A PORTRAIT OF HUNGER
One in an occasional series
The Drugs Dilemma- To make a living in North Phila., many turn to dealing.
A young, casually dressed woman bounds down the steps at the Somerset train station in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. .
Few things would bring a white woman out here on a bright and sunny Monday morning.
She walks up to one of several Latino men standing in the shadow of the El and pays for her dose of heroin, easy as buying hot coffee and a doughnut.
The woman sits on a doorstep, injects herself in the neck, then nods in a blissed-out stupor. Her well-coiffed hair falls into her face while her handbag lies forgotten at her feet.
"That's so sad," says Philippe Bourgois, a University of Pennsylvania anthropologist who lives in the area two or three nights a week to chronicle drug dealing.
Offering employment where legitimate industry collapsed years ago, the hugely profitable narcotics trade endlessly engages police, dealers, and drug abusers in the area. Kensington is part of the First Congressional District, one of the poorest places in America.
It's also the center of drug activity in the city with more than twice the number of incidents of anywhere else, police data show.
Servicing the unslakable appetite for product is an astonishingly well-paid army of Latino dealers.
That a young man without job prospects would hustle dope in the open-air bazaars of Kensington is practically a foregone conclusion, Bourgois says -- akin to small-town folks who used to go to work in the local Ford plant or coal mine.
"They are selling drugs in the shadows of closed-down factories that used to employ their parents and grandparents," says Bourgois. "You'd almost have to be abnormal not to go into the drug trade.
"Thank God I'm an overpaid professor, so I'm not tempted. You can't believe the money that's out here."
Not everyone buys Bourgois' deal-or-perish scenario. Some former dealers say it's the lifestyle, not just the dearth of jobs, that compels many young hustlers.
"A lot of young men have a home and parents who work and don't have to be out here dealing," says former Kensington dealer Edwin Desamour, who served 81/2 years in prison for third-degree murder. "They just want the hustler life. They're attracted to it."
Desamour acknowledges, however, that although a kid could say no to dealing drugs, there are few other choices.
Whatever gets dealers into the game, police say, the result is the same, and the collateral damage from the narcotics trade -- the violence most of all -- is what preoccupies law enforcement.
These days, police are scouring the neighborhood for whoever has strangled three women and attacked others since early October. All three had battled drug addictions.
"People tell us it's their only means of making money and that drugs are all they have to survive," says Sgt. Gregory Kovacs of the 25th District Narcotics Enforcement Team. "But I tell them it's illegal."
That is the end of the argument for Kovacs, a no-nonsense 16-year veteran who was once part of a Kensington drug raid that turned out to be in his grandmother's former house.
"I see drug dealers holding entire blocks of good people hostage, where children can't play," Kovacs says. "I see drug dealing as a real tragedy."
A responsibility to study ourselves
. . . as a shorty I looked up to the
Only adult man I knew that wasn't a
- hip-hop artist Kanye West
Bourgois, his partner, and two Penn ethnographers have lived in two rowhouses on the same tight block in Kensington for around 18 months, though Bourgois has studied drug activities in the area since 2007. He can't disclose his location but says the poverty rate in his microneighborhood is 60 percent, he says.
Bourgois inhabits two worlds -- an Ivy League sanctum where he teaches graduate students, and a cratered community where he interviews drug dealers.
Sitting on the rooftop of one of the houses on a wobbly bench under an endless blue sky, Bourgois munches raspberries that were grown in the area.
From his perch, Bourgois can count 14 former factories, their boarded-up windows looking like eyes battered shut in a street brawl.
"They were once proud palaces of work," says Bourgois (pronounced BOAR-gwah), 54, who has written about drugs, violence, and homelessness in San Francisco and New York. "Now, this whole area is a drug supermarket."
In Kensington, Bourgois' team studies substance abuse, AIDS, and the effects of poverty, and has a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health. Bourgois plans to write a book about his findings.
Once a figure of suspicion, Bourgois is well known on his block, accorded the respectful appellation "maestro" -- teacher -- by the residents, many of them from rural sections of Puerto Rico, according to Bourgois.
