Several dozen people blocked the intersections of Kensington and Allegheny Avenues on Wednesday afternoon to call on city officials to put an end to the area’s open-air drug market and dedicate resources to making the surrounding neighborhoods safer.
Organized by the Harrowgate Civic Association, demonstrators held signs that read “Send help” and “This protest is not about Black or blue lives, it’s about our children’s lives.” Over the roar of the El and a drumline, they passed around a megaphone to share stories about their fears and air frustrations about elected officials they feel are neglecting the area. They lamented substance use and sales in their neighborhoods, defecation in the streets, and used needles on the sidewalks.
The group was diverse in race, age, and political views. Some people advocated for heavier policing, some were for a supervised injection site in the area and others against, and some pressed for more resources. But the overarching message was the same: “Our neighborhood needs help.”
“This don’t make no sense. We need help. We’re tired of asking,” said Darlene Burton, a Kensington resident of 24 years who wore a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt. ”Our neighborhood is not a throw-away neighborhood. We need help.”
Harrowgate sits just north of Kensington, which has borne the brunt of the city’s opioid crisis. On Wednesday, people used drugs on the sidewalks adjacent to the demonstration, and cleanup crews picked up used needles in the streets.
District Attorney Larry Krasner attended, but faced criticism from residents who said he has turned a blind eye to prosecuting drug crimes.
“Do nothing like you’ve been doing!” one woman yelled at him.
“I think we need to be real about what is going on,” Krasner told the crowd. “We need to talk about all the facts because I hear your pain. I hear your suffering.”
Krasner defended his office’s prosecution of drug dealers, and pointed to creating jobs, affordable housing, and a $20-an-hour minimum wage as ways to help the neighborhood. He later said he supports a supervised injection site — where staff would provide medical supervision to people using drugs — in the city “wherever there is a need.”
Harrowgate was considered for a supervised injection site in 2018, leading to months of meetings and outcry from residents. A federal judge has put plans for any such site on hold, citing the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic and protests in response to the death of George Floyd. But concerns about how a site could affect homes, schools, and businesses linger in the neighborhood, where worries already persist about the city’s lack of action on drugs.
“We are here to bring awareness so people know Kensington is still here and we are fed up,” said Dennis Payne, president of Kensington’s town watch. Payne, who has been in recovery for 35 years, said he thought supervised injection sites would enable addiction. “I wanna see dancing in the streets, not death.”
State Rep. Angel Cruz and Councilmembers David Oh and Mark Squilla also attended, a move some found heartening.
“We are on the cusp of having enough leaders of the city’s attention,” said Sonja Bingham, a block captain of Harrowgate. “If they meet us, it’s going to become the Philadelphia we all want.”
For Shannon Farrell, the president of the Harrowgate Civic Association and organizer of Wednesday’s protest, Krasner’s attendance showed officials are aware of the circumstances in the neighborhood.
“This is really about our kids,” said the mother of two and fierce opponent of supervised injection sites. She said she’s met with city officials about quashing substance use in the neighborhood for three years. “Nobody’s helping us.”
Rosalind Pichardo, a lifelong Kensington resident, said she was in favor of a supervised injection site, but criticized Krasner’s lack of action in the community. She said resources must be dedicated to solving these issues over time: “You can’t be naive to think that we are going to be a drug-free Kensington, because that will never happen.”
Farrell said residents plan to continue demonstrating until they are heard.
”This is going to be the start of the beginning until change happens,” she said.