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How Kensington got to be the center of Philly's opioid crisis

A neighborhood once devoted to work now finds itself caught up in drugs and despair. Can a proposed safe-injection site restore hope?

A scene of E. Letterly St as seen from Trenton Ave in the Kensington section of Philadelphia.
A scene of E. Letterly St as seen from Trenton Ave in the Kensington section of Philadelphia.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Before Kensington became Kensington — the epicenter of Philadelphia's opioid crisis and possible home of an officially sanctioned safe injection site — the neighborhood was a thriving workers' enclave nationally famous for creating hats, cigars, and a stable blue-collar life.

Its so-called golden years stretched from the mid-1800s through the late 1950s, historians say. Immigrant Poles, Irish, and Germans would flood the streets each morning, draining their rowhouses to walk to nearby factories whose palatial brick solidity implied a promise of employment not just for the workers, but for their children as well.

The Disston saws, the Quaker lace, the Stetson hats made in Kensington and its surrounding area were products that consumers craved. Until they didn't.

Mass-manufactured goods costing one-tenth the price began flooding the U.S. market by the 1920s, said University of Pennsylvania historian Walter Licht. Kensington-area firms started to lose their markets, and industry began to disintegrate.

By the 1950s and '60s, African Americans migrated from the South into the area, with Puerto Ricans from the island's countryside also moving into now-cheap housing. Race riots ensued, whites fled Kensington, and a minority population without work began to multiply in a crumbling postindustrial area with 30,000 abandoned houses — the poorest neighborhood in America's poorest big city.

Neglected by official Philadelphia, according to anthropologist Philippe Bourgois, a former University of Pennsylvania professor who lived in Kensington and is writing a book about drug dealing there, neighborhood residents found themselves living in a kind of Dickensian quarantine of hopeless distress.

In an unending irony, the empty factories created "a complete ideal place to be an open-air drug market," Bourgois said.

The buildings became "un-policeable" spots where drugs could be stored, sold, and abused, he said. Meanwhile, SEPTA trains and I-95 would offer a mostly white clientele from outside the neighborhood easy access to the product.

"The first heroin addicts, like me, shot up in an alley behind the Top Cat Bar in 1969 at 11th and Wallace" Streets, said John Machen, 64, who now works in the drug-recovery industry. "That's when it all started." His daughter, Stephanie, 25, died two years ago of a heroin and fentanyl overdose in North Philadelphia.

White gangs pushing speed came afterward, in the early 1970s, said Bourgois. Cocaine followed by the end of the decade, noted Jerry Daley, executive director of the Liberty Mid-Atlantic High Intensity Drug-Trafficking Area Program. The Philadelphia-area program is funded by the White House to assist law enforcement in investigating drug dealing.

"I'm not aware of any other place in the city where drugs are as readily available, and have become as much a part of the economy, as in Kensington," Daley said.

The Mafia initially helped bring in powder from Southeast Asia, said Bourgois. But by the 1980s, Colombians, aided by white and African American organized-crime groups,  started supplying cocaine to Philadelphia, Daley said.

Because Kensington was an isolated place with a growing population of Spanish speakers, it was a natural spot to sell dope that turned out to be purer and 200 percent cheaper than product from Asia's Golden Triangle, Bourgois said.

Crack hit the scene in the late 1980s, and murderous fights over controlling corners to sell it accelerated, said Daley. It was during the crack epidemic, he noted, that the area got its nickname of "the Badlands."

In the early 1990s, the Colombians along with Mexicans started bringing in "game-changing" heroin, of such high purity than people could snort it, something few had done before, Daley said. And by the late 1990s, he added, "super-potent prescription opioids" began flowing through society.

Pharmaceutical companies lobbied doctors to use the product, leading to massive oversubscription of opioids for pain, Bourgois said.

Newly addicted people, unable to get any more pain pills from their doctors, started trekking to Kensington to shoot cheaper and more-available heroin. Then their kids, who got hooked stealing Mom and Dad's pain pills, also found their way to the neighborhood, Bourgois said.

"Two generations of people basically became physically addicted to pain pills," he said. Kensington offered injectable salvation.

Lately, the drug scene has morphed into something more terrifying than even Bourgois anticipated.

Fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid coming into Kensington from China via Mexican dealers, is wreaking havoc everywhere, Daley said. Bourgois concurred, saying the drug has "led to an overdose rate we never have seen in history."

More Americans died in 2016 from opioids (64,000), than did in the entire Vietnam War (55,000).

In Philadelphia, there were around 1,200 overdose deaths last year, the overwhelming majority attributed to opioids. It's quadruple the murder rate, and the highest death rate of any major U.S. city.

Over the years, two irresistible forces helped build Kensington into a prosperous open-air dope market.

For residents, the hugely profitable narcotics trade offered employment in a place nearly devoid of it. That a young man without job prospects would hustle dope there is practically a foregone conclusion, Bourgois said — akin to small-town folks who used to go to work in the local Ford plant or coal mine.

"You'd almost have to be abnormal not to go into the drug trade," he said.

The price was that young people got arrested, with a felony conviction hung around their necks, making legitimate employment difficult if not impossible. Many become addicts themselves, short-circuiting already doomed lives, Bourgois said.

Even young kids got paid.

Boys on bikes circle Kensington endlessly, phoning police whereabouts to their dealer superiors. And, Bourgois said, one of the saddest sights in a neighborhood filled with dispiriting views is that of children washing the Hummers of drug dealers, their eyes widened by the gleam of the vehicles.

Sustaining the neighborhood economy, of course, has been the unslakable need for drugs from mostly white people from New Jersey, Delaware, Philadelphia and its suburbs, who every night roll their Volvos and Accords like shopping carts down Kensington streets choked with wares. The dealers stop the cars once to take the order, police said, then send them to another spot around the corner to pay.

Kensington has become a kind of Bermuda Triangle for users. Drawn to the area to get high, they somehow forget to go home, and wind up living in the area, homeless.

A major cleanup of a drug encampment near Gurney Street has only moved addicts to streets in the rest of the neighborhood, complained activist Charito Morales, a nurse who cleans the wounds of heroin addicts, and who's helped Puerto Rican addicts sent here from the island by officials looking to rid themselves of their drug problem.

"Nothing has changed," she said. "Now you can see them all sleeping everywhere."

Morales is in favor of safe injection sites, but the problem, she said, is that the neighborhood isn't ready.

"People are fed up with the addicts using, but they think an injection site means heroin is supplied to addicts," Morales said. "Injection sites won't work without a big education campaign.

"But Kensington needs help now."