Affable and patrician-slender, Bourgois sports a stud in his left ear and looks every bit the "classic liberal scholar" he labels himself.
He was born to affluence on Manhattan's Upper East Side, curious about the poor Latino neighborhood of East Harlem just seven blocks north and the powerful force of segregation that separated the two areas.
Bourgois' father, a Frenchman who survived Auschwitz, worked in the economic-development office of the United Nations. His mother was a social worker.
A graduate of Harvard and Stanford Universities, Bourgois has studied Mayans in Belize and native peoples in Nicaragua, but he believes "we have a responsibility to study ourselves."
He says his former wife tells people that his style of "extreme ethnography" -- living in the rough neighborhoods he studies -- ended their marriage. Bourgois doesn't argue.
The rowhouse in which ethnographer Fernando Montero lives, which rents for $475 a month, has 42 building-code violations, Bourgois estimates, not counting the cockroaches. It affords Bourgois personal insight into how people live in the district.
"This is a slumlord's place, and we used my grant money to clean the black mold on the walls and fix the sewage pipes after they exploded," he says. "The landlords out here just let everyone suffer. The housing stock is destroyed."
In fact, the First Congressional District has the highest percentage -- 47 percent -- of housing units built before 1939 of any of the 19 districts in Pennsylvania, census figures show.
The sparsely furnished rowhouse that Bourgois shares with his partner, Laurie Hart (an anthropologist), and ethnographer George Karandinos is across the street and rents for $600. Paid for in part by NIH money, it's renovated and much nicer. Still, Bourgois can never put any toilet paper in the toilet without causing a backup.
Bourgois wanted to buy some abandoned property to create a community center for his neighbors. But city policy requires the buyer to pay all taxes owed by the former owner, which, he says, is financially onerous.
"The rules are impossible," Bourgois says. "Meanwhile, the neighborhood is just decaying."
To survive, he says, many "good people" turn to drug dealing. What Bourgois has discovered is that selling narcotics can be a nuanced, complex proposition.
At one moment, he says, a family can be the classic picture of working-class enterprise, with both parents working and the kids in school.
But then the father might get laid off. "And, boom, in the next moment, the sons are ashamedly in the drug trade to forestall eviction," Bourgois says.
People move in and out of the illegal economy, often supplementing their jobs with drug dealing. "It's grotesque that people are forced to do that," Bourgois says.
Residents have told Bourgois they are afraid to deal because they've already been arrested or are worried about getting shot by rival dealers. But, they say, they simply don't have enough money to buy food.
"Hunger and drug dealing go together," Bourgois says.
Hustling inspires moral dilemmas in people's lives. Neighbors don't like dope being sold on the block but are loath to inform on young men they've seen every day since they were in strollers. "People don't want to put these kids they know in jail," Bourgois says. Snitching also can sometimes have lethal consequences, residents say.
Meanwhile, some young people have confided in Bourgois that they'd rather look for a square job than push drugs. But, he says, a bizarre sort of peer pressure is exerted by dealer friends who see guys who don't sell dope as selfish slackers.
"People will tell the kid looking for a job: 'Don't be a parasite in your mother's house. Contribute. Go out and sell drugs and pay your mom's electric bill.' "
What upsets Bourgois is the sight of young boys washing the Hummers and BMWs belonging to the dealers. "These kids are eager to please the generous and cool adults around them," Bourgois says. "So, as they get older, what do you think their next step will be?"
Though danger surrounds him, Bourgois has discovered that the neighborhood has been mostly safe for him and his team. The toughest time he had was not with drug dealers but with police.
On May 16, 2008, Bourgois was standing on a corner with drug dealers, asking questions about their lives and trade.
In a flash, police swarmed, looking to bust dealers and buyers alike. "They said, 'Don't move. Get down,' " Bourgois recalls. It was a confusing command, and Bourgois wound up squatting instead of lying on his belly, like the arrest-savvy drug dealers.
"The police thought I was a wiseguy, so they handcuffed me and kicked me like a football," he says. "I'm a frail guy, and I got hairline fractures of my ribs."
