The narcotics trade has taken over much of Philly. Unfortunately, the 10 spots here represent only a fraction of the action.
A kid in a bucket seat raised high on the fat rear tires of a four-wheeled ATV eyes the corner boys slinging dope and crack around the Chinese takeout. Then he turns and looks at what he probably takes for a car full of cops facing him.
Smiling, he guns the engine, rolls out into the intersection of Fifth and Westmoreland, and pops a wheelie–his front tires arcing skyward, his long fluid body cutting a pose like that of a cowboy on a rearing horse, a kid too young to know better than to celebrate the lawlessness of wild, wild Westmoreland Street.
Drug dealing in Philadelphia has changed.
It’s now a highly mobile enterprise: A hot spot might go quiet for a day, or even for several days, then come to life. Dealers employ pagers, cell phones and delivery services to stay on the move.
But it’s still easy to find plenty of spots throughout the city where drug dealers work in the open air, making rapid hand exchanges with regulars and recreational enthusiasts alike.
Online crime-mapping stats posted by the Cartographic Modeling Lab at Penn also make it clear that drug markets, once concentrated in specific areas, have spread within neighborhoods and into virgin turf–most notably into the Northeast, where narcotics trafficking and violence hadn’t previously been a problem. But the problems of this city were most evident during a 10-mile walk through the streets of North Philadelphia.
Trash was strewn everywhere, and shuttered factories cast shadows over the neighborhoods they once put to work. Kids lingered on corners during school hours–some selling drugs, others just hanging out, looking listless.
Any guns remained safely out of sight. Mayor Street has seized on handguns as the source of the city’s violence. He even used the recent shootings at Virginia Tech to make his point, saying the day of the tragedy that “gun violence knows no geographic boundaries.”
Street’s six-sentence statement used the word “gun” four times, just in case anyone was missing his point. But activists, police and academics say it’s time for the city to broaden its focus.
A month ago Jovonne Stelly was mourned as an innocent victim, a 28-year-old mother caught up in the city’s epidemic of gun violence. Her boyfriend and brother were arrested for allegedly playing roles in the shootout that took her life.
What wasn’t reported was that the men in Stelly’s life had been arrested for drug offenses five times in the past 10 years. Police homicide Capt. Michael Costello says it’s unclear whether drug dealing played a role in the shootout.
Not long afterward city police arrested a man for killing a would-be robber. The robbery victim allegedly had 30 packets of marijuana in his home. He also had a handgun, which he used to kill his assailant–who probably knew he was raiding a stash house.
Though guns played a lethal role in all these cases, it was the victims’ occupation–drug trafficking–that demanded they be armed. So the police are being asked to deal with the symptom of a problem that is, at its heart, economic. And thus far there’s been no police-oriented solution to the violence in Philadelphia.
Aaron Horne, a narcotics inspector, tells a story that typifies how police are responding to the wave of violence.
“We had a horrible shooting in the 12th Police District,” says Horne, “and it’s our policy to send a strike force team out right after that. But then, immediately afterward, we had two juveniles shot in the 17th District.”
Horne split his strike force in two.
Similarly, for roughly three years now according to first deputy commissioner Pat Fox, police have designated certain intersections “priority corners.”
These corners aren’t named publicly, and a Police Department spokesperson refused to reveal them. PW has, however, obtained lists of the named priority corners over most of the past two years. PW also obtained an internal police memorandum, declaring these corners are named priorities in response to homicides, shootings, robberies and narcotics activity.
The lists show that while some corners are named a priority right after a shooting and then removed after a week or two, others linger on the list for more than a year.
Patrick Carr, a Rutgers University sociologist, has talked to drug dealers, and says city leaders should look for the “root causes” of the violence epidemic. He asserts that people involved in street crime are more likely to become victims of violence and five times more likely to own or have access to a handgun. And the dominant street crime, says Carr, is drug trafficking, which he calls “the major employer” in many neighborhoods.
“It’s politically expedient,” says Carr, “for the mayor, for the police commissioner to say Harrisburg won’t pass gun laws. But what are the things that are really driving this? Why is there a vibrant narcotics trade? Demand–that’s part–and also because there’s nothing else for these kids to seize upon as a viable opportunity.”
