Problems In Needle Park: Part II

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.

Despite a large community effort to clean up Needle Park, children play on its jungle gym until dark when the area is reclaimed by drug addicts.

Despite a large community effort to clean up Needle Park, children play on its jungle gym until dark when the area is reclaimed by drug addicts.

“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.”

Used hypodermic needles lay discarded near to where children play in McPhereson Square Park.

Used hypodermic needles lay discarded near to where children play in McPhereson Square 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.”

Problems in Needle Park Start in Suburbs

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.

This mural lining McPhereson Square Park, known colloquially as Needle Park, does little to deter addicts and dealers from using the area for nefarious activity.

This mural lining McPhereson Square Park, known colloquially as Needle Park, does little to deter addicts and dealers from using the area for nefarious activity.

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.

Teddy Hackett, who spent time as a child playing in Needle Park, now volunteers there every day picking up used hypodermic needles before the children arrive.

Teddy Hackett, who spent time as a child playing in Needle Park, now volunteers there every day picking up used hypodermic needles before the children arrive.

“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.

Heroin is making a comeback in the United States in part because access to addictive prescription drugs has been tightened over the past decade.

Heroin is making a comeback in the United States in part because access to addictive prescription drugs has been tightened over the past decade.

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.