Bourgois spent 18 hours in a cell in the 24th and 25th Police Districts' shared station house. His chest aching, he huddled in a tiny space -- "Dante's ninth circle of hell," he calls it -- with vomiting heroin addicts and a man bashing his head against the wall, yelling, "I can't take it!"
Bourgois was released, and eight months later charges of buying and possessing drugs were dropped, his arrest record expunged.
On Jan. 19, 2009, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey issued Bourgois a kind of get-out-of-jail-free letter meant for police officers, which he carries at all times: "As part of his research, Professor Bourgois will often take up residence in drug-plagued areas . . . and try to gain the trust [of] and interview drug users. This memo is to make you aware." The letter also informs police that Bourgois cannot be a source about the drug trade.
"It's easy to bash the police," says Bourgois, who decided not to file a complaint against the officers who kicked him. "But they're risking their lives on the front lines, enforcing a policy that makes no sense."
Once a dealer is arrested, he is replaced on the corner, often in a matter of hours, Bourgois says. The replacement is arrested usually within three months, and the cycle continues, he says.
"It's like sweeping sunshine off the sidewalk," Bourgois says. "It's just impossible for the police."
Cycle of selling continues
Dressed in blue jeans and blue sweatshirt, Kovacs prepares to patrol Kensington with a young partner on a cool autumn night.
Unwilling to disclose his age or much personal information, Kovacs says he lives in the Northeast. He mentions that his grandparents and parents lived happy lives in Kensington 40, 50 years ago. Today, drug dealers working day and night in the area can take in $2 million a year selling on a single corner.
"Oh, the neighborhood's changed," Kovacs mutters quietly.
He rides shotgun as Officer Christopher Hyk, 25, drives their Jeep with police markings down narrow streets made cave-dark by dealers who shoot out lights to hide their nocturnal activities.
"Bajando! [Coming down!]" dealers yell as the Jeep rounds a corner. It wouldn't matter if the Jeep were free of police insignia, says Kovacs: "The dealers know all our unmarked cars." Young men scatter, then melt into the darkness.
Tonight, as every night, white people from New Jersey, Delaware, and the Pennsylvania suburbs roll their Volvos and Accords like shopping carts down dense streets stocked with product. When Kovacs or another officer stops them, the drivers offer excuses for why they're in Kensington at 9 p.m.: "I'm finding a friend" or "I'm buying a car." One even asks to be directed to the Chart House Restaurant, which is more than 10 miles away at Penn's Landing.
Bourgois says white people go for heroin and cocaine. The locals opt for marijuana and Percocet. Latinos and African Americans usually avoid needle drugs and crack, having seen the ravages of their use in their neighborhoods, Bourgois says.
Also, hip-hop music denigrates those substances, though it extols the drug dealer as an urban hero in puffy coat and Timberland boots.
Sneakers that are tied together and thrown onto overhead wires mark the turf of particular dealers, Kovacs says. There used to be more shoot-outs among rival sellers, he says, and things have quieted a bit since the wild 1990s. One theory: "There are so many corners and so much money to be made, you just don't get as angry if someone takes your customer," Kovacs says.
Through the night, Hyk and Kovacs survey the kinetic scene, hooded young men huddled on practically every corner, product at the ready. "Narcotics selling in West Kensington is very meticulous, organized, and deliberate," Kovacs says. "The corners aren't owned by gangs, but they are organizations of guys who know what they're doing.
"We attack, they reform and reorganize. We hit a corner at 8 p.m., by 10 they're selling again."
Like orbiting moons, boys on bikes circle the neighborhood endlessly, phoning police whereabouts to superiors. They roll past unhealthy-looking prostitutes who teeter on unsteady heels, picking their way through trash and broken auto glass in the dark streets.
Meanwhile, the numerous Chinese corner take-out spots stay busy, some till 3 a.m. The walls of a few places are graffitied in spray paint by the patrons, many of whom throw 40-ounce beer bottles against the Plexiglas dividing customers from workers, Kovacs notes.