Carr’s thinking recalls the kid on Westmoreland Street. The wheelie he performed was a teenager’s attempt to call attention to himself. And isn’t that what all kids want–the chance to see themselves as vibrant and powerful and living at the heart of things? In their quest to live this dream, many will turn to slinging product.
And many of them will die doing it.
What follows is a list of the city’s top 10 drug corners.
This list should be considered as imperfect as the city that made it possible. More than a dozen worthy candidates don’t appear here.
10) 1600-1900 W. Wingohocking St., Tioga.
9) Fifth and Carpenter sts., Pennsport.
8) 52nd and Market sts., West Philadelphia.
7) A and Westmoreland sts., Fairhill.
6) Bridge and Hawthorne sts., Frankford.
5) “The Box”: 21st and McKean sts. to 23rd and McKean sts., north to 21st and Sigel sts. through 23rd and Sigel sts., Girard Estates.
4) 17th and Jefferson sts., Poplar.
3) Fifth and Westmoreland sts., Fairhill.
2) Third and Indiana sts., Fairhill.
1) Kensington and Somerset sts., Kensington.
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10.) 1600-1900 W. Wingohocking St., Tioga.
Residents here don’t put out garbage cans or flowerboxes.
“The corner boys put their drugs in them,” says a woman who goes by Ms. Mary. “You can get fined $25 by the city just for putting out flowers.”
It’s a small but important measure of how profoundly a flourishing drug trade devastates a neighborhood–creating city policies that favor chaos over order, ugliness over beauty.
This North Philadelphia corridor has been on the city’s priority list for 16 months straight. Typically, this means a squad car will be parked there roughly 16 hours a day. But in three visits to the site last month, no squad car appeared.
Like so many neighborhoods in North Philadelphia, the landscape includes an abandoned factory.
“You’re here today with the sunshine folk,” says 57-year-old Tedd Woods. “You won’t find us out at night.”
A trio of young men walks by around 10:30 in the morning, hoodies pulled tight around their heads. Woods says they deal drugs.
“You’re looking at kids that have nothing to do,” he says. “If you had the opportunity to do productive things, you might not come out here and do stupid shit.”
The locals say mostly weed and crack is dealt here. The first obvious deal of the day goes down at 11:04 in front of a corner grocer.
The buyer gets the package in his hand, then takes a few steps away before looking down to make sure he got what he paid for.
>> Poverty level, 2000 Census: 21 percent.
>> Priciest home: One house in the 1700 block sold for $37,000 in 2006; conversely, another home sold for just $8,000 in 2006.
>> Shootings in 2006: eight, all within a couple of blocks.
9.) Fifth and Carpenter sts., Pennsport.
“There is some open-air dealing, but South Philly mostly seems about delivery,” says an undercover narcotics cop who’s worked the area more than five years.
Why are open-air markets most prevalent in North Philadelphia? Activist sources say the unrelenting poverty, along with the tradition of open-air drug dealing, lends itself to a more brazen approach. South Philadelphia has more mixed-income neighborhoods, which helps keep drug activity on the down low.
One recent morning two men stood at one of the city’s few remaining payphones at Fifth and Washington. They dialed numbers from a white sheet of paper, and engaged in eight separate conversations, each lasting only seconds.
A police patrol car sat nearby.
Fifth and Carpenter was named a police priority corner in August 2005, and according to documents hasn’t been left off the list since.
When the men moved away from the phone they walked up to Fifth and Carpenter and met with a trio of men that had been standing in front of an abandoned building for 30 minutes.
The men spoke, then fanned out in different directions. Police say these movements are indicative of a delivery service.
“That’s how they do it,” says narcotics inspector Aaron Horne.
“That was probably a small operation,” says narcotics Capt. Christopher Werner.
Horne says police surveillance protocol would likely require 10 officers to sit on that spot–with two cops to follow each suspect.
>> Poverty level, 2000 Census: 34.7 percent.
>> Priciest home: $230,000, with several others going for more than $150,000 in the last two years.
