I wrote this piece on the Top 10 Drug Corners in Philadelphia—a sequel—over the summer. The project was typical of what I think we’ll be seeing in journalism’s future—a long, investigative project made possible by a grant, in this case from the J-Lab at American University.
It was also a collaboration among publications, picked up by Philadelphia Weekly and edited by Jonathan Valania at Phawker (Phawker = Gawker in Philadelphia. Get it?.)
Here’s an excerpt, the first bit of the lede, with a link at the bottom for the rest.
In 2007, I wrote a cover story for this publication called “Top 10 Drug Corners,” which ranked the city’s most depressing and dangerous drug corners like Philadelphia magazine ranks pizza or bars or bikini wax salons. After all, when you strip away all the blood and guts and stray gunfire, drug dealing is, at heart, competitive retailing of a rare and precious commodity: Feeling good. There is, of course, a huge market for such a commodity, especially in places that are inhospitable to legitimate business and industry. Which is why the drug trade always seems to flourish in places where angels fear to tread. Philadelphia, one of the poorest major cities in America, has many such places.
In many of the city’s neighborhoods, the opportunities for gainful employment are so scarce and hopelessness so abundant that a vacuum has been created—and nature, of course, abhors a vacuum. With no noise of legitimate enterprise to fill the air—no rumble of a truck toting freight, no murmur of conversation from shoppers mingling on the sidewalk—the most prevalent sounds arise from the underground economy.
“Wet, wet, wet.”
“You smokin’ that crack?”
“What you need?”
Eight different come-ons, from a vast collection of different Philadelphians—white, black and Latino; young, middle-aged and graying. And all these offers speak to the same basic truths: Philadelphia is awash in the narcotics trade. And like all illicit economies, the drug trade begets a brutal gangsterism whose stock in trade is violence—on an industrial scale. The statistics are as astonishing as they are appalling. “We’ve had 16,000 shootings here in the last 10 years,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Reed. “Sixteen—THOUSAND!”
That averages out to four Philadelphians being shot every day, or one citizen every six hours. Since 2008, more Americans have been murdered in Philadelphia than killed in Iraq. In other words, we have the equivalent of an undeclared shooting war raging semi-visibly in the city’s most desolate and depleted neighborhoods. And Philadelphia is hardly the exception to the rule. Rather, depressingly enough, it is the rule.
As a result, the poorest of the poor in Philadelphia are cut off from the most basic aspects of personhood that the rest of us take for granted. They live in constant fear of seemingly random violence, which, sustained year after year, has created an increasingly common mindset—which some would call cynical and others would call being realistic—that the powers that be either cannot help them, do not care to help them, or, even worse, somehow profit from their suffering.