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? When it's not simply a cleared free-zone of drug commerce and use and experiments in harm reduction? It's the near-total abandonment, writing off, of an entire community, and as Steve Volk telegraphs in his agonized introduction to the list — it's heartbreaking. It's women drug users being found assaulted and dead again and again, babies being shot by their own families, pastors carrying Narcan shots so they can restart the hearts of people who overdose on park benches across from their churches, people living in a state of constant PTSD. The psychic and cultural separation ("too many residents use that North Philly subway line not to attain marriage licenses and construction permits, nor to engage in the legitimate commerce of Center City, but to make it on time — or not — for court dates at the Criminal Justice Center") from normal, that is to say safe, life is pretty complete.

But that's all just the intro, and setting the stage of the problem. I am still trying to get my head in any way around the 'what the hell are our options' part. I'm a white leftist kid from the suburbs, I watched "The Wire" and was amazed to see something true on TV for the first time ever, I thought I was too sophisticated for the movie "Traffic" but watched that too, I hate the expansion of the prison-industrial complex, I know we can't arrest our way out of this, on the corner, or up the supply chain, I disdain the revolving jail door and all the compounded social cost that goes with it in broken families and unemployability. So what do you do? People still live amid all this. You actually can't just wash your hands of drug enforcement. Kensington's not really Hamsterdam. Hamsterdam couldn't even be Hamsterdam. Starting with an assumption that you aren't going to wipe out the drug trade at any level, and you are comfortable with some version of harm reduction's 'live and let live' approach, still, how do you keep people safe, and not either deeply maladapted or terrorized in their homes and on their streets?

The article can't say, though Volk's anecdotes from the now-largely-gentrified Graduate Hospital neighborhood suggest either that some blocks (by virtue of who lives on them?) retain strong social structures that keep the drug trade present yet contained - or that there is some tipping point of repopulation and investment that similarly shifts the balance of power towards order. It doesn't help most of Kensington any time soon, which is much more profoundly isolated than the south of South Street area.

I'm interested in the how. Are there effective interventions that don't simply shift the drugs and violence to the next neighborhood? This is the concern with the old crackdown methods (Operation Sunrise, Safe Streets), apart from their unsustainable expense. In 2007, then-mayoral candidate Michael Nutter pushed a proposal for emergency policing in high crime areas, drawing on Penn Professor Lawrence Sherman's theory of focusing resources on demonstrated violence "hot spots," and in 2009 then-District Attorney candidate Seth Williams also teamed with Sherman to develop key policy positions. When you delve into Sherman's research and related studies, there's indication that the positive non-displacement effects of heightened policing actually depend in part on additional efforts to gain community buy-in. The 26th Police District is experimenting with some aspects of community policing. (On the other hand, the 24th District, where the article's corners are concentrated, is at best engaged in what you could call subsistence policing, when officers are not law-breaking themselves - see here, here, and here, to start.) Research also suggests that even community policing needs to be supported by other systems like community-led restorative justice and community-based courts with self-contained wraparound services - those haven't yet been tried here, though the District Attorney has expressed interest in the past.

First we all have to decide to care about what happens in Kensington. It's now not 'best practices' to significantly invest public resources in areas where the need is so deep that it outpaces the available funds, and where there is not other outside capital to leverage. That's Kensington. So first we have to decide to care, even when there isn't an at-large serial killer to drive headlines, and then we have to develop affirmative strategies. These include coordinated policing that doesn't simply treat anyone on the street as a target for arrest or shakedown; shutting down identified firearm supply chains; actually achieving urgently-needed vacant land policy reform; incorporating both harm reduction and trauma-influenced approaches into public health and social service interventions; and much else. But above and through all that, the goal must be to foster, support, and rebuild community institutions and structures. That's the only glimmer I can see so far of a path up and out of this entrenched daily tragedy we've let take over. A community court would be a logical centerpiece for this effort.

Very powerful piece

Thank you for this.

It seems to me that your central insight is quite right: there is no magic bullet. A variety of strategies are necessary to make life less distressing in neighborhoods like these.

The one thing I've learned from talking and working with residents community leaders in Nicetown and East Mt. Airy is that there are huge strengths in even the most distressed blocks. Most "bad" blocks are composed of hard working people who are suffering terribly from what goes in on three or four properties that are blighted in one or aother way. One may be a house taken over by drug dealers. Another maybe a house that has been subdivided and has various problematic people living in it on a short term basis. A third has collapsed and a source of rats and filth. (If you are lucky, NTI cleaned and sealed the house or tore it down.) And a fourth has a dysfunctional family whose problems spillover to the neighborhood.

The other thing I've learned is that community / block organizing is critical to dealing wiht most of these problems and many other efforts to make a diference, whether it is to support community policing or to encourage people to create neighborhood watches or to confront drug dealers or abusive corner stores or to help funnel whatver funds are around for basic system repair to the right folks.

And finally, a step up in city services--just more effective trash collection, for example--can help. And this, too, can be spurred on by a community activist willing to keep the pressure on city agencies.

I don't know how much Council offices can do to funnel advice and small amounts of money to help community groups carry out these tasks. But this might be a useful complement to other strategies.

Please keep writing about this!

Thanks, Jennifer

A good, bad read (meaning I enjoyed it, but it's painful).

First we all have to decide to care about what happens in Kensington

There's the rub.

coyles properties

jennifer , since you work in councilwoman sanchez's office i wonder if there is anything specific you can do to actually force republic bank to go through with the foreclosure of coyle's 400 + properties. since the council hearings on the problem the bank has postponed foreclosure 3 times. the properties of his that i know of are all eyesores now , most of which are used by dealers .

Coyle foreclosures

Ian, we have asked that the City initiate foreclosures based on the priority municipal debt, and those are in the early stages.

Although Republic First is now actively seeking buyers of the mortgage note, who presumably would have greater incentive to foreclose, it is not clear that those deals are viable due to the declining condition and steep debt on the properties. We are trying to balance getting them moved quickly into the hands of someone who can stabilize them, and avoiding them falling into the hands of a next slumlord or speculator. It continues to be challenging but we are working as actively as we can.

A beautiful and tragic piece

A beautiful and tragic piece that I hope you'll consider publishing for one of the dailies. Maybe that'll get even more people to think and care.

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