>> Shootings in 2006: According to The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s interactive online map–zero at the corner itself, though there were four scattered across the surrounding blocks.
8.) 52nd and Market sts., West Philadelphia.
“I’m gonna get high all day,” shouts an attractive young girl walking west from 52nd and Market.
Her friend laughs and then stops short after seeing a stranger over her shoulder.
“Oh shit,” she says.
“You here to bust me?” says the girl who was just hollering about getting high.
She pauses in the street, then cocks her head to one side. “Mmm,” she says, looking at the stranger, “I wanna lick that bald head all up.”
She gets a smile in response.
“Let me lick that bald head!” she shouts.
A few seconds later she and her friend disappear inside a door marked “WATER ICE.” Whoever opens the door for them locks it after they enter. Over the course of an hour or so several people approach the door, knock and gain admittance. Each time the door is immediately locked.
What’s going on?
“Who the hell knows?” replies Thomas Hannah laughing. “There’s so much shit going on out here.”
In a recent story in the Daily News, Hannah’s bar, the Corral, was pinpointed by police as a major problem along the notorious 52nd and Market strip, which sits directly under the El.
“What can I do?” says Hannah.
He says dealers get arrested with drugs in his bar when they run inside to hide from the cops. He says a young man got shot after running inside his bar to escape assailants.
Drug transactions go on from 52nd and Market west to the corner of Lindenwood and at 53rd. Locals say there’s no heroin–just crack and weed.
Some people seem to get special service. One man teeters off the stairs connecting the sidewalk to the tracks of the El and hands a brown paper bag to a young man. The young man, hoodie pulled up tight around his head, takes the bag, goes inside a nearby storefront, and emerges again within a few seconds. He hands the same bag back to the man, who immediately heads up the stairs.
In 90 minutes here, where the 16th, 18th and 19th police districts intersect, not a single police car passes by.
“I think the police need to do a better job,” says Hannah, a retired Philadelphia cop with 20 years on the force. “They act like there wouldn’t be a drug problem if this bar wasn’t here. But come on, man! Look at it.”
>> Poverty level, 2000 Census: 19.1 percent.
>> Priciest home: The block is virtually all commercial, but a row house with office space sold here for $120,000 in 2005.
7.) A and Westmoreland sts., Fairhill.
This has been a priority corner since January, but in March 2003 PW documented troubles here with a story about drug dealing in and around a takeout restaurant called Joy Chinese & American Food.
In that story police Capt. Thomas Nestel described the failure to stop drug dealing there “an embarrassment.”
Now, with a patrol car parked at the corner, the dealers pick up and move to the nearby corner of Kip and Ontario.
According to Gregory Bucceroni, a captain with Men United for a Better Philadelphia, cries of “Wet! Wet!” alert passers-by to the opportunity to buy weed soaked in embalming fluid.
>> Poverty level, 2000 Census: 43.3 percent.
>> Priciest home: Most homes here sold for somewhere in the mid-20s to the 30s, but one in the 100 block of East Westmoreland Street sold for $65,000 in 2005.
>> Shootings in 2006: Three people shot within a block, and plenty more in the surrounding area.
6.) Bridge and Hawthorne sts., Frankford.
According to Jeff Deeney, a caseworker for formerly homeless families, this corner’s been hot the last couple of months with hustlers selling crack and weed. Deeney’s been chronicling the city’s drug trade in a series of nonfiction shorts for the website Phawker.
“The neighbors I know live under an uneasy peace with the young boys on the block,” writes Deeney of the Bridge and Hawthorne area, “making the necessary concessions that come with life around a crime-ridden corner.”
He tells of a woman who used to park her van there until one day she went to the grocery store and was headed off by a kid from down the street. He told her not to move it.
Why not? she asked. That’s my van.
“‘No it ain’t,’ the kid told her, ‘that’s my stash spot,’ and pointed to a bulging brown paper bag tucked behind the front tire.”
At Bridge and Hawthorne drug dealers operating around a Chinese takeout scattered when a PW photographer took their picture.
Two days later the action was on a row home stoop in an adjacent block of Hawthorne, and at another row home a block away at the corner of Duffield and Bridge.
