Neida Lopez, 25, watches her son Carlos like a hawk when he plays on the jungle gym at McPhereson Square Park in Kensington. Just behind the bench where she sits, a used hypodermic needle is laying hidden in the grass.
Lopez fears that if she lets the 2-year-old out of her sight for a second, he might grab a heroin addict’s discarded syringe and be exposed to a myriad of dangerous diseases.
McPhereson Square Park, known colloquially as “Needle Park,” has been the focus of several cleanup efforts by local police and neighborhood organizations. Though needles still pepper the grass, the park has become significantly safer in the past few years.
“It’s safer but I do got to be concerned with where he is going,” Lopez said. “We’ve seen so many kids pick [needles] up, it’s crazy.”
Lopez, who grew up in the neighborhood, remembers how she and her brothers used to have to shoo the junkies out of the park themselves. Now the police are around more frequently, she says. Still, some days the park remains unsafe for children.
“People who be coming here ruin it,” Lopez said. “Sometimes we don’t bring kids because of that.”
Lopez and her son left the park just before nightfall, the time when the park is reclaimed by the addicts and dealers. Minutes later, a man walked to a bench near the playground, turned his back to the remaining families hanging around the equipment, and proceeded to inject something into his arm. As soon as he finished, he left the scene, lackadaisically dropping the syringe and wrapper on his way down the sidewalk.
Previously, this blog series has discussed the problems with cleaning up Needle Park when many of the drug users are coming from outside of the neighborhood.
Some locals say that people from the suburbs make up most of the addicts that pollute the park.
In 2011, The Daily Beast reported on a wave of police raids on crack houses in Kensington, following the hype of the rapist nicknamed the Kensington Strangler. The logic was that crack houses were the places with the highest likelihood of sexual assault, so to crack down on rape they needed to crack down on the heroin dens. Even now, a stroll down a side street off Kensington Avenue will reveal numerous vacant houses tightly boarded up and wrapped with barbed wire to deter squatters.
After buying the heroin from dealers in the neighborhood, the addicts have nowhere private to shoot up. As a result they head over to the plethora of benches and unlit corners of Needle Park.
Judy Moore, supervisor for the Free Library of Philadelphia’s McPhereson Square Branch, located in the center of the park, said it is a sad but good reality that many of the children, especially the older ones, know not to pick up the needles they find in the park.
“The thing that makes me mad is that the people doing stuff with needles are usually from suburbs that don’t have to live here,” Moore said. “I’ve been told by police that it’s because we have better drugs [in Kensington]. That’s not to say people in the neighborhood don’t [use] but they aren’t doing it in the park.”
Moore, who has been working at the library since 1988, said for years she had been jaded about the condition of the park surrounding it. The wake-up call to clean up the park came a few years back when a temporary guard was hired and became horrified when she saw the conditions of the park.
“She was appalled and it sort of took seeing it through someone else’s eyes to get the ball rolling,” Moore said. “Now it’s a more pleasant place to be. I’m not saying that there’s never any needles, but it’s better.”
As the neighborhood is slowly beginning to change for the better, Moore says, she has noticed more middle-class families moving into the neighborhood.
The library has responded by offering more activities and resources for locals.
“We like to keep the park busy to keep out non-protected activities,” Moore said.
Some of these activities include karaoke, free music concerts, and even a Halloween party this year. More than 200 residents of the neighborhood arrived dressed in costumes for the festivities.
Moore’s hope for the park is that one last safety measure will give it the final push toward being a needle-free place for children.
“We’re about to get lights installed for the park at night really soon,” Moore said. “I’m not saying that there are never any needles but we are doing what we can to make this park better bit by bit.”