July 20, 2016
Children laughed and danced Wednesday morning at Front and Somerset streets in Kensington.
It was a sight rarely seen in this community.
The neighborhood, a hotbed for drug sales and use, has long been a problem for police and residents. On Wednesday, Philadelphia police staged a block party intended to move drug dealers and users out – for the day at least – and give the streets back to the children of the community.
Related story: 911 calls not enough to shut down Kensington drug corners
"This neighborhood has got some of the top open-air heroin markets in the city, probably the country as well," said Capt. Michael Cram of the 25th District, which staged the event.
It's no news that parts of Kensington are besieged by drug use. A walk through this neighborhood turns up discarded needles and drug baggies on sidewalks and vacant lots.
Most days at the intersection, Cram said there is a steady stream of users – mostly from the suburbs – coming into neighborhood looking to score drugs.
In fact, as he spoke during an interview on Wednesday morning, Cram halted as he spotted two white men in stained clothes and unwashed hair moving through the crowd. Excusing himself, Cram confronted the pair and asked why they were in the neighborhood.
The men could be heard telling Cram they were "looking for a friend" and about to leave. The captain told them to go to their vehicles and leave the area because all that they'd find there was a block party.
"You see what I mean?" Cram said, returning from his chat with the men. "Lots of people come in here from the suburbs. ... It's sad. You know? Parents here have to come out and clean up before their kids come out to play so they don't get stuck" by a discarded needle.
During the day, children lined up to jump around in two bounce houses, while others grabbed free ice cream or hot dogs. Some waited for a turn to mount a climbing wall brought to the block by the National Guard.
According to Cram, the event was organized by the 25th District, with donations from many, including the Fraternal Order of Police, the 25th District Police Advisory Council and support from the offices of City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez (D-7th District) and state Sen. Christine Tartaglione (D-Philadelphia) – as well as a lot of out-of-pocket donations from officers in the police district.
"This is all my cops," he said.
Asked about a normal day at Front and Somerset, Albert, a teenager from the neighborhood, said he sees drug dealers every day.
In fact, he said, he often sees dealers in corner stores, with their wares laid out, letting prospective buyers compare the size of baggies before making a purchase. It's something he sees every day, and something he tries to avoid.
"If you know this neighborhood, you know that interaction with police is limited because of these open-air drug sales. But, today is different." – Quetcy Lozada, chief of staff for Quiñones-Sánchez and long-time neighborhood resident
"I don't want to get stuck doing that drug stuff," he said.
He said that would disappoint his family, and he doesn't want to let them down. But trying to avoid it doesn't mean he's naive to what is going on in the community.
He sees the dealers and he knows their tricks.
"There [are] a lot of people on the corners and they are always looking for the police," he said.
Feliz said he's become familiar with the code words that drug dealers use when police are around – often "88" or just a "whoop-whoop" siren imitation – to alert each other.
Officer John Stokes of the 25th District said he knows all about these codes.
"They even pay little kids to watch out for us," he said.
Stokes said drug sales are so prevalent in the neighborhood that arrests have little or no impact on the problem. In fact, he said, arresting dealers can lead to worse problems.
"When you take guys off the street, then another guy comes in," he said.
Eventually, however, the original dealer returns to find another has taken his corner, setting up the potential for arguments, shootings and even murder, Stokes said.
There are no easy answers, he said.
Yet, he said, taking back the block on Wednesday was a positive in a world of negatives, especially for the children.
"It's sad. These kids growing up in this area, they have seen it all," he said. "But, the community itself, on a day like today, they love to see this. And, we are stopping all the drug dealers from going to work today."
But, it's more than stopping drug sales, said Quetcy Lozada, chief of staff for Quiñones-Sánchez. Lozada, who said she's lived in the community for the past 30 years, said families and the elderly are often afraid to leave their homes. It's a fear not strictly due to drug activity, but worries of the violence and shootings that follow in its wake.
"If you know this neighborhood, you know that interaction with police is limited because of these open-air drug sales," she said. "But, today is different."
Drug sales here, she said, aren't limited to nightly events. People aren't sneaking around in dark alleys under the cover of night.
Instead, she said, as early as 5 a.m., people are walking down the street, coming from the subway on nearby Kensington Avenue, and looking buy drugs before lunchtime.
"People are held hostage in their own homes ... and, they are basically stuck," Lozada said. "They can't let their kids out to play. They are scared of shootouts or that their kids could get stuck by needles."
As hundreds of children danced and played on the typically off-limits streets, Tiffany Perez talked about the opportunity for them to play in their own neighborhood. A program coordinator for the Lighthouse PAL (Police Athletic League) Center at 141 W. Somerset St., Perez said the children in the center's summer camp programs typically play indoors, go to parks or take day trips.
"To have this community able to come together with the officers and see that they are safe, that's what this is all about," Perez said. "To have the police out here doing something like this, it's just amazing."