Brad Larrison for Al Jazeera America

On drug-infested North Philly corners, Hope and Good Luck come in bags

Residents of high-poverty Fairhill neighborhood often see drug trade as best shot at a livable wage

Editor’s note: This is the second story in a three-part series on the heroin and opiate epidemic that has wreaked havoc on an inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood since long before the problem became a popular bipartisan campaign issue. Part one, published Tuesday, looked at the blurry line between addicts and dealers.

PHILADELPHIA — On the hard-knock streets of Fairhill, called the Badlands of North Philadelphia, open-air drug markets abound. Heroin is the drug of choice, and varieties like Rocky, Good Luck, Dream Chaser, Batman and Hope are hawked at passers-by.

Lookouts huddle on corners, addicts shuffle out of alleys, and orange syringe caps collect in the cracks and lines of the pavement.

“We have a pretty robust heroin market. We’ve had it for quite a while,” said Capt. Michael Cram of the 25th Police District. “It’s the main economy in parts of our neighborhood down here.”

The intersection of B Street and Indiana Avenue is a busy drug corner.
Brad Larrison for Al Jazeera America

Drugs have plagued the streets of Fairhill, a heavily Puerto Rican and deeply blighted neighborhood, for decades — since long before the sharp rise in and public outcry over deadly heroin overdoses among middle-class, white, suburban kids in New England and elsewhere.

“It’s pretty much almost a way of life for people. Either they’re addicts, or they’re selling, or they just have to deal with it,” said Edwin Desamour, an anti-violence activist who was born and raised in the neighborhood and is the executive director of Men in Motion in the Community, a youth-mentoring group. The group’s headquarters is a small but brightly colored city rec center that less than a year ago was a graffiti-covered and trash- and feces-filled shooting gallery.

The political rhetoric on the national stage marks a shift toward getting addicts help and increasing funding for drug treatment programs. That indicates a fundamental shift in the debate over drug abuse in America but does not tackle the whole issue. Absent from the forums and campaign-trail speeches is a strategy for revitalizing long-struggling neighborhoods like Fairhill, where many residents see the heroin game as their best shot at a livable wage.

“Most of these guys don’t want to be on the corners. It’s a dangerous business, but they’re there, and they need jobs,” said Cram. “There’s some hard-core gangsters out there. They’ll never get out of the business. Maybe it’s a family business. But for the most part, if the alternative is McDonald’s and you’re not paying the bills and putting food on the table …”

Used syringes and other paraphernalia underneath a Conrail train line bridge in Kensington.
Brad Larrison for Al Jazeera America

The poverty Cram faces in his district is harrowing.

According to the 2010 census, the 19133 ZIP code, which encompasses most of Fairhill, is the poorest in Philadelphia — which has the highest poverty rate of America’s big cities. Well over half the residents in the neighborhood live below the poverty line, and that climbs to 60 percent for women and 72 percent for children under 18.

The median household income there is $14,185, according to “Philadelphia 2015: The State of the City,” a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Philadelphia’s unemployment rate was 7.8 percent (compared with 6.2 nationally) in 2014. In Fairhill it is 25.5 percent, according to American Community Survey estimates. Of those who do have full-time, year-round work, the median earnings are about $25,000 for women and $30,000 for men. But nearly 60 percent of residents are not in the labor force at all.

“We need good, livable-wage jobs in these neighborhoods,” said Cram. He added that the drug trade will never go away, because of the demand, “but you can make some impact if you put people to work.”

‘Most of these guys don’t want to be on the corners. It’s a dangerous business, but they’re there, and they need jobs.’

Capt. Michael Cram

25th Police District

In the ZIP code, 15 to 20 percent of housing units are vacant, giving rise to the numerous “abandominiums” or “abandos” that serve as shooting galleries and shelter for addicts.

While roughly a third of residents own their homes, the average home value in 2014 was only $15,000.

Perhaps most tragic is the quality of education.

