What Philly's addiction crisis looked like in 1995 | Photos

Men pace around a barrel fire for warmth in a vacant lot on West Indiana Avenue near Germantown Avenue in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia in December, 1995. Drugs, needles and syringes were being sold in an open air market on the nearest corner and users were gathered inside nearby vacant houses, many of which were eventually demolished by the city.

Editor’s note: Jim MacMillan was a Daily News photographer from 1991 to 2008, during which time he covered many city issues, including the addiction crisis. Here, he shares photos and memories from his time on the streets of Philadelphia. 

Recent news reports on the growing opioid crisis made me think about the pictures I took one December day in 1995.

It was memorably cold, and I was walking around one of Philadelphia’s most distressed neighborhoods with a veteran police official who was known for not wearing a gun on his holster. But when he rapped on the unlatched front door of a vacant rowhouse and pushed it open with his nightstick, everyone huddled inside seemed to know the drill.

He gave no orders and they asked no questions, but they clearly understood that it was time to stand up, put down the drugs, and walk away.

Camera icon Jim MacMillan
A man and women gather some of their belongings after police ordered them out of a vacant house that neighbors complained was being occupied by drug users, in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia in December 1995. Headlines at the time called these spaces “shooting galleries.”

One young man dashed out the door sideways, as if to run an errand. Others staggered and stumbled and struggled to button their coats. I took some pictures, though I was worried that the freezing temperatures might cause my film to crack or tear.

This block of North Darien Street near the historic Fair Hill Burial Ground honestly could have passed for a war zone, with many houses boarded up and trash strewn among abandoned cars. But some of the houses were still occupied by “decent people” — code words for neighbors who managed to avoid addiction, the drug trade, and the criminal justice system. And one of the neighbors had called the police to deal with this popular drug house one more time.

Camera icon Jim MacMillan
A police officer looks into a vandalized crypt in the Fairhill cemetery.  

Decades after moving here I am still struggling to understand the intersections of guns, drugs, poverty, homelessness, addiction, and other issues that lead to so much suffering in our city.

Camera icon Jim MacMillan
Men and women walk away after police drove them from a drug house on North Darien Street following complaints from neighbors in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia in December 1995.

I am no expert on solutions to addiction, but we can’t expect that driving people who use drugs out of a park or a rail yard or a church will do anything but lead them to gather elsewhere.

Camera icon Jim MacMillan
Philadelphia Fire Department paramedics Peter Specos (left) and Kevin Carey, inside Medic 8, demonstrate some of the methods they use to resuscitate overdosed heroin users.

I wonder what might change if we could send out more intervention workers and fewer police officers. Could we turn our jails into shelters or treatment centers or maybe harm reduction centers? Today, I am learning about the city’s new plan to address the immediate crisis, but we must also sustain that support for as long as it takes.

Meanwhile, I spend a lot of time thinking this city might be better off had we made better choices when I took these pictures.

Jim MacMillan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who spent 17 years with the Philadelphia Daily News. At present, he serves at the assistant director for external affairs at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication.