Updated: Friday, February 17, 2017, 3:50 PM
This story was originally published on Apr. 3, 1991.
Michael Lutz and Robert Shiver weren't out to bust anybody. The two state narcotics agents were just checking out the action one Friday evening in a place narcs call the Badlands .
But there it was, too obvious to ignore: a dope deal at Fourth and Cambria. A man in a parka was handing a small packet to a man in a denim jacket.
Shiver swung his Plymouth to the curb. Lutz bolted from the car. Shiver followed with his gun drawn.
As Lutz reached out to shove both men against a brick wall, yellow packets began to flutter to the street. Inside the man's parka, the agents found 15 glassine packets of heroin and several syringes - apparently for one-stop drug shopping.
"Not the Colombian Connection, but not a bad pinch, either," Shiver said as he handcuffed the suspect.
In parts of North Philadelphia, it is possible to make a street bust - or buy cocaine or heroin - round the clock. Some intersections have drugs for sale on all four corners. Badlands dealers are so bold that they sometimes try to sell to agents in unmarked cars.
The Badlands are not what President Bush had in mind when he spoke recently of "unmistakable signs of progress" in his war on drugs. They are not what the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) had in mind when it reported sharp decreases this year in drug abuse by high school seniors and by Americans in its annual Household Survey this year.
Bush's upbeat assessment might be justified for casual, middle-class users but not for addicts in some of the nation's poorest inner-city neighborhoods. The NIDA surveys describe Middle America, not the Badlands .
"You could buy dope all day long in any amount you wanted, as long as your cash holds out," William Renton, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, said as he drove through the Badlands , a narrow strip stretching roughly between Cambria and Indiana Streets from American Street to Germantown Avenue.
As national surveys indicate a decline in casual drug use, narcotics agents say blatant drug sales are as widespread as ever on the drug corners of North Philadelphia. Two recent Friday evening excursions with agents in and around the Badlands revealed rampant dealing to customers eager to buy crack, cocaine powder and heroin with trade names such as "Hercules" and "Playboy. "
"Maybe it's not getting worse, but it's certainly not getting any better around here," said Renton, who worked in the Badlands for two years before transferring to Washington this year. "I don't see much to encourage me. "
Two months ago, Bush announced an $11.7 billion drug-war budget request by saying "our strategy works. . . . Drug use is on the way down. "
Bush cited a NIDA study showing that 47 percent of 15,200 high school seniors surveyed nationwide said they had tried illicit drugs at least once. It was a sharp drop from a peak of 66 percent in 1982 - and the first time the figure had dropped below 50 percent in the survey's 16 years.
NIDA's latest Household Survey of 9,000 Americans, also cited by Bush, showed a 44 percent drop since 1985 in the number of people reporting casual use of drugs.
Democrats have disputed Bush's rosy view, saying the number of drug addicts in America is higher than ever. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D., Mich) says the NIDA surveys showed only that Bush's drug war is benefiting the educated and the middle-class - not poor, undereducated minorities in the inner cities.
U.S. Assistant Health Secretary James O. Mason conceded that "there continues to be concern that certain high-risk populations may be missed" by the surveys, which he said are regularly redesigned.
Although the surveys include all racial and income groups, they primarily covered white, middle-class areas, said a NIDA spokeswoman in Rockville, Md. The surveys did not include school dropouts or the homeless - two populations thought to be among the heaviest users of drugs.
Nor did they venture into the Badlands .
"I don't know who they surveyed, but I don't think it was any of those guys," said Renton, pointing to dealers yelling out "New York! New York!" - a local heroin brand name - near Darien Street, where graffito on a wall reads "Dope Street. "
The surveys may have missed the dealers in the Badlands , but not the customers. According to Renton, up to half the buyers in the area are middle- class whites who drive in from the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware suburbs.
On this particular Friday evening, cars with New Jersey and Delaware tags cruised the Badlands after pulling off Interstate 95 at Aramingo Avenue. On the streets, white faces stood out starkly in the Hispanic and black neighborhoods surrounding the Badlands .