James, a retired ex-Marine who asked that only his first name be published, told of a conversation he’d had with a Middle Eastern grocer on Hawthorne. “He said this guy come in shot, the front of his chest all covered in blood. We hear gunshots here all the time. Pop! Pop! Pop!”
Because drug dealers take over the street at night, he stays inside. “I used to sit on the porch,” he says. “But those guys around the Chinese store do more business than Rite Aid or Eckerd.”
The area, located in the 15th Police District, is a good example of how drug dealing has spread toward the Northeast. As one undercover cop working the area says, “We’ve got activity in places we never had before. The whole corridor of Summerdale Avenue from the Boulevard to Devereaux is infested.”
“The Box”: 21st and McKean sts. to 23rd and McKean sts., north to 21st and Sigel sts. through 23rd and Sigel sts., Girard Estates.
There may be less open-air drug dealing in South Philadelphia, but according to one undercover cop, drug sales are prominent at 20th and Dickinson, 21st and Reed, 23rd and Tasker, 24th and Morris, 21st and McKean, and 21st and Sigel.
“Otherwise,” he says, “it’s mostly about delivery services here. And mostly people are selling crack, though there is some weed.”
Community activist Samuel Porter advises people to look at parts of South Philadelphia as opposed to individual corners. He outlines a “box” running from 21st and McKean to 23rd Street and along a corresponding line on Sigel Street.
6.) 22nd & Mifflin
Both of those corridors turn up frequently in the priority-corner lists, though neither has appeared there so far in 2007. The Inquirer map lists roughly 10 shootings in the box and another dozen in the area immediately surrounding it.
In several trips through the area, the drug activity did seem scarcer and more mobile than in North Philadelphia. But fear among residents is just as palpable.
One senior citizen says he sees drugs being dealt and hears gunshots frequently. When asked for his name, he declines and amends his earlier comments. “I never see anything,” he says. “I really don’t.”
A woman who wants to go by “A.D.” and lives in the 2100 block of McKean says she long ago moved her furniture away from the windows to lessen her chances of being shot.
“Can you believe that?” she says. “I paid for this house but can’t live in it the way I want.”
She says drug dealers are always on the move. “They got cell phones, pagers, and they don’t stay in one place for very long.”
Near 7 p.m. she needs to go inside. “The sun’s setting,” she says. “And I’d like to see you again, so you should leave too before it gets dark.”
>> Poverty level (21st and McKean), 2000 Census: 26.2 percent.
>> Priciest homes: One two-story row house went for $45,000 in 2001; another sold for $37,500 last June.
4.) 17th and Jefferson sts., Poplar.
This North Philadelphia block is legendary for “pancakes and syrup,” a potent mixture of codeine-based cough medicine and Xanax.
Twenty-five years ago the brew was considered a specialty narcotic for drug dealers themselves because not everyone could afford the initial $60 price tag for a high. But in short order the drug was marketed in budget-sized $10 bottles.
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia website includes a description of the drug, comparing its high to that of heroin, and noting that from January to July 1987 the coroner’s office received “19 fatalities due to this particular combination of drugs.”
Rapper Beanie Sigel has called syrup his “twist.” And the market for it is still alive and well. On a recent visit dealers were operating along a three-block stretch of 17th Street that encompassed West Master, West Jefferson and West Oxford. “You going to be high soon,” one dealer said to an approaching customer, who reached out his hand to cop.
At the corner of 17th and West Master, a young man on foot slapped hands with a dealer. The dealer came away from the meeting with money in his hand, flashing green as he passed it to an older man who was making a show of holding all the cash.
At 17th and West Oxford a van rolled up and a thin hand reached out and handed something to one of the corner men, who then backed away from the vehicle. Then one of the other men walked up and passed something to the driver, who hit the gas and rolled away.
The number of shootings along this strip is surprisingly small, according to the Inquirer‘s map. But as one former dealer observed, “If you’re running a business, you’re going to avoid shooting right there. You’re going to try to find the guy you’re looking for when he’s someplace else.”
