Ask Kensington resident Teddy Hackett if Needle Park is still dangerous and he will somberly recall the recent story of the young child who decided to play doctor after he found a hypodermic needle in the grass.
The child, who stabbed himself with the needle, become one of the many cautionary tales that led Hackett to volunteer to pick the used syringes left behind by drug addicts in Kensington’s notorious McPherson Square Park.
Known colloquially as “Needle Park” and located on East Indiana Avenue, McPherson Park was once known for its high volume of drug dealers and abusers who used the park for selling or shooting up, often in broad daylight. After a large-scale effort by several Philadelphia Police Districts, SEPTA police, the Parks and Recreation Department, and numerous volunteers from the neighborhood, McPherson Park has vastly improved in safety.
Efforts to clean up the park have been in the works for the past several years but just recently children have begun playing in the park again. Kids clamber all over on the new jungle gym, donated by the Philadelphia Flyers, and run among new trees and plants donated by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society. Police are seen patrolling the area and local organizations host events in the park for families.
Still, the problem remains of policing the park after dark when dealers and addicts reclaim the haven for conducting nefarious activity. Though many in the neighborhood have vouched that the park has greatly improved, used hypodermic needles and empty dime bags once containing heroin still lurk in the grass where children now roam.
Every day Hackett patrols the park, picking up and disposing of the hazardous materials before the schools let out and children arrive. He said he still struggles with warding off the drug users in the park, even in the middle of the day. Hackett himself used to abuse meth and cocaine but has since kicked the habit and spends his time cleaning up the neighborhood instead.
“I have a group of kids that like to play Yu-Gi-Oh! Cards on this one bench during the day so I try to make sure that’s clean before school is out,” Hackett said. “I have to be careful because at night that’s a favorite spot for the junkies.”
Hackett estimates that he finds up to two dozen needles and syringe plungers each day. Though efforts to clean up the neighborhood have increased exponentially, some locals say the addicts who come and use the park are actually coming in from the suburbs.
On July 29, 2014, Philly.com published an article titled “Homelessness is on the rise in Kensington.” In it, University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Phillipe Bourgois, an expert on the drug trade, said heroin is typically the drug choice of young whites.
In 2000, Census Records indicate that 25- to 34-year-olds were the largest age group at 15.2 percent of the population. In 2010, the same age group had spiked to 22.7 percent of the population. Bourgois said this may be the reason Kensington is seeing an increase in them.
In fact, this trend is being observed in many cities across the United States heroin is currently undergoing a comeback.
An article published in The Economist Nov. 23 outlined some of the reasons why heroin is coming back in fashion. Heroin was at its height of popularity in America in the ‘60s and ‘70s but has resurged with nearly 700,000 Americans taking the drug last year. That’s twice as many as a decade ago, according to the article.
One cause is the growing popularity of another drug: the prescription painkiller. Opioid painkillers such as OxyContin became more widely prescribed in the 1990s and 2000s. They are effective painkillers, but they are commonly abused: about 11 million Americans use them illegally every year. That has led to a crackdown on prescriptions: doctors can now check databases to make sure patients have not already been prescribed the drugs somewhere else, for instance. So they are harder to obtain. But that means that some prescription-pill addicts have turned to heroin, which sates the same craving for a lower cost. More than two-thirds of heroin addicts have previously abused prescription painkillers.”
Those trying to clean up Needle Park are working to suppress a drug problem that exists outside of the neighborhood. The transition from heroin haven to a place where children can play is not without its overlaps. So until the needles are completely out of the park, Hackett says, he will be there every day rummaging through the grass and litter, looking for any errant syringes before the children arrive.
This is part one in a series focused on the efforts to clean up
Kensington’s Needle Park.