"They're here for 15 minutes, then they're back on I-95 and gone," said Shiver, the state agent. "Now who comes all the way up here for a 15-minute social visit?"
As Renton drove down Second Street, he spotted two young white men in a blue Pontiac with New Jersey tags. They were huddled over something on the front seat.
"Well, here we go, two white boys from Jersey," he said. "What do you suppose they have on the seat? "
Before Renton's unmarked car reached the Pontiac, the two men saw the car coming and sped away.
"They'll be back," Renton said. "From Front to Germantown, Lehigh to Clearfield, there's not a better place to buy heroin. "
Renton recalled busting a dealer on Clearfield Street who tossed cocaine powder on the pavement as he tried to flee. "Guys were on their hands and knees with straws, snorting the stuff up. We had to get the Fire Department to hose it down."
One of the hottest crack corners in the area is at York and Orkney, where a dealer ambled over to Renton's car and said: "Yo, what you need? "
Renton grinned, and the man quickly realized whom he was talking to. ''Oh," he said. And then: "Hey, man, how long you been on the force? "
Renton rolled his eyes. "Oh, puh-leeze, gimme a break," he said, waving the dealer away.
Moments later, a man in an Eagles sweatshirt poked his head into Renton's car and said: "I don't sell, man, I use. But I can get you some. How much you want? "
Renton laughed. Pulling away, he told the man: "That's OK, thanks anyway, bro."
At Reese and Somerset, four dealers scattered when a man in a yellow jacket screamed a warning as Renton's car turned the corner. Renton pulled up next to the man and said: "That was great. You ought to do P.R. for us. Thanks a lot. "
The man shrugged and walked away.
Renton sighed. When he arrived in Philadelphia 3 1/2 years ago, he said, finding crack was difficult. Now it is everywhere.
"Crack got big quick, real quick, and it never changed. It's still big," he said. "Maybe I'm jaded because I've been working this area so long, but I don't see much hope. "
In another unmarked car on another Friday evening, Mike Lutz was less pessimistic. Lutz, an agent for the state Attorney General's Bureau of Narcotics Investigation in Philadelphia, sees signs of improvement - but not in the Badlands .
Through his work with anti-drug community and youth groups, Lutz said, he has watched residents clean up their own neighborhoods and schools across the city. Attitudes against drugs are hardening, he said.
"It's not all gloom and doom," he said as his Plymouth moved past young men hawking drugs on Cambria Street. "The drug use is still here, the distribution is still here. But a lot of people elsewhere are working hard to stamp it out. "
Lutz's partner, Shiver, drove past a corner on Fourth Street where an emaciated young woman shouted out a warning of the agents' arrival. He shook his head.
"You'll probably never have a time when you can't drive around here and buy drugs," he said.
Even so, Shiver said, the number of new recruits to drug abuse seems to be leveling off in the city as a whole.
"People who were drug abusers two years ago are still drug abusers," he said. "But the kind of people who would have started using two years ago are not starting now. "
At Fourth and Cambria, the agents made their unanticipated bust. A young white man was buying from a Hispanic dealer, who dropped nine yellow packets of cocaine as Lutz ran toward him.
"Whoa, I didn't even cop yet," the buyer told Lutz. He was swallowing something - probably a packet of heroin, Lutz said later.
A frisk turned up no drugs on the buyer. He had eaten the only evidence, so the agents had to let him go.
"Yeah, yeah, I know," he told Lutz as he left. "I'm nuts for coming up here. "
The agents did find drugs on the dealer, so a police unit was called to take him downtown, where the agents would book him.
"We could do a bust like this most any day," Shiver said as the cops arrived. "But it wouldn't do much good. As soon as we leave, somebody else will take over this corner."
Read full story: IN THE BADLANDS OF THE CITY, DRUGS STILL RIDING HIGH