The Wire

Living in "Hamsterdam"

Some of you may know I work in the office of City Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez. The Seventh Councilmanic District starts a few blocks above Girard Avenue and slices up along the west side of Frankford and then Kensington Avenue, neatly avoiding any meaningful concentration of wealth or gentrification (Northern Liberties, Temple, Fishtown). If you think there is something fancy that might be in the district, like a beer garden or coffee shop or condoized factory, it turns out to be on the other side of the line. Instead the district sweeps in the remnants of our industrial corridors and the poor, vibrant but brutalized communities who were left living in that tiny two-story factory housing after successive waves of flight.

I work on housing and land issues, with a subspeciality in the variety of ways deeds are forged or otherwise stolen, and those stolen houses sold, mostly to unsuspecting unsophisticated Spanish-speaking victims who just want somewhere affordable to live. I try to figure out how to keep a slumlord's 400+ properties in foreclosure from being turned over to speculators or abandonment. I field calls from people trying to legitimately buy vacant lots, for side yards to keep the dealers out, or because they're the dealers and want to control the block. The names on those deeds are often Jewish people who left sixty years ago and then died. Nothing's ever probated, and there's no way to legally get almost any of those lots to people who can secure and care for them.

There are a lot of vacant properties in Kensington - the aerial view on Google maps is a beautiful deep green - and the work involved in trying to navigate the broken city systems that deal with those properties, and to push policy reforms to unbreak those systems, it's endless (my boyfriend can tell you he has to fight to get me to stop thinking about lots so I can fall asleep). All that's another news story.

This post is about Philadelphia Weekly's new list of the 'top ten' drug corners in Philadelphia. The last list, in 2007, had corners that were scattered around the city. 2011's are all compounded in the same tiny wasted stretch of Kensington where you find all those lots I dream about: "from Lehigh to the south to Westmoreland, roughly a half-mile stretch, and from Kensington Avenue to N. Fifth Street, a distance just less than a mile." It's a blunt tool, picking ten drug corners based mostly on arrest frequency, but it captures something bigger and truer: I know all these blocks, and the 10 corners featured are surrounded by 10 and 10 and 10 more of the same. "No area of the city came close to Kensington and Fairhill in terms of the density and brazenness of the drug selling."

This is Hamsterdam.

But what does it mean to have a de facto Hamsterdam in Kensington when people, families, senior citizens, all still live there?

If You Don't Watch The Wire, You Won't Understand...

...why this little tidbit makes me happy about Mayor Nutter:

Sometimes it's good to be mayor.

Mayor Nutter is such a huge fan of the gritty HBO drama, The Wire, that he has organized a special City Hall screening of the series finale Sunday night.

“As a fan it’s tremendous,” said Nutter, who squeezed in a viewing of the season opener in the jam-packed days before his inauguration. “I want to say thank you to HBO for responding.”

Wendell Pierce, the actor who portrays affable Detective Bunk Moreland, is scheduled to attend. Nutter hopes other actors from the show will sign on also.

The Wire is not so much a TV show as it is a stunning, ridiculously powerful indictment of the neglect of American cities, and the people within them. If you read this site, if you care about Philadelphia, trust me, you need to see the show.

I am only partially kidding when I say that it heartens me that Nutter is a huge fan of the show. If you don't watch the show (cough- Ray- cough), you might think I am being weird.

But, if you do watch it, you know exactly what I mean, right? Mayor Nutter is a devoted fan of the Wire, and that makes you feel a little better about where we are going in the next 3.9 years.

And for what?

Below, Dan respectfully and appropriately asked for focus on the loss suffered by the Goode family. It is a loss that is both painfully particular--a family member--and horrifically general.

Horrifically general because it is one of several recent police shootings, one of all too many black men killed in our city, of people killed in our city, and of people lost to one part or another of an endlessly failing drug war.

Dan also pointed to Mayor Goode's careful moderation. But Mayor Goode also said:

"I don't know anything except that, when someone is shot in the back, it raises questions that need to be objectively looked at."

Stop there for a moment.

This, two weeks after police in another corner of the very same neighborhood--Germantown--shot another man who was fleeing, running away from them, fired into a house filled with 50 people celebrating New Year's Eve, killing one man and injuring two others, including the nine-year-old he was pushing up the stairs away from those bullets. A hardworking immigrant man is dead, the wrong man arrested, and no gun yet found.

This, the same weekend police shot and killed a man who, while having a gun, may or may not have pointed it at police. All we know is one of two officers saw him "slowly take his handgun out of his waistband and hold it down by his side."

I am not a police officer, I don't know if the shootings were 'justified', and I am not judging those officers, though I agree with the stark truth of what Mayor Goode said about how deep the questions are that are raised when someone is shot by the police in the back. There will be investigations for all of that. For now the mayor and police commissioner and DA have my trust.

But just stop and think about those lives that were lost, and for what.

The undercover officers who shot Timothy Goode were patrolling to make drug arrests. Maybe a person in that situation was selling, maybe he was buying and maybe he was doing nothing illegal, was just in one of the many corners of corners of our city where drugs and drug selling and people carrying guns are all around.

But this--being shot and killed in the course of some corner drug bust--it's an almost incomprehensibly huge cost. And it is not a cost that we can continue to bear.

David Simon, who co-writes "the Wire" on HBO, the clearest mirror to American cities I have ever seen, whatever Mark Bowden says, says the show is about "how contemporary American society—and, particularly, 'raw, unencumbered capitalism'—devalues human beings."

“Every single moment on the planet, from here on out, human beings are worth less. We are in a post-industrial age. We don’t need as many of us as we once did. So, if the first season was about devaluing the cops who knew their beats and the corner boys slinging drugs, then the second was about devaluing the longshoremen and their labor, the third about people who wanted to make changes in the city, and the fourth was about kids who were being prepared, badly, for an economy that no longer really needs them.

Histrionic or not, it's true. The near-half the people sitting in city jails because they cannot afford bail are being treated as expendable. The people hurt or killed on all sides of the battle for the corners, they are being treated as expendable. Same with the thousands of kids who enter high school but aren't there by the end. There's no point to my sitting here preaching except to say that it is pretty clear that our moral imperative is to revalue every person and block in this city.

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