BELOW THE ROARING El train, past Kensington's trash-speckled lots and abandoned homes, amid a sea of drug dealers, users and prostitutes, a quickly forgotten mass of people say they feel trapped in their own homes.
More than a week after an arrest in the infamous Kensington Strangler case, the Guardian Angels have left, and residents say they see fewer cops patrolling than during the days of the heated manhunt.
Some said they yearn for the return of policing strategies like Operation Sunrise, a multiagency - although temporary - effort in 1998 aimed at ridding the neighborhood of drugs, crime and blight. The sound back then of police helicopters thrumming overhead and the sight of fresh boards on windows of long-abandoned buildings provided a glimmer of hope to many of Kensington's law-abiding residents, who hoped that one day, maybe, they would get their neighborhood back.
But the problems that existed decades before Sunrise - and in the decade since - enabled the Strangler to find easy victims. And now that a suspect has been caught and the spotlight is gone, many residents are unsure how the area will ever change.
Lisa Perez said she took matters into her own hands after she called police numerous times about the prostitutes who turn tricks outside her home on Indiana Avenue near Kensington.
"I'm constantly fighting out here with prostitutes," said Perez, 24, a mother of two. "The prostitutes are constantly out here with all of these guys in front of my house."
Perez said that after she and her husband, Less, 32, moved to Kensington six years ago, she broke a prostitute's nose when she caught her trying to engage in sexual acts in front of her two-story home. Perez, a petite woman who has also offered jackets to shivering hookers, flashed a blade that she keeps attached to her waist for protection. A prostitute once threatened to stab Perez with an HIV-tainted needle when she shooed her away from her stoop, she said.
"I feel like I'm trapped in my own house," Perez said. "I don't take my kids out."
She used to call police, but she said they take hours to arrive.
"It's nerve-racking," Less said, adding that he always walks his wife to and from their car.
Perez's home, which hosts her husband's barbershop on the first floor, is across the street from McPherson Square, a park where their kids, ages 2 and 5, almost never play. Yesterday, she let them into the park because more than a foot of snow covered the used needles that normally dot the grass. Sex and drug use is more common in the park than hopscotch or double-dutch, residents said.
"People have sex and shoot up even when children are out," said Judene Kedulle, 48, who also lives on Indiana Avenue near Kensington. "It's rough. I'll be leaving. My children can't come out and play."
Once authorities learned that a serial killer was skulking around, cops flooded the area, Kedulle said, and then she felt safe.
"I felt really good seeing the cops and I said, 'That's nice.' But they're gone," she said.
Capt. Thomas Davidson, of the 24th District, which includes Kensington, said his officers and other police units are on constant patrol, doing the best they can.
"I dedicate so many resources to that area," said Davidson. "We're down there fighting crime."
On any given night, there are numerous arrests and victims, Davidson said, adding that a number of transient people frequent the area. He said he designates officers to drug hot spots and problem corners in an effort to contain dealing. As for McPherson Square, he said, that park has been an issue for years.
Police work is what led to the capture of Antonio Rodriguez, 22, whose DNA linked him to three women who were strangled in Kensington in the fall, authorities said. Police sources said he confessed to the slayings; they're investigating whether he sexually assaulted and choked three other women.
Around the corner from where the Strangler's first victim was found, near Kensington and Somerset, drugs and prostitution have thrived for as long as many residents can remember.
"People pick them up right there," said Rosa Servino, 69, indicating a corner near her house. "They turn [off Kensington Avenue] and pick them up. It's something you get used to seeing."
The prostitutes like the corner near her house, she said, because there's a working pay phone. More girls loiter there in the summer than in winter, she said.
"I talk to nobody. After 4 o'clock, I don't go out. I lock myself in. I don't know and I don't want to know," she said. "You can't mingle with too many people around here.
"They're drug addicts and prostitutes. They die or someone kills them - no one cares."
Urban anthropologist Bill McKinney said he could live anywhere in the city, but he chose to live in Kensington. In 2009, three people overdosed near the steps of his house.
McKinney, who has lived near McPherson Square for 10 years, is the director of the Howard Samuels Center at the City University of New York and an adviser to Men in Motion in the Community, an organization that provides mentorship and crisis intervention for at-risk young men in Philadelphia.
"This is my house. I own this home," McKinney said. "The most important thing about changing these areas is not leaving when it does."
McKinney said that efforts have been made to correct the problems plaguing the area but that the city has accepted Kensington's dismal decay.
"In Philadelphia, we said we don't value this space like other spaces or the residents," he said. "We say people are disposable here. The problems might be isolated here, but it affects every person in the city. If you devalue enough, things like this can happen."
On a shelf in his living room, McKinney has two glass jars filled with drug paraphernalia. One jar contains needles, and the other, dope wrappers with names like "Tomb," "King-Kong," "The Wire" and "Venom" printed at the top to signify the varied degrees of dope. His collection came from out in front of his house.
"We visit the problem for a second, but it's not thrown in our faces enough," McKinney said. "That's the problem."
One Kensington resident, a mother of four who lives on Hart Lane but asked not to be identified, said she sometimes pulls out a video camera when she sees prostitutes working her block.
"We put it on YouTube," she said. "We watch 'em go up and down the street. They get in the cars right in front of our house."
The woman has four daughters, the eldest of whom has a heroin addiction and works the streets. She said she's tried to help the 25-year-old get clean, going so far as to send her to a rehab facility in Florida, but the daughter always returns to the streets.
"I feel she's safer in jail than she is out here," she said.
She wonders what happened to Operation Sunrise. The highly touted anti-crime and blight-abatement program targeted Kensington for a time and, some residents said, made a difference.
"Whatever happened to that? I felt safe then to come outside my house. Operation Sunrise did something for that first week or two," the woman said. Now, she said, "I don't walk around the block no more."
Cops do make arrests, but she said she knows from her daughter that the charges can be weak. Her daughter's been charged with obstruction of the highway, a common prostitution charge.
"They see the same people out there all the time. Why don't they do something about it?" she asked. "I see the same girls get arrested then get out. I see the same drug dealers get out."
If a prostitute or a drug user is on her stoop, the woman said, she will call police, but she won't expect to see them quickly. "Unless you say they have a gun," she said. "I say the hookers are out here, it's an hour and a half."
Sitting inside her warm living room, she gestured toward the window. "I love it when it's cold or when it rains. I dread the summer."