that have sprung up to provide beds and meals for addicts who seek help are a mixed blessing, some say, because while they do offer a place for addicts who finally seek help, they also wind up attracting more users. Some even wonder if they’re not part of the reason why the majority of drug users who wind up along the avenue have come from outside the neighborhood.
Finally, the number of real jobs in the neighborhood has not increased. And many, if not most, of the neighborhood residents who work in the drug trade are doing so because they simply have no options.
“Every time we have a shooting around here, I’ll get as many as 20 young kids coming in here, asking for a job,” Kuttab said. “They know it’s a dead end, what they’re doing. And you can see there’s a lot of goodness in them, a real yearning. I do what I can. But I can’t give a job to every kid who asks for one. There’s just not enough opportunity.”
“Everybody wants a quick answer. And there just isn’t one,” said Martino. “This is a neighborhood where you’d hear about people sleeping in their bathtubs because they were afraid of stray bullets coming through the walls of their house at night.”
Still, people here say they think things are changing. And for the first time in generations, they see real hope for the neighborhood, and for the commercial corridor along Kensington Avenue.
“Its like, we’re no longer under siege,” said Susie Imbrenda, a co-owner of Phil’s Appliances. “Our customers are no longer afraid to get out of the car.”
Judith Moore, who’s been the librarian at the McPherson Square branch for more than 20 years, describes the park as a completely different place. Her branch is now more likely to be filled with kids than not, and the grounds around her building are an inviting oasis of green.
Martino, of Impact Services, agrees. “It’s not that the problem has totally gone away, but it’s not as overwhelming as it was,” she said. “If you don’t have 50 people begging on one street corner, if instead you have one or two every square mile, the nature of the problem feels very different.”
Sanchez points to a community event this past spring that brought a huge turnout of families, which is something she said “simply wouldn’t have happened.” And, she says, the business owners who were once her biggest critics are now trying to help. Sneaker Villa, for instance, is teaming up with her office to sponsor a back to school event at McPherson Square this September.
And Nestel? He knows it’s better because regular riders are now using the metro station. And the cashiers who sell tickets there are now willing to sign up for overtime – something that would have been unheard of less than a year ago.
Could this be a model?
Apart from the fact that its being sustained over time, what makes this initiative different is the extent to which police are trying something new. People in both the Philadelphia and SEPTA police are using phrases like “what the research shows,” and “sustained commitment.” And both say they’re not spending any more money, they’re just being smarter about how they use what they have.
Vogt’s strategy sounds eerily like the “clear, hold and build” strategy used by generals in Iraq: “The idea was to carve out an oasis, hold on to it, and then use that as a focal point for expanding outward.”
And when Nestel talks about how people in the community are responding, he sounds like generals on a successful counter-insurgency. “Once people in the community really understand that you’re there to stay, and that you’re not leaving, they start to buy into what you’re doing, and to help,” he said. “We now have allies in the neighborhood, and they help us with information.”
Even more surprising, perhaps, is the extent to which people in various government agencies appear to be working as a team. They each know what the other is doing, they refer to one another by their first names, and use terms like “we.”
Jerry Ratcliffe, chairman of Temple University’s Department of Criminal Justice and Director of the Center for Security and Crime Science, has been watching Philadelphia’s criminal justice system at work for decades, and is clearly impressed.
“This is to the immense credit of the police, who are shifting away from piecemeal strategies and thinking more about long term strategic fixes to some of our seemingly intractable problems,” he said.
Ratcliffe, whose department is teaming up with both police captains here to analyze data and look for systemic, long term solutions, ultimately credits the leadership of Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.
“Sylvester Johnson was an awfully nice man, but not necessarily the most innovative commissioner. What we have in Ramsey and his team is a much more dynamic and innovative leadership, and they’re taking on challenges that others have steered away from,” he said. “The difference is like night and day.”
But whether the credit lies with the Roundhouse, City Council, or the Mayor’s office is immaterial to Vogt, who says he now gets hugs from people who recognize him on the street, or at social events.
“They come up to me and they thank me, and tell me they can’t believe it, but they finally feel like they can bring their kids to (Kensington) Avenue,” he said.
And, he admits it, he likes the words. But even more, he said, he likes seeing what people do.
“What’s really encouraging for me is when I see people coming out to sweep their pavement, paint their doors and plant flowers in their window boxes,” said Vogt. “It’s a show of hope.”
The situation at Kensington and Somerset was very different just a few years ago. The story, Welcome to Zombieland, tells a tale of the corner circa 2011.