It could also be due to the age of the men dealing here. The sellers along this avenue appear to be the oldest of any corner on this list by far. The syrup is evidently still pouring through the hands of the old-heads who created it.
>> Poverty level, 2000 Census: 68 percent.
> Priciest home: An apartment building on the block sold for $225,000 last year; a three-story row home sold for $41,500 in 2005.
3.) Fifth and Westmoreland sts., Fairhill.
People enter and leave the Chinese takeout on this corner in seconds, emerging without any sign of having purchased food or drink. One woman, her eyes sunken and face drawn, does come out with something balled tightly in her hand.
The drug market was open during four of five visits. Community activist Gregory Bucceroni says the menu here includes crack and heroin.
The existence of this particular drug market is perhaps most notable because it sits directly across the street from a Police Athletic League center at 3201 N. Fifth St.
The proximity to the police-affiliated center doesn’t seem to dissuade the dealers.
>> Poverty level, 2000 Census: 56.7 percent.
>> Priciest home: Most go for half the price, but one home here sold for $62,000 last year.
2.) Third and Indiana sts., Fairhill.
This spot marks the entrance to a narcotics strip mall that runs all the way west beyond Fifth to the corner of Reese and Indiana. In six trips here over the last six months at least one of these corners was always in business.
The existence of drug dealing on Indiana has been well documented, starting with former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Steve Lopez’s novel Third and Indiana, right through to multiple specials on Nightline.
A website that connects drug users nationwide refers to the Badlands, as this area is known, numerous times. (On the site, Philadelphia is tied with Baltimore for the top spot in an online poll of the most open-air dope spots.)
Here the streets are littered with trash, businesses are few, and the ones that do exist–including yet another Chinese takeout–often serve as sheltering spaces for the dealers.
How bad is it?
One day last month, as the temperature hovered in the high 40s, more than two dozen dealers worked these corners, the buzz of commerce equal to that of a farmers’ market or a street bazaar.
The prospect of getting caught seemed so remote to the dealers and buyers that they didn’t even bother to palm the plastic baggies in their hands.
Despite the overt open-air dealing here and the regularity of violence, Third and Indiana was named a police priority corner for just two weeks, both last July.
>> Poverty level, 2000 Census: 64.6 percent.
>> Priciest home: One two-story row home here went for $62,000, but most homes in this block went for far less–including a 2005 sale for $14,800.
>> Shootings in 2006: eight along this corridor.
1.) Kensington and Somerset sts., Kensington.
A man in boots and a denim jacket shakes a pill bottle at passers-by. Another man performs walk-up car service, doing a drug deal with two young men in baseball caps who roll up in a Civic.
This spot, under the El along heavily trafficked Kensington Avenue, has been a well-known heroin market for decades.
During a visit here last month it was easy to pick out the guy in charge of the street operation. A stocky dude in a hoodie, he never made a transaction himself. But guys who were making transactions continually drifted back to hand him money they’d collected.
After about an hour an older man arrived at the corner of Kensington and Somerset. He and the hoodie dude went for a walk, starting out north on Kensington, and were followed by a reporter. They turned east on Hart Lane, walking fast, and after momentarily disappearing from sight when turning north on Ruth Street, they emerged a few seconds later and followed another side street all the way back to Somerset.
They crossed back and forth as they walked, from one side of the street to the other, for no apparent purpose. And when they turned east on Somerset, retreating farther from the famous Kensington corner, the man in the hoodie nodded at another young man and ran his hand slowly over his head.
That man started toward the reporter, who’d been about a block behind the dealers and who now turned and started moving away.
Just then a young mother on the street cracked her son so hard the sound echoed off nearby row houses. The little boy’s mouth opened, and for a few seconds he cried silently until he forced a wail up and out from his belly. His crying came in great sobs that arced high and reached impossible notes before crashing down in a series of low, guttural moans. Every time it seemed like he’d stopped, he’d start again. His crying–and the possibility of seeing a gun–chased the reporter all the way up the street.
Additional reporting by Anthony Porter.
Steve Volk (firstname.lastname@example.org) began covering the city’s drug trade in 2002. This is the first in a series of stories on city drug corners.