The story behind Philly’s heroin encampment

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 Under the 2nd street bridge in El Campamento, Kensington/Fairhill section of Philadelphia. (Photo by Jeffrey Stockbridge,

Under the 2nd street bridge in El Campamento, Kensington/Fairhill section of Philadelphia. (Photo by Jeffrey Stockbridge,

As the controversial spot closes down, we take a tour of its history.

There’s a part of Philadelphia, just a few miles north of the Liberty Bell, off the “El” transit line, that’s a well-known mecca for drugs. Many have called this part of the Fairhill-Kensington neighborhood one of the largest outdoor heroin markets on the East Coast, with drug dealing happening on dozens of corners.

But within this bustling neighborhood, snaking right through it, is an embankment, providing cover within its bushes, tall grass and make-shift shacks. It leads down to a half mile to two mile stretch of railroad tracks. For decades, countless numbers of people have gone there to shoot up.

Some have even lived there.

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While the area right in and around these tracks is somewhat hidden beneath bridges and overgrown brush, it has gotten a lot of national and even international attention lately. Earlier this year, TV doctor Mehmot Oz walked through it with a drug enforcement agent.

More recently, the spot hit a new chapter: the city reached a deal with the railroad company, Conrail, to close down the area that leads down to an approximate two mile stretch of the tracks. That process started a few weeks ago. Bulldozers have come through, clearing out the trees and tall grass. Fences are being put up. Years’ worth of trash and needles are being removed. Police and outreach workers have swept in.

Many of the nearby residents and families are thrilled, while many also wonder, and worry, what will happen to the people in addiction there, and where they will go.

Longtime resident, Ramon Cruz, (Elana Gordon/WHYY)

In light of these developments, click the play button at the top of the page for a “tour” of this changing landscape, how it even came to be, and how its dynamics have been playing out in a much bigger story about urban decline, development and addiction.

Our two guides are:

  • Longtime resident, Ramon Cruz, who has a much different association with those tracks from his time growing up in the area.
  • Cultural anthropologist, Philippe Bourgois, who has studied the neighborhood, kept a nearby apartment for many years, and is co-author of an upcoming book, “Cornered.”

Joel Wolfram contributed to this story. 

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