Ground breaks for Philly greenway along former Conrail heroin hotspot

A few dozen workers were cleaning up a strip of land Friday morning between Gurney Street and a new wrought-iron fence alongside the Conrail tracks in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood.

They raked and shoveled up small mounds of trash strewn with empty bottles, plastic bags and old articles of clothing. Tony Beltram was using a garbage picker with pincers at the end to pick up used syringes and carefully place them into a red container.

“All right, just keep picking up the trash guys, leave the good stuff for me,” he said.

Beltram and most of the other workers were from HACE, a community development corporation. In just two hours, Beltram said he had already filled three containers with syringes.

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The Conrail tracks here used to be a magnet for heroin users looking for a hidden place to get high. But HACE’s cleanup work is the beginning of a project to give them a brighter image. Plans are underway to turn the edges of the tracks into an attractive greenway. It’s one way the community is trying to keep the area clear after Philadelphia and Conrail worked to clean up tons of debris and remove an encampment for heroin users last summer.

Even in that short time, a lot of trash has accumulated outside the fenced-off tracks.

“Over time, there’s been some dumping, so we are cleaning it in preparation for the creation of a walking track,” said Maria Gonzalez, HACE president. That new space, she said, is “an opportunity for people in the neighborhood to come out and use the space in a positive way.”

The path will run for two blocks along Gurney Street, surrounded by landscaping and art installations that will be built into the railroad fence. Gonzalez said the project should be finished by the end of June. In the future, the trail could cross a bridge over the tracks and be extended on the other side.

HACE is getting a grant from Conrail through a tax-credit program offered by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. The organization will receive $150,000 per year for six years to support projects such as this one that aim to keep Gurney Street from being taken over again by drug use and litter. HACE is working with Conrail and Impact Services, another community development corporation, to beautify and maintain sections of land adjacent to the track.

“You still have needles around that people are dumping, but you don’t have that constant traffic of people using and passing out,” Gonzalez said.

She said the new green space will get more eyes on the street to maintain the progress there. It’s also a way for neighbors to reclaim outdoor space where, for a long time, they were too afraid to go.

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