As though oblivious to the tumult, unspeaking proprietors cook with their heads down over their steaming woks while famished dealers troop in and out. The kingpins of the Kensington drug trade are nourished with egg rolls and fried rice. You can always tell when business is going well out here -- the air is redolent of moo shu pork.
"What's the special?" Kovacs yells out his window into a take-out place, his sarcastic question startling cooks and dealers alike.
Then Hyk turns onto Westmoreland Avenue, and Kovacs' expression changes. He studies a house in the darkness. "My grandmother's old house where my mom lived," he says quietly.
In 2006, dealers were selling PCP (angel dust) out of the house, which Kovacs' family had sold years before. Kovacs was part of a bust that took him back into the place, which he hadn't seen since childhood.
Suddenly, as he entered the house, Kovacs was inundated with memories -- dinners with his grandparents, games with his brother. The house held history, a lot of which was ruined for Kovacs by the squalid commerce of pushers scuttling across the floors.
"I was pretty upset, what they were using my grandmother's house for," Kovacs says, agitated as he recalls his sense of violation. "What has this neighborhood come to?"
There's no time to answer, because a call crackles over the radio that some of Kovacs' men are in foot pursuit of drug dealers running off Westmoreland.
Hyk guns the Jeep, and by the time the two get to the scene at Westmoreland and Fifth Streets, it's over.
"You got them?" Kovacs asks, then smiles when he sees two dealers and two buyers in custody, their faces bathed in an eerie red light coming from, of all things, an art installation in a broken-glass storefront featuring futuristic robots holding weapons.
Meanwhile, winded cops are laughing, and even one of the handcuffed dealers, a 19-year-old wearing a silver chain, is smiling, joking that he didn't think the older officers could run him down.
"Oh, you smoke and eat all that Chinese," one officer says. "It wasn't hard."
The young dealer was about to sell 15 Percocets at $10 to $20 a pill and 26 rocks of crack at $5 a rock to two buyers in a car. Small potatoes. It is now 10 p.m. Kovacs predicts the dealer will be back on the street by morning.
Just then a middle-aged woman starts a ruckus. She was looking to buy drugs, then saw the police and became perturbed. "I got no drugs on me. Check my underwear," the woman says as she begins to disrobe on the sidewalk, in the robots' red light, under a full moon.
"No, ma'am, please just get dressed and go home," an officer pleads.
As the officers quit the bizarre scene and the passersby walk away, one narcotics cop looks around and says, "This corner will be back up and running in 20 minutes. Twenty minutes, tops."
Futilely offering an alternative
One day when Efrain Rosa was making $70,000 a week selling cocaine from four corners he owned in Kensington, he decided to take a Hawaiian vacation. He left one of his 31 employees in charge.
When Rosa, then 21, returned three weeks later, he learned his number-two man had stolen about $75,000 from his stash. Rosa got a gun.
" 'Man, you ain't going to shoot me,' " Rosa recalled the employee saying when Rosa confronted him.
"So, I shot him."
Although it was premeditated murder, Rosa was able to plead to manslaughter and served just 71/2 years in prison.
When he got out, he says, he couldn't find another job, so he dealt again, amassing what he said was $3.7 million in cash. People remembered seeing him drive around with ChimChim, the white-faced capuchin monkey which he'd feed Similac with no iron.
After a while, someone ratted out Rosa, and he was arrested a second time -- on a federal drug indictment this time -- and did 10 years in prison.
Now Rosa, 45, makes $50,000 a year as a sales representative for a bread company, using the same selling skills he learned as a hustler to get good placement in grocery stores for his brand, which he does not want revealed.
Rosa's name is legend in Kensington, says Desamour, 38, director of Men in Motion in the Community, a nonprofit in West Kensington that mentors at-risk youths.
"You hear kids glamorize Efrain's drug dealing," Desamour says. "They don't idolize anyone who's been to college, though."
Desamour, a second-generation drug dealer who killed a man in a fight and did time, says kids are drawn to the drug life whether or not they live in poverty.
"You could have a big community organization out here with 300 people trying to help kids," Desamour says. "But in the end, two people selling drugs on the corner have so much more influence."
