'It's gone now': Gurney Street heroin camps mostly cleaned up

When Carlos Cabrera used to look out at the train tracks next to the beer distributor where he works at Second Street and Indiana Avenue, nearly all he saw was trash.

Used bottles and dirty clothes, tires, and old furniture — and thousands of syringes scattered beneath shrubs and weeds. Small paths marked the entrances to “El Campamento,” a camp for heroin users and homeless people that had become a notorious symbol of the nation’s opioid crisis.

But now, for the first time in years, all of it has been cleared away.

“It’s gone now,” Cabrera, 45, said Friday. “Clean.”

A month after workers from Conrail, which owns the tracks, began an unprecedented cleanup effort along the Kensington rail line, evidence of progress along the tracks is plainly visible.

From the beer distributor at Second and Indiana to the Mascher Street bridge, and along Gurney Street to the south, the mountains of trash have been removed from embankments. Trees and other overgrown vegetation have been chopped down. Some of the new landscape has been covered with fresh mulch. Gray and brown dirt is no longer buried beneath decades of decay. And 2,700 pounds of trash has been hauled away, according to officials.

Camera icon Chris Palmer
The Conrail tracks in Kensington after a month-long cleanup effort.

Iron fencing has been erected along the tracks’ upper edges, although Conrail spokeswoman Jocelyn Hill said it would take another few weeks to fence the area off completely. Workers could be seen Friday installing fence posts along portions of Gurney that had once been a porous border to the dangerous and dirty wasteland below.

Camera icon David Maialetti
Robert Rubright welds the new fence to prevent access to the Conrail tracks near Gurney and Howard Streets.

Michael DeBerardinis, the city’s managing director, said Friday that the cleanup had largely been going as expected, and that he and other city officials were hopeful that the action could be a positive “first step” in helping a neighborhood that has long suffered the effects of open-air drug markets and crime.

The challenges moving forward, he said, are to continue offering treatment to those who want to receive it, and to work to ensure the safety of area residents. The neighborhoods surrounding the tracks, which include Kensington and Fairhill, are typically among the most violent in the city.

Joanna Otero-Cruz said that about 600 people from the area had inquired about treatment services since May, and that 120 had received help for homelessness, addiction, or other issues.

DeBerardinis said officials believe that some people who had been living at El Campamento — which had an estimated population of about 100 — have dispersed to other parts of the city. Police have paid particular attention to a bridge beneath the tracks at Emerald Street and Lehigh Avenue, although it’s not clear how many people who live there may have come from the camps along the tracks.

Cabrera, for one, welcomed the change of scenery near his workplace.

The old entrance to the infamous heroin camp was once just steps away from the beer distributor’s parking lot. But Friday morning, the only thing visible on the tracks’ embankments was a groundhog scampering across the dirt.

“Big difference,” Cabrera said.