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What it's like to live at the edge of Needle Park

The steps at McPherson Square branch library are still known as the Cinderella Steps, but a place that once evoked fairy tales has now become painful to look at - an epicenter in the city's opioid crisis.

Dylan, who would not give his last name, injects himself outside the McPherson Square library, whose staffers took it up themselves to learn how to give the overdose antidote Narcan.
Dylan, who would not give his last name, injects himself outside the McPherson Square library, whose staffers took it up themselves to learn how to give the overdose antidote Narcan.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

Marie Jensen remembers the day she named the curving steps outside the McPherson Square library.

"The Cinderella Steps," she christened them long ago.

For Jensen, the library and park across the street from her childhood home in Kensington felt like something from a fairy tale. The seemingly endless expanse of grass. The regal columns of the Greek Revival building. The forest of towering maples that burned red, yellow, and orange.

"This to me," she says, "was the best place in the entire city."

As kids in the '50s, Marie and her friends balanced like tightrope walkers on the edge of McPherson's terrace, played house in the fallen leaves, and sledded down the slope the boys had dubbed Fire Hill for the hydrant at the bottom. A voracious reader, Marie would dash into the grand old library to get lost in her favorite books.

Marie was 9 years old and watching in awe as workers completed the flight of stairs that curved down the hill from the library.

Did you do that for me? she asked the workers.

Yes, they told her. And a little girl had her own private palace.

The steps at the McPherson Square branch library are still known as the Cinderella Steps, but a place that once evoked fairy tales has now become horrific to look at.

I have written about the McPherson Square library staffers who took it upon themselves to train in administering the overdose-reversing spray, Narcan. How they save the lives of the young people from all over who pack the lawn to shoot heroin. The library has become a national example of the heroin epidemic's reach. But to the people in the neighborhood around the library, the crisis haunts all the more. It reminds them of the promise of a park and a historic library that should be a place of escape and make-believe.

Long ago, the greenery that Marie so loves was christened with a new name: Needle Park. First came heroin in the `70s, then the crack explosion of the `80s, and the arrival at the turn of the 21st century of Wet, marijuana cigarettes dipped in PCP or embalming fluid that made people in the park howl.

Then, for a moment, the park started to improve a few years ago. The library and its supporters rallied, raising funds for a new playground, lighting, and landscaping. Still a long way from a fairy tale, but things were getting better.

Then came the opioid crisis and all the needles.

Now, here's the view from the houses that line the square.

Some residents just stay inside. Like Madeline Fernandez, a medical assistant who lives on East Indiana Avenue with two of her children, Rmani, who is 14, and Nazalia, who is 12. The family lives across from a park they rarely venture into.

Rmani, who attends Antonia Pantoja Charter School in Franklinville, wants to study medicine so he can one day help people like the ones he sees overdosing in the park. But he doesn't go to the library just across from his house because he doesn't want to walk through the park.

"We see bad things in the park," he said.

Others carry lumber. Like Joseph Grone, who is known simply as Batman by the cops who patrol the streets surrounding the square. That's for the 20-ounce aluminum baseball bat he keeps on his shoulder whenever he sits on his steps overlooking the square. Last year, Grone was speared in the foot by a discarded needle as he walked his dog near McPherson. His granddaughter was 5 when she was pricked by a syringe that stuck out from the pocket of a man who sat down on their steps. Grone is determined that no one else in his family will be stuck by a needle.

"They keep it up, they are going to get this," Grone said, waving the bright-orange bat toward McPherson Square. It's not yet summer, but Grone is intent on teaching someone a lesson, despite the cops' warnings to put the bat away.

In winter months, his daughter Theresa allows her children to play in only the snow gathered on top of cars. The safe snow. Because who knows how many needles could be buried beneath the snow in the square?

As we talked, Theresa's 3-year-old nephew, William, ran outside, waving a large toy needle. It was from a plastic doctor's kit. Theresa said the boy and his cousins play with the needle more than anything else from the kit.

"Because of what they see around them," she said.

Others on Indiana Avenue view the park mostly through barred windows. Like Marie Jensen, who wanted her wedding photos taken not in Fairmount Park like so many of her friends, but at her favorite place in the city, the Cinderella Steps.

Jensen, 69, raised her three children in her rowhouse, but worried about them playing in the square. Now her grandchildren and great-grandchildren can go to the library only if she goes with them.

Her dog, Bella, stays inside mostly. Jensen is afraid to walk the shepherd in the square for fear she'll step on a needle.

Jensen still visits the library. But to go, she must be in the right frame of mind. She has to block out everything she sees around her. Then she won't be sad or angry. She'll be OK.

On Thursday, she walked through McPherson Square with her brother Eddie, who lives around the corner and recalls sledding down Fire Hill. She looked straight ahead.

Not to the left, where a man from Bucks County had just shot heroin and now danced sluggishly in the grass. Not to the right, where a 4-year-old girl crossed the park's concrete ledge like a tightrope walker, just as Marie had so many years before.

Except the little girl walked to her father's instructions: Keep clear of the needles in the grass!

Just straight ahead.

Soon, Jensen stood atop the fairy-tale steps she named long ago, mindful of all that her park once was – and all that it should be for the kids who play there now.

"This," she said, "is still my very favorite place in the world."