Conrail deal should inspire Philly to attack other heroin habitats

Members of a group that were shown the largest open air drug market in Kensington walk the Conrail tracks amid the piles of garbage that litter the right of way of the rail tracks to see another area that is used as a shooting gallery. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia should consider this morning’s announcement that Conrail will clean up the filthy heroin wasteland that surrounds its tracks along Gurney Street a rare win in the demoralizing fight against the opioid crisis.

The property runs through Kensington and Fairhill and slopes down to the railroad tracks. Hidden from view, the gulch is a haven for drug dealers and addicts. It is littered with thousands of hypodermic needles and trash. About 150 people live there. Last year, 29 addicts died there.

How Conrail could arrogantly argue against cleaning up its property was a disgrace. But for too long, the railroad did.

Give Mayor Kenney and Managing Director Michael DiBerardinis credit for playing hard ball with the rail company. After months of fruitless negotiations, the city cited Conrail with health and property violations, forcing more earnest talks. A subsequent impasse developed, but U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) stepped in and brought the two sides together.

Conrail has agreed to take responsibility for its property, but the city is going to help. The rail company will cut back weeds obscuring the heroin pit from public view. To keep people off the tracks, Conrail will erect secure fences around the gulch and place other impediments along the slope leading to the rails. The city will remove the addicts, provide security during the clean-up, dispose of non-medical waste, and install lighting and secure bridges over the tracks so it will be harder for people to trespass and dump garbage.

Once this open-air drug hangout is gone, the city can move forward to help the neighborhood and the drug addicts get their lives back.

The next target for rehabilitation should be Kensington’s McPhearson Square, another heroin hot spot with a library branch in its center, a playground, and a sweeping lawn.

About three years ago, the Parks and Recreation and Streets departments, the Free Library, and an optimistic community planted trees and flower beds, installed lights, and a playground in McPhearson Park. Meanwhile, the police temporarily set up a satellite station in a trailer. But all that good work began to unravel about a year ago. The dealers and addicts are back. Librarians are administering heroin antidotes to overdose victims. Neighbors are afraid to leave their homes.

The city plans to bring back a police trailer in July. That’s good.  But the hard work to reclaim McPhearson Square and Gurney Street won’t hold unless the city develops a more comprehensive strategy for areas being overrun by the opioid epidemic.

Vigilance is crucial. Half measures won’t do. Hard work pays off, as evidenced by the successful negotiations that led to today’s agreement with Conrail to shut down a horrendous drug habitat. That outcome should serve as inspiration for the battles ahead.