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Kensington symbolizes the promise and peril of Philly DA Larry Krasner’s policies as he seeks reelection

Even sympathetic residents say they’re becoming hardened by the daily onslaught of trash, drug use, and sex work.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner in Kensington last July.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner in Kensington last July.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Larry Krasner needed a bullhorn to be heard over jeering residents when he went to ground zero of Philadelphia’s drug epidemic last summer.

“Do nothing like you’ve been doing!” one woman yelled at the district attorney during a “Take Back Kensington” rally.

“You said you were gonna clean it up before [the] election,” a man shouted.

Now Krasner is running for reelection, seeking a second term as a progressive prosecutor whose focus on exonerating the wrongfully accused and shift toward decriminalizing crimes like drug possession and prostitution has made him a national face of criminal justice reform.

But those policies draw as much or more protest as praise in Kensington, the embattled neighborhood at the heart of the city’s drug trade. The area’s poverty and crime have stymied elected officials and law enforcement. And while some residents support Krasner’s reform efforts, others are frustrated as addiction and overdoses have surged to record levels in recent years.

“He said the right things, but nothing changes,” said Carmen Millan, 37, who voted for Krasner four years ago but won’t in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

» READ MORE: Philly elected Larry Krasner district attorney to reform the system. Here’s what he did.

Her Kensington rowhouse is a few blocks from SEPTA’s Somerset El station, which the city closed this spring for cleaning and repairs from damage caused by human waste, needles, and other detritus from chronic drug use.

Millan said she’s often asking people to get off her steps. On one recent afternoon, a man with half-closed eyes leaned silently against the house next door.

“I know you can’t change everything overnight,” Millan said. “But a few years ago, we were able to go out, sit on the porch, ride our bikes, my daughter could play on the sidewalk. I don’t even want her looking out the window now.”

Carlos Vega, the career prosecutor challenging Krasner, campaigned last month at the same corner where Krasner got booed in July.

“When there is a crime done, there has to be a consequence,” Vega said. “And when there are no consequences, we have this neighborhood.”

» READ MORE: Carlos Vega’s campaign to be Philly DA started in his mom’s bodega

In heavily Democratic Philadelphia, Tuesday’s winner is all but certain to win the November general election. Krasner is seen as the favorite to win the primary, but political watchers credit Vega with making it a competitive race.

Much of the campaign has focused on Philadelphia’s soaring shootings and killings. But in Kensington, quality-of-life crimes like disorderly conduct and loitering have worn people down for years.

“It’s not that the community doesn’t care,” said John Zerbe, a Kensington artist. “But without proper support, we can only do so much.”

Krasner tries to remind people of the longstanding challenges in the neighborhood. He says the drug problems demand more federal restrictions on opioids, and he supports establishing supervised injection sites, saying they would save lives and connect people with services. Vega opposes the idea.

“It has been heroin central for 60 years, and every single thing draconian law enforcement has done has utterly failed,” Krasner said in an interview.

Addressing the chronic homelessness has also proven challenging. When the city cleared a longtime encampment in 2017, the displacement pushed some drug users deeper into residential neighborhoods, and smaller tent cities emerged along streets and underpasses.

Even sympathetic residents say they’re becoming hardened by the daily onslaught of trash, drug use, and sex work.

“I’m allowed the peaceful enjoyment of my surroundings. I should be,” said Mary Pat Concepcion, 57, who’s lived for two decades across the street from McPherson Square, a park where drug users began gathering years ago. “But to me, it’s a lost cause around here.”

Concepcion has been mugged, seen shootings, and kicked needles out of the hands of people sitting on her steps. She’s raising six grandchildren since her daughter became addicted to drugs.

She’s a registered Democrat but doesn’t plan to vote Tuesday. She’s not sure whose fault any of it is.

“A lot of the people know that the police are really scared. And yes, I do yell at them to do something,” she said. “They explained it to me: It takes time out from fighting real crime. They can’t arrest them, they have to get them help.”

In 2019, Krasner started dropping drug possession charges for defendants who enrolled in treatment. That helped people battling addiction avoid incarceration or a criminal record, said Brooke Feldman, a community organizer who is in recovery and has managed nearby treatment centers.

“We’ve really been socialized to believe we can punish people out of substance use and there is no evidence that points to that being effective,” she said.

Jeremy Chen, 32, who lives near Kensington Avenue, is voting for Krasner partly because of his approach to drugs.

“He knows it’s not just about getting people off drugs,” Chen said. “Even for some of the drug dealers, it’s easy for progressives to say, ‘Don’t jail them.’ OK, but we need to also incentivize them to get another job.”

Krasner has also been unequivocal in not prosecuting sex workers for first or second offenses.

“Those people are victims,” he said. “The city should step up and provide public health solutions.”

» READ MORE: Violent attacks against homeless people have Kensington residents and officials on edge

Previously, an arrest could disrupt someone taking steps toward finding housing or enrolling in treatment, said Aisha Mohammed of Project Safe, a group that helps sex workers. Since the policy change, Mohammed said she hasn’t seen a rise in the number of sex workers.

Residents are also feeling the tension of a neighborhood that is simultaneously growing and languishing. South of Lehigh Avenue, Kensington is transforming like neighboring Fishtown, where gentrification has brought new construction projects, surging housing prices, and trendy restaurants.

A mile from a community co-op that sells kombucha and gluten-free granola are some of the city’s most active drug corners.

And people in surrounding neighborhoods are wary of the opioid epidemic expanding. Even residents miles away often point to Kensington as a symbol of the city’s failures come election season.

Krasner got a significantly lower percentage of the vote in Kensington than he did citywide in 2017′s seven-person primary. The neighborhood typically has among the city’s lowest voter turnout.

» READ MORE: The Philly DA race is personal in neighborhoods most affected by crime and incarceration

Tim McCloskey, a fifth generation Kensington resident, sees the regression when he walks the six blocks from his home to the boxing gym by McPherson Square where he volunteers.

“The last two [blocks] look like a scene out of Mad Max,” McCloskey said referring to the dystopian action movie. “I don’t want that first two blocks to turn into the last two, but it’s going in that direction.”

McCloskey voted for Krasner in 2017 but thinks he and Mayor Jim Kenney let the neighborhood deteriorate.

“There’s no acknowledgement that some of the things might not be working,” he said. “It’s just full speed ahead.”

McCloskey saw Vega in Kensington last month and plans to vote for him.

“There’s nothing in Vega’s plan that’s that radically different,” he said. “And arresting someone could be good for them, notify their family, ‘We know where your son or daughter is.’ ”

Pastor Mark “Buddy” Osborn, who runs the Rock Ministries on Kensington Avenue, said residents have lost patience with city leaders.

“It’s getting darker here,” Osborn said. “I don’t feel the people of Kensington have a voice. They’re promised a lot of things, and they’re tired.”

Staff writers Samantha Melamed and Chris Brennan contributed to this article.