In recent years, Kensington became synonymous with the opioid overdose crisis. Get off the El at K&A and the crisis is visible — street homelessness, public injection, dropped syringes. Have you ever wondered why the few blocks between Allegheny, Lehigh, and Kensington Avenues became the “badlands” — one of the busiest open-air drug markets in the Northeastern United States and most violent neighborhoods in Philadelphia?

A new innovative study led by renowned anthropologist Philippe Bourgois, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, and Joseph Friedman, an MD/PhD student at UCLA, reveals that the answer to that question has to do both with Philadelphia’s racist past and bad policy in the present. It also shows that poverty alone cannot explain the violence in Kensington. Instead, we need to understand the forces that make the narcotics market so lucrative and dangerous: prohibition and lack of legal economic opportunity.

In the study, Bourgois’ team immersed itself in Kensington for years to understand the dynamics of the narcotics market and its impact on the lives of Kensington’s majority Puerto Rican residents, especially the rate of violence. What makes the study innovative is that the researchers combine their everyday observations with statistical analysis.

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The making of Kensington

For decades, Kensington has been at the heart of Philadelphia’s transition from America’s industrial powerhouse to a city in economic decline. As factory jobs started paying less and became less stable in the mid-20th century, white workers left the neighborhood. In their place, factory owners recruited Puerto Ricans who were willing to work for lower wages but, being American, did not require visas. The white population of Kensington was replaced with a predominantly Puerto Rican population by the 1980s — when job losses peaked and the crack crisis hit.

“It was just the classic tragedy of the industrial crisis leading to a massive addiction crisis and the booming of a narcotics economy,” Bourgois says. The demographic shift also set the stage for the neighborhood’s booming drug market.

Kensington’s proximity to I-95 and Route 1 makes the area a convenient drug hub for the entire region. Bourgois says that since the ’80s, Kensington “served the poor addicted population, and wealthier suburban population, of South Jersey, Pennsylvania itself and the different neighborhoods in Philadelphia, as well as Maryland and Delaware."

A drug sale in the shadow of an abandoned factory in Kensington captured by a researcher who immersed himself in the neighborhood to study the causes of violence.
George Karandinos
A drug sale in the shadow of an abandoned factory in Kensington captured by a researcher who immersed himself in the neighborhood to study the causes of violence.

The new research suggests another factor contributed to Kensington’s becoming the home of a narcotics market: its Puerto Rican population.

Starting in the 1980s, Bourgois says, Philly saw more cocaine going to segregated Puerto Rican neighborhoods. The cocaine supply chain from Colombian smugglers to Dominican distributors on the East Coast set up Puerto Rican neighborhoods to be particularly vulnerable: a population that shares a language, has a high unemployment rate, and can’t be deported. “[Many Puerto Ricans in Kensington] end up gravitating toward the narcotics economy in desperation,” says Bourgois.

In recent years, more white people started buying heroin in Kensington, where they stuck out less than in predominantly black neighborhoods and so would be less noticeable to police. Further, there is a long history of racial tensions between white and black Philadelphians, and some white customers are happy to avoid black neighborhoods. “Puerto Rican territory is kind of a neutral racial meeting ground in Philadelphia,” Friedman says.

From ‘enterprising young man’ to prison

As the drug market persisted, and the violence with it, more young men entered the narcotics trade — a phenomenon Bourgois wanted to understand. He assembled a research team to conduct an ethnographic study, which Bourgois defines as a “deep hangout" to observe daily life. He rented an apartment at the core of the drug market in 2007 and two researchers lived there full time for six years — documenting observations and conducting interviews. One of the young Puerto Rican men the team met was Leo, whom the study describes as an “enterprising young man” and “motivated to succeed.” But as a teenaged high school dropout, Leo had few options in the legal economy. He saw his brother making a lot of money selling heroin.

At about age 16, after not hearing back on applications for several minimum-wage jobs, Leo decided to enter the narcotics market. After a few years, and after his brother was arrested for accidentally shooting a business partner, Leo became the drug boss — bichote — of his block. That meant committing violence — the only way to settle disputes in the illegal market that circulates hundreds of thousands of dollars every day in untraced cash. When one of his employees wouldn’t return a $500 stash of heroin, Leo shot him. He intended only to threaten the employee, but when the latter called his bluff, he saw only one option. At 18 years old, Leo was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Joseph Friedman, left, and Philippe Bourgois studied the origins of Kensington's open-air drug markets.
Courtesy of Joseph Friedman and Philippe Bourgois
Joseph Friedman, left, and Philippe Bourgois studied the origins of Kensington's open-air drug markets.

Persistent violence

Stories like Leo’s are common: young Puerto Rican men pushed into the drug trade and violence. Bourgois wanted to measure how common these stories were, and how unique to the Puerto Rican community. Friedman wanted to see if poverty alone can explain the violence Puerto Rican men experienced. “Unfortunately, in general, with more poverty, we almost always see more violence,” Friedman explains. But he saw a difference for this group. Even though most homicide victims in Philadelphia are black, the homicide rate — the number of homicides per population — for Puerto Ricans is higher.

The homicide rate for Puerto Ricans in the study area — the open drug market of Kensington — is double the homicide rate of black Philadelphians. The homicide rate for Puerto Ricans remained highest even when comparing victims by poverty level. The study found that it’s having the narcotics market in the neighborhoods where Puerto Ricans live, and not poverty alone, that makes them so vulnerable to violence.

Removing the drug market

If the drug market drives violence, then removing that market is the solution. But doing that through policing is unlikely to succeed in Kensington. "It’s just the perfect risk environment for hiding drugs — you’ve got too many abandoned buildings. It’s impossible to police that area,” Bourgois says. No matter how many drug busts law enforcement celebrated over the years, the flow of drugs to Kensington — and the robustnesses of the narcotics market — hasn’t budged.

Bourgois contends that prohibition makes the drug market both lucrative and dangerous. The clandestine supply chain inflates the price of drugs and the inability to settle disputes in civil courts makes violence a critical tool for business. The study concludes by recommending a move toward decriminalization and legalization of all drugs — as countries like Portugal have done — as the long-term solution.

Even without full decriminalization, the research suggests that Philadelphia could put the narcotics market in Kensington out of business by diverting resources from futile efforts to police and incarcerate, and investing heavily in economic opportunity for vulnerable neighborhoods. Had Leo gotten that job he applied to, maybe he would have never picked up a gun.

Brain Trust is a biweekly column that looks at how new research affects Philly. Ideas? Suggestions? Email Abraham Gutman at agutman@inquirer.com.