Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, Oprah: Maybe TV personalities can cure what ails Philly

In Fairhill, the city threatens to sue Conrail if they don't help to clean and seal the heroin encampment that's long festered along their tracks.

Don’t hate the ratings-hungry TV doctor exploiting the underbelly of our city. Hate the mind-blowing negligence that turned one of our neighborhoods into the kind of pit of desperation that is described in some polite circles as poverty porn.

I was away when Mehmet Oz of The Dr. Oz Show visited Philadelphia last week. Dressed in average-Joe jeans and hiking boots, he toured the notorious drug encampment along the Gurney Street corridor, a stretch of heroin-induced squalor that rivals any zombie apocalypse episode of The Walking Dead.

As expected, haters wasted no time going after the TV doc, who is often criticized for being more entertainer than M.D. How dare this quack exploit our city? Blight porn! Get him out of North Philly.

From afar, I had a similar reaction. We should be horrified, I thought, that one of our biggest failings was now going to be fodder for a cheesy national television show.

But then I realized that our horror is aimed in the wrong direction. We should be horrified, but at the fact that this open-air drug den has been allowed to exist in the city for decades.

Because – news flash! -- despite the encampment being back on people’s radar, it's as much a new discovery as America was when Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World.

But, hey, if Dr. Oz playing Columbus in Philly finally ends this nightmare, then I say: Welcome!

Welcome to him and any other TV personality who wants to turn a reality show spotlight on what ails us, because, really, what have we got to lose?

Beside the drug encampment we’ve all become desensitized to, there’s the 22 percent of people over 16 in Philly who lack basic literacy skills. Would we do more to address this if, say, Oprah decided to start a book club in Philly?

A quarter of Philadelphians are food insecure. But what if celebrity chef Rachael Ray came to Philly to help us cook our way out of hunger with her trademarked 30-minute-meals? And while we’re at it, maybe trainer Bob Harper could roll into town to trim down the two out of every five children who are overweight or obese.  

Not that I’d ever admit to knowing this for sure, but I hear Dr. Phil seems to put out-of-control teens in their place on his show. So maybe he can get through the young people who blow off school, and sometimes blow each other away?

And what about blight?  Maybe we can’t fix every dilapidated building in this city, but I’d bet if we gave design star Nate Berkus a shot, he could at least spruce them up. If we’re lucky, with reclaimed dumped materials, like tires and mattresses.

It’s no more absurd or obscene than the reality so many of our Philadelphians have been forced to live in with lukewarm attention from people who should have made this a priority long ago.

Near the encampment recently, I felt for Joe Walters, a friendly 22-year-old who told me he had turned to heroin after getting hooked on pain meds for injuries he got from a bad car accident.

But I felt even more for Maya Flores, a 4-year-old who walked with her father, past Walters and a couple struggling to stay on their feet with barely a second look, as if it was normal.

I think of that a lot whenever I’m there – the conversations that parents must have with their children. About none of this being normal -- not the drug use, not the omnipresent cops, not the trash, not the city and Conrail clashing over who is responsible for what. 

Not the still-smoking charred car that Jose Martinez and I chatted next to the other day. Just another Wednesday.

It kind of is, he said. When someone dumps a car in the neighborhood and neighbors get tired of calling the city to tow it away, he told me, sometimes people hope that an actual fire will light another kind of fire under the city to come haul it away.

When I shook my head, he smiled and offered me some advice.

The key to survival is to not get involved too deep, he said.

If that’s the case, then the good news is that Philly will survive.

The bad is that it will never thrive.

Dr. Oz. You there?