Fewer than 4.5 percent of 25-to-44-year-olds have a bachelor’s degree. Every public district and charter school in the neighborhood is underperforming. The local high school, Thomas Alva Edison, received the lowest possible rating — a 1 out of 10 — from the nonprofit-led Great Philly Schools website, which ranks schools on the basis of academics, attendance, safety and percentage of students who enroll in college.

But none of this is new.

Former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Steve Lopez memorably documented the brisk drug trade in the area in his 1994 first novel, “Third and Indiana,” named after an intersection that — 13 years later — was still one of the top 10 drug corners in the city, according to Philadelphia Weekly. When the ranking was reprised in 2011, all 10 corners listed were in the relatively small Kensington and Fairhill neighborhoods.

According to Justice Atlas of Sentencing and Corrections, the 19133 ZIP code has the highest rate of prison admissions in the city.

Edwin Desamour, the executive director of Men in Motion in the Community, says he’s in a “tug-of-war” with neighborhood drug dealers.
Brad Larrison for Al Jazeera America

This, according to Desamour, has a creeping affect on the drug trade.

“Men come home and want to change their lives around, and they do try,” said Desamour, who served eight years in prison for a fight-turned-homicide that he was involved in at age 16. “They knock on doors, take classes on life skills, [how to do] interviews … but when they did everything they had to do, their record was used against them, and it’s discouraging after a while. Some guys at the end of day, they don’t want to be out there, but they end up back in it. There’s no justifying, but they have to feed their families that have to somehow survive.”

For others, usually a younger generation, he said, they’re not bad kids, but they’ve been blinded by the drug lifestyle since birth. They see only the drug dealers with nice cars, new clothes, and girlfriends. They grow up aspiring to have their own heroin corner.

“They have street dreams. They don’t see college. They’re not exposed to nothing but that,” said Desamour. “Our job is to show them, ‘No, that’s not a way of life. We can do better.’”

“It’s like a tug of war with us and the drug dealers,” he added. “They say there’s that kid that lives in the middle of it and makes it. But not everybody’s that kid.”

Philadelphia’s homicide rate has dropped from the highs of the mid-2000s, when it earned the nickname Killadelphia. Still, there were 277 murders in the city last year, many of them tied to the drug trade. Retired Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsay told The Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this year that drug-related killings increased 55 percent in 2015 from the year before.

Drug dealers are responsible for much of the city’s violence. But as for addiction, Cram said, it’s the demand that drives the supply, not the other way around.

Under the train line at the intersection of Kensington Avenue and Orleans Street. Public transit delivers addicts from across the region to the neighborhood to buy drugs.
Brad Larrison for Al Jazeera America

Few addicts would disagree.

“You can take every dealer off the corner of every street in this country, and you’re not going to stop people from getting high,” said Chris Willis, an addict who has also sold drugs over the years.

“Do they play a part? Yes. But ultimately it’s our decisions, really,” said Emiley, a 20-year-old heroin addict from central Pennsylvania. “But soon as my dealer friend knew I was going to rehab, he said, ‘If you come back here after rehab, I’m not selling you anything’ … As far as other dealers, that’s not the case. But I guarantee, being an addict, manipulation isn’t hard. I can get him to give it to me.”

Chris Marshall, a volunteer who runs the Last Stop recovery house on Kensington Avenue in North Philadelphia, sometimes has to chase drug dealers off the block if they’re trying to bait the residents in recovery. But dealers aren’t all bad people, he said.

“There are some really nice drug dealers who are doing what they’re doing to support families,” he said. “We used to be a center for industry. We used to be a real manufacturing town. Now you have urban blight, jobs taken overseas, whatever.”

Cram said he has no sympathy for the dealers or the addicts — although he would like to see more resources funneled into drug treatment — but his heart goes out to the families trapped between them. 

“The good people who are locked in their homes, the kids who can’t come out and play because of the markets out there — we gotta look them in the eye at community meetings we go to, and we have a ton of community meetings,” he said.

“You enter the Badlands, you do a U-turn,” said Desamour, also sympathizing with the poor but hardworking and tax-paying families who live in the neighborhood. “Some people can’t.”

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