Mayor Kenney's hard line on Conrail's offensive neglect of a filthy, drug-infused wasteland it owns is a realistic change in the city's decades-long policy of trying to cajole the railroad giant into acting like a responsible corporate citizen.
The stretch of railroad tracks running through West Kensington and Fairhill is a haven for drug addicts who find it an ideal place to shoot up. The tracks are on sunken ground and can't be seen from the street. They're also hard to reach. Emergency personnel must climb down a treacherous embankment and step gingerly around contaminated needles to get to overdose victims.
After months of futile negotiations to get Conrail to clean up its property, Kenney unleashed a fist-full of health and property maintenance citations against the railroad last week. Conrail didn't dump the debris on its property, but, like any other land owner, it is responsible for keeping it clean and secure.
The city has been more than reasonable in trying to work with Conrail. It said it would get rid of nonhazardous waste at the site; step up police patrols in the area; secure four bridges that cross the tracks; and add barriers on sidewalks to protect new fencing.
It wants Contrail to remove and dispose of hazardous materials, including an estimated 500,000 contaminated needles; install a security fence to cover the full length of its property; and pull out the overgrown vegetation that serves as cover for addicts to get high.
The cleanup could cost $5 million. But the city spent $10 million cleaning up the area last year only to see it turn into a dump again. That's a lot of money that could be better spent treating addicts and sprucing up the nearby neighborhood, which has had to endure a torrent of drug dealers and addicts for years.
The Kenney administration focused on the Gurney Street site because it is the center of the city's burgeoning heroin trade and Philadelphia is said to have the East Coast's largest heroin market. About 150 addicts live on the site, dozens more move in and out.
Last year, 17 people died there; it could have been much worse if city emergency workers hadn't rescued 29 from overdoses.
Drug addicts need treatment and safe housing, which the Kenney administration says it will provide after moving them from the awful environment that Conrail has allowed its property to become.
Meanwhile, the surrounding neighborhood is struggling to pick itself up. Conrail can play an important role, if it stops slow-walking Philadelphia, as it has for decades. Kenney must make it very clear that the city will no longer allow its neighborhoods to be treated like Dumpsters, even if it takes litigation to prevent that.