When Republicans gather next month for their first (Trump-less?) presidential primary debate, expect for Philly to take a dubious star turn. Such was the signal sent this week by candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who penned an op-ed in the New York Post on the debacle that is Kensington, full of outrage and, of course, political exploitation. But woefully short of solutions.
I visited Kensington, a northeast Philadelphia neighborhood, last month and saw firsthand our own country’s depraved reality. Needles litter the streets. People who look like extras in a zombie-apocalypse movie stagger around, drugged out of their minds. Others gripped by drugs seem unconscious, their bodies contorted. Everywhere, twisted cruelty masquerading as compassion — the hallmark of Democrats — is apparent. The only thing the city has done is hand out kits to help keep the party going. These ‘safe smoking’ gifts are packed with Pyrex crack pipes, metal pipe screens, lip balm, alcohol swabs, lighters, chewing gum, condoms — and mouthpieces.
Wouldn’t want to give anyone Covid when you’re sharing a crack pipe, after all. Safety first! It’s a shame those who obsess over climate change and third world poverty don’t care more about the misery on the streets right here at home.
Don’t underestimate Ramaswamy, the tech entrepreneur turned author of Woke, Inc!, an indictment of the capitalism for good movement. He’s sharp, wealthy and — perhaps most importantly — seemingly willing to say or do anything to win. Case in point his demagoguing on the evils of diversity, equity and inclusion in the boardroom, and his fix for the shame that is Kensington:
Remember American principles before they all got canceled? Values like faith, family, patriotism, a one-tier justice system, meritocracy, the sanctity of the individual. These unwavering truths have withstood the test of time and can revive places like Kensington, restoring them to the glory that lasted for nearly a century before decades of flawed policies brought them to their knees.
Problem solved! Where would we be without Ramaswamy’s clear-headed prescription? This isn’t complicated! Folks in Kensington just need a little more faith, family and patriotism to be part of a functional, respectful neighborhood again!
Let’s give Ramaswamy his due: He’s captured our penchant for The Philly Shrug.
Obviously, Ramaswamy isn’t interested in problem-solving. He’s trying to outdo DeSantis in the “I’m Trump Without the Crazy” olympics. But, even if by accident, let’s give Ramaswamy his due: He’s captured our penchant for The Philly Shrug. And he’s right to point out the shame that is Kensington. We should all channel his moral outrage — even if his is feigned for political reasons.
Have you gone to K & A at 9 o’clock at night? I recommend it. Ramaswamy is dead-on. It feels like you’re watching a science fiction flick. What you see is the fine line between well-intended harm reduction tactics, on the one hand, and inhumane containment policies on the other. After all, when a homeless encampment took root in Center City, complete with open drug use, it took all of a few months to break it up and strike a deal promising to find housing for its occupants.
In Kensington, you do see cops — but it appears their job is solely to keep the open-air drug market and shooting gallery from spreading. If you’re a reasonable and compassionate soul who lives in this city, you’ve got to take in the scene and look inward with some personal accountability: This is a moral stain on our collective soul. How the hell did we let this happen?
But Ramaswamy doesn’t do the looking-inward thing. He’s about playing the blame game. Even then, he gets it wrong. You can’t very well lay the tragedy of Kensington solely at the door of Democrats when Republicans have been complicit, too. For the last 60 years, they’ve made a deal not to compete in Philly and to settle, instead, for the crumbs of patronage. So if you’re going to blame Democrats for the blight of Kensington, it’s only fair to acknowledge that your own party long ago washed its hands of governing in this city.
“The true harm reduction strategy would be saying, allow them to shoot dope in your house.” — Bill McKinney.
What Ramaswamy won’t concede is that addressing the ills of Kensington is … complicated. And the only way to learn that is not by dropping in for a photo op but by actually talking to folks on the ground there.
Cheese could have told him that. Cheese is a Kensington native and drug dealer who The Citizen spoke to last year. In his heyday as a mid-level dealer, Cheese made about $300 profit on every few bundles of heroin he sold. But, in the parlance of the streets, he caught a case when he was 20 years old and was imprisoned until three years ago. Now, he struggles to find work, a common problem for returning citizens, and sets up shop on the corner in an increasingly tenuous attempt to just get by.
And while Cheese might be extra cautious these days — he dropped at least one burner phone while speaking with us — he knows that Kensington police will ignore what he does. “Somebody called the police on me,” Cheese said. “I got a whole bookbag full of weed, Suboxones — I got all type of shit in my bag, right? [The police] go in the bag, they’re like ‘hey, where’s the gun at?’ I said, ‘there ain’t no fucking gun, I don’t carry no gun, bro.’ [The police] opened everything up and gave me the whole shit back with everything in it. Told me go about my day.”
Or Ramaswamy could have talked to activist Sonja Bingham. She’s a neighborhood block captain and longtime activist who continues to push back against blight, violence, and open-air drug markets. A few years ago, arsonists set fire to her home. Bingham has grown weary of City Hall’s empty promises. For years, she’s fought a battle on two fronts, trying to protect her neighborhood while battling the activists and organizers who, in her own words, depend on Kensington’s blight and dysfunction for a paycheck. (Call it the Kensington Industrial Complex.)
Much like Cheese, Bingham understands that the city’s response to events in the neighborhood is woefully lacking. “If you’re a bad actor, we’re going to ask you to leave,” she said at a press conference alongside Councilmember Mark Squilla after her house was torched. “That’s it. That’s all. I don’t think it’s a lot to ask. I think it’s a reasonable request. But yet we are always tasked to be understanding, right? Understand the plight of the addict. Understand the plight of the homeless — while we clean up their feces, their urine, their needles.”
It’s interesting — both Cheese and Bingham will tell you that the drug war was a complete failure, and harm reduction hasn’t fared much better. The never-ending, unwinnable war on drugs was an assault on African American communities — Richard Nixon’s aide John Ehrlichman said as much a few years ago — that decimated the fabric of Black families for decades. The subsequent shift toward treating people who are addicted to drugs with compassion and as a public health issue, as opposed to a criminal justice one, has predominantly been a White-centric movement of the opioid age. And, with Tranq, murder and pervasive lawlessness exploding, things are less safe now than ever.
“We don’t have safe corridors for our kids to walk, get to school,” Bingham said. Her sentiments echoed Cheese’s, also a parent, who lamented the constant hustle on the streets that he’s a part of.
“People don’t even bring their kids outside no more,” he said.
Ramaswamy might hear that and argue for cracking down on dealers, but even the so-called drug bosses in Kensington — as labeled by federal authorities — don’t come close to the level of narcotics trafficking you see in the movies. Guys who supply the likes of Cheese? “That’s street-level dope,” a DEA official told The Citizen.
We need a Kensington Czar
If anything remains a constant in Kensington, it’s the City’s insistence on ignoring residents and community-first solutions to the neighborhood’s problems. At any given time, Kensington Avenue has about 750 dealers on it. According to Dr. Bill McKinney, executive director of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation and longtime resident of McPherson Square, that leaves around 59,000 residents who live, work, and raise families in the neighborhood. They want to use the library, ride the train, and be free to walk two blocks to get groceries, but are instead held hostage to a crisis their city just tolerates.
“The true harm reduction strategy would be saying, allow them to shoot dope in your house,” Dr. McKinney said. “We’ve already decriminalized the purchase of heroin up here, so you could go purchase their heroin for them and bring it to them. It would be much safer than them living on the street in Kensington. That’s the harm reduction strategy, but folks don’t want that actually.”
For the past 20 or more years in Kensington, City officials, police, harm reduction organizations, activists, and others have implemented initiatives that lacked the backbone of a comprehensive strategy. McKinney, who outlined a number of these efforts a couple of years ago, noted failure after failure, as, in his own words, people in power “undervalued and disrespected” the voices of Kensington residents.
“We are always tasked to be understanding, right? Understand the plight of the addict. Understand the plight of the homeless — while we clean up their feces, their urine, their needles.” — Sonja Bingham
Meantime, the rate of violence in Kensington is 114 percent higher than the national average — not surprising, given that the neighborhood houses an illicit market without rules, regulations, or law enforcement protection. The police take two or three hours to respond anyway, Cheese explained, and by the time they arrive, someone could already be dead. So for him and others who feel abandoned in Kensington by their city, violence through the barrel of a gun is often seen as about survival. “I’ve done what I had to do,” Cheese said, cryptically.
Here’s the news break for Ramaswamy: The more you study Kensington, the more unsure you become about just what a solution might look like. Oh, there have been some encouraging signs, here and there. Before the pandemic, the Kenney administration unveiled the Resilience Project, bringing together more than 35 city agencies and departments with seven key mission areas: reducing encampments, trash, crime, and drug overdoses; increasing medication-assisted treatment among opioid users; and mobilizing community response.
Less than a year into its 14-month run, the Resilience Project released a progress report claiming numerous improvements, including: 100 new shelter beds; the removal of 606 abandoned vehicles, 376 tons of trash, and tens of thousands of needles; the installation of new lights and cameras along the business corridor.
Similarly, when he was Attorney General, Josh Shapiro created the Kensington Initiative, a multiagency, targeted law enforcement effort aimed at both violent crime and overdose deaths, combined with the cleaning up of vacant lots and broken windows after a corner is “taken down.”
According to Dr. Caterina Roman, professor of criminal justice at Temple University and the initiative’s academic partner, the Kensington Initiative is more extensive than similar programs that came before. But, especially in a city where the District Attorney is loath to prosecute, corners can be back up and running in no time. Moreover, Dr. Roman explains, corner dealers like Cheese rarely have interaction with those at the top of the hierarchy. So it becomes a game of whack-a-mole.
That’s no way to run a civilized city. So what do we need? Well, everyone — from Cheese to Sonja Bingham to Dr. McKinney will tell you we’ve never had a truly stakeholder-driven strategy, complete with measurable goals and timetables. At a time when trauma-porn-infused “Kensington Beach” flirts with becoming Philly’s brand to the world, we need a mayor who prioritizes putting an end to this human tragedy.
Councilmember Quetcy Lozada, whose district includes Kensington, has introduced a “Marshall Plan for Kensington” resolution, but resolutions without mayoral leadership won’t amount to much. After Maria Quiñones Sánchez dropped out of the mayor’s race, former Mayor Michael Nutter suggested to me that the City’s next chief executive ought to make her our “Kensington Czar.” It should be a Cabinet-level position, reporting to the mayor, charged with aligning all stakeholders around common goals and tactics, running the gamut from evidence-based law enforcement interventions, neighborhood investments, and treatment. Quiñones Sánchez would have the credibility to do it, because she represented Kensington for 14 years and has a close alliance with DA Larry Krasner.
“The mayor should tell every agency and employee of City government that when Maria speaks, that’s me speaking,” Nutter said. “And if you don’t follow her plan, you’re going to hear from the mayor.”
It sure would be nice to have a mayor who owns this problem, no? Maybe that kind of accountability would stop presidential aspirants from making pit stops at K & A and writing op-eds about how they’ve seen the end of civilization in Philly. Just think. Maybe the narrative would become: Philly is finally dealing with its most shameful problem.