After more than seven months of negotiations, city officials and Conrail signed an agreement Thursday morning to address Philadelphia's most notorious stretch of squalor — a railway hellscape littered with 500,000 used syringes, and populated by scores of people openly injecting heroin. The problem has festered in Kensington and Fairhill for more than two decades.
At a morning news conference at City Hall, Mayor Kenney said the railroad gulch cut by the Conrail line that runs along Gurney Street is frequented by "thousands of addicts" who have converged on it after visiting the surrounding open-air drug market. As a result, he said, the quality of life for nearby residents has been significantly diminished.
"We're not having a celebration today," Kenney said. "I'd be remiss if I didn't say that for [the residents], this announcement is long overdue, They deserved faster action from all of us standing up here today."
Under the agreement, more police officers, some on bicycles, will be assigned to the area, and the city and the railroad will clean up the mess, starting next month.
Maria Gonzalez, president of the Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises (HACE), which develops residential and senior housing in the area, said she was very excited and happy that "finally, something is going to happen."
"This is going to be a tremendous transformation of the community and could be the start of the revitalization of that entire neighborhood," she said.
U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D., Pa.) was hailed as the key to jump-starting negotiations, which had frequently stuttered and stalled. The congressman "pushed this thing to where it needed to be, and to get it done," said Kenney. Brady ordered the players to his office in early April and, over a hoagie lunch, blasted both sides.
"I wanted to know how and why they couldn't get it done," Brady said. "There's people dying there."
Determining who was responsible for fixing specifics was harder than it first looked.
"We had to decide who was going to clean what, all that hazmat kind of stuff. It had to be more than just clean up and walk away," Brady said. "But we got it done, and it's a long-term thing."
At the time of the announcement, the community had not been alerted to the deal. The city has scheduled a neighborhood meeting for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Iglesias del Barrio, 240 E. Cambria St.
The railroad gulch, which cuts through Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods, became the focus of intense national and international interest this year as the opioid crisis continued to grow. Last year, the number of fatal drug overdoses climbed to 907 in Philadelphia.
A celebrity TV doctor, national news programs, and international film crews this spring swarmed the neighborhood, which has long been infected by what the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has called the East Coast's biggest open-air drug market. The DEA maintains it is the epicenter of the nation's purest and cheapest heroin.
Under the terms of the agreement, the city and Conrail will bolster the police presence along the tracks and in the neighborhood. Police Commissioner Richard Ross said an additional 30 bicycle officers will patrol the area, and more officers will be assigned to the narcotics strike force in East Division .
Conrail has promised to dispose of the mountains of used needles, clear the vegetation from around the tracks, and remove tons of trash that rogue contractors and local residents have dumped into the half-mile gorge. The city has agreed to haul away the waste, which includes televisions, recliners, mattresses, and hundreds of tires. The month-long cleanup is set to begin no later than the end of July.
The city previously estimated Conrail's share of the costs could reach $5 million.
"It's our property, and we will maintain it," said Jocelyn Hill, a former city Law Department regulatory lawyer who is now public affairs director for Conrail. "We're about to spend a hefty amount to clean it up. We want to keep it that way."
Talks between the city and Conrail began two years ago but failed to deliver an agreement. The railroad last staged a major cleanup of the corridor in spring 2015. The pact announced Thursday began to gain traction when Conrail reached out to Brady in April to broker negotiations. About the same time, the city cited Conrail for violating city health codes and property maintenance statutes. The city on Thursday dropped the citations.
The site known as El Encampanento will be paved over. The apocalyptic zone that Mehmet Oz of the Dr. Oz television show recently called "Hell on Earth" is slated to become a parking lot that will serve a new 50-unit senior housing complex, called Casa Indiana, to be built by HACE at Second and Indiana Streets. The current encampment, on land owned by Conrail, is home to about 75 heroin-addicted people who sleep under the Second Street Bridge. Conrail will knock down the plywood shacks that serve as a grotesque parody of a hospital, where a "doctor" helps inject users too squeamish to shoot heroin and fentanyl into their own bodies.
Also part of the plan is a community services and job training center with a focus on veterans.
The turf under the bridges is brutally scarred and unwelcoming. Under the plan, the terrain will become more inhospitable. Conrail agreed to install broken concrete and rock to discourage future encampments, according to the deal. The mounds will block off caverns where homeless drug users go to hide or die. Reinforced fencing will be erected around the perimeter by Conrail to try to prevent people from entering the area.
The city has agreed to install Jersey barriers, where possible, to protect the Conrail fences from being breached by trucks intent on illegal dumping. The city will also put fencing on city-owned bridges to deter people from throwing trash over the sides.
The biggest factor in cleaning up the site will be relocating the scores of people addicted to heroin who call the gorge home — and the hundreds more who go there to shoot up every day.
The agreement states that the city's health and human services agencies will work with Conrail and police to remove people from the tracks "and offer any and all available services to these individuals."
"While Conrail works to clean, secure, and maintain its property, we are going to be focused on helping the individuals who frequent the area along those tracks get treatment and supportive housing," said city Managing Director Mike DiBerardinis. "For too long, lives were unnecessarily lost along those tracks."
The city has budgeted an additional $250,000 for fiscal year 2018 to provide more supportive housing resources in the area, which officials call the Gurney Street Corridor. But it will cost more than a quarter of a million dollars to pay for enough beds for all the soon-to-be displaced homeless drug users. The city will work to get people into treatment or shelters.
"If you ask me, there's still not enough money on the table," said Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez, who represents the district. She warned the situation is "likely to get worse before it gets better."
"Aesthetically this is important, but the human side of this we still haven't put our heads around," she said. "I can't even begin to say how much work is still ahead of us."
Not everyone was optimistic about the future of the people who frequent and live in the gulch.
Charito Morales, a Kensington-area activist and registered nurse who has spent years voluntarily bringing food to the addicts in the encampment and cleaning their wounds, was livid Thursday morning, saying she was unaware of any plans to relocate the addicts once cleanup begins.
"The city never talked to us about where the people will go," Morales said. "There's no plan for moving them – none, none, none. Is the city ready for another problem? Because it's coming. All these people will move to Bridesburg. I met with the city three times and they promised help. But guess what? There's no solution for these individuals.
"It's a shame. And now it'll be crazier."