Sitting one day in the weekday quiet of a church on Allegheny Avenue are Rosa, Desamour, and his brother, Eric -- also a former drug dealer, who pulled in $500 a day before he hit legal drinking age. They preach about the hard life of selling narcotics.
"Our dad did it," Eric, 35, recalls. "He was a school janitor for a while. We were poor, but we weren't hungry, and we had a roof over our heads. But he wanted nicer things.
"I never tried for other jobs. I dropped out of school and sold drugs. I was arrested 11 times."
Nodding with a tight smile, Edwin adds: "For a lot of kids, selling is where the respect is. You can get the money to have that chain, those wheel rims on your car."
"I bought clothes, drugs for myself, food. I went out partying," Eric says.
After being incarcerated, both men tired of the game. Edwin -- who briefly did time with his father, who served 18 years -- graduated from college. Eric found Jesus and became a supervisor of the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network.
They say they devote night and day to telling kids they have a choice to avoid the drug life. But it's hard to make them listen.
"I'm like a psychic these days," Edwin says sadly. "I can look at a kid and know where he's going. I just know."
Little hope for improvement
Bourgois walks through the neighborhood one morning, keeping an eye on things.
He's wearing pants he bought from a mobile salesman, one of a corps of entrepreneurs who drive through the neighborhood in cars and trucks and sell CDs, cologne, meat patties, and clothes, mostly to drug dealers on corners. Because dealers are the only people with ready cash, merchants can make a decent living off the dealers' omnipresence.
On his sojourn, Bourgois stops to chat with Jose Martinez, 49, a bicycle repairman who was a firefighter in Puerto Rico before he emigrated in 2006.
No one deals drugs on Martinez's corner because he stood up to the hustlers, a dangerous act.
"I demand respect," says Martinez, who has sold bikes to Bourgois and his team from his rowhouse.
"Jose is part of the glimpse of how this could be a thriving, working-class neighborhood," Bourgois says. "If there were jobs."
Bourgois believes it would take a kind of urban Marshall Plan to fix what's ailing places like the First Congressional District -- an all-out effort by federal, state, and local governments to combat poverty. Such help, he says, doesn't seem likely to be coming soon.
Some social scientists -- among them Maria Kefalas of St. Joseph's University, an expert on Kensington -- say decriminalization of drugs could be a start toward taking the air out of the narcotics economy. But that, too, seems unlikely.
To save Kensington from drugs, Kefalas believes, "we have to create jobs for blue-collar young people who probably wouldn't be going to college. They need full-time, reliable work -- union jobs, which aren't often open to Hispanic and black people."
Once in a while, Bourgois says, you find a "miracle kid" on a drug block who has the smarts to get to college. But so much is stacked against him or her.
Bourgois knows a gifted child who won't go to high school here because he's afraid of the violence.
"He's a sweet, terrified boy," Bourgois says. "But he'll be bullied, and so he'll be forced to drop out."
Circling through the neighborhood back to the El station, Bourgois notes the constant flow of outsiders, giving the area the charge and bustle of a shopping district.
"You can see all the emaciated white people walking through with fistfuls of cash," he says.
Away from Bourgois, a veteran drug dealer named Ringo, 52, stands in the darkness cast by the train station above, trying to sell hypodermic needles. Police say half the dealers abuse drugs.
"I was a welder in Puerto Rico, but I became bankrupt and started using drugs," Ringo says. "No one has confidence in my welding today because I do heroin, and coke, and Xanax."
Hassled by police for his drug dealing, Ringo says, he's just a sick person trying to survive.
"I am disgusted with this life," he continues. "Once you stick the junk in your arm, you're not the person you were. And your loved ones disappear." A train arrives, and Ringo readies for customers.
Bourgois has already gone home. He's framed a middle-school graduation certificate and some photos for a child in the neighborhood he's mentoring, and he's eager to deliver them.
Hope is hard to come by in the First Congressional District, and Bourgois does what he can to help it grow. But he looks uneasy.
"You want the kids to do well," he says. "But a lot of them are just going to get destroyed growing up here. Just destroyed."
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Dec. 12, 2010
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