The first thing you notice about the Badlands is the Christmas lights. Most outsiders assume there’s little more to this pocket of West Kensington than abandoned houses and crime scenes, but this is a neighborhood of longtime residents, and on a December night, it shows: Bright greens, reds and whites burst off the windows, front doors and railings. They’re everywhere. Even steel security bars, the aggressive kind that enclose whole porches, are wrapped in lights and looking festive. The displays on the 3000 block of North Water Street rival any in South Philly.
It says something when all this holiday spirit can be felt through the tinted windows of an unmarked SUV making its way to a drug buy. At the wheel is an armed agent and 16-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration—let’s call him Frank. Before Philadelphia, Frank worked in New York City. He says there was drug dealing there, but nothing like Philadelphia. “I first got here, I was like, What the hell,” he says. “I wasn’t accustomed to all the open-air selling.” A second DEA agent is in the passenger seat. They’re here because there is a less festive side to West Kensington: It contains one of the largest street markets for heroin in the United States.
We turn onto A Street and continue to Tusculum Street. The Market-Frankford El rumbles by two blocks away. Beneath the stop at Kensington and Somerset, heroin addicts too nervous to enter this drug-buying zone make deals with the ones who aren’t. We drive through run-down streets with aristocratic names: Lippincott, Westmoreland, Hancock. Over half a century ago, the two-story homes here housed the workers who participated in Philadelphia’s last manufacturing boom. It’s been generations since that work disappeared and a much different, underground economy began to flourish.
We park on Indiana. An informant in a different car is going to make the buy. The informant will ask for a bundle, which is anywhere from 10 to 13 tiny glassine bags. The cost: $70 to $100. Those bags will each contain one-tenth of a gram of heroin and whatever it was mixed with. On each bag will be a stamped logo and word identifying the product. The words reflect the dealers’ attempts to convey potency; “Suicide,” “Boom” and “Black Widow” have appeared over the years. The stamp also ensures that users will know where to go and what to ask for next time—if the stuff is good.
Lately the stuff in Philadelphia has been very good. High purity is a precondition of any drug epidemic, and 50 to 70 percent purity on the street makes the heroin found here some of the most desirable in the country. The Dominican gangs at the top of Philadelphia’s heroin distribution hierarchy are getting large quantities of the drug from two sources: New York-area criminal organizations and, more recently, Mexican drug cartels. Since 2008, the Mexican connection has become the dominant one, resulting in a steady flow of wholesale shipments from the southwest border.
For Philly’s dealers, access to so much product has come at an opportune moment. The use of methamphetamine, PCP and even crack cocaine has been declining or flat for years. Not heroin. “It’s by far the biggest drug threat,” says Laura Hendrick, the DEA’s group supervisor for Philadelphia’s intelligence program. “The user population is huge. The availability is high, and the purity is high.”
The surge in supply is affecting communities far outside the Badlands. Because they have much more than they need to satisfy local buyers, Philadelphia-based drug-trafficking organizations are supplying dealers in nearby counties. Significant heroin markets are popping up in places where none existed a decade ago: Allentown, Hazleton, Reading. Hazleton, a town of 25,000, has the misfortune of being nestled between Interstates 81 and 80, two popular routes for heroin smuggling.
“It’s crazy,” says Jason Zola, a narcotics detective who’s worked in the Hazleton police department for 15 years. “It’s like a wave. It’s all we’re seeing right now.”
The largest heroin epidemic in American history stretched between 1967 and 1971; the second largest ran from 1976 to 1981. During both, the majority of users were inner-city black and Hispanic men. Today, local users are increasingly white, living in Philadelphia and the blue-collar ’burbs.
It’s the same demographic that’s fallen victim by the millions to prescription pain pill addiction, and that’s what has public health officials and law enforcement most alarmed. Addiction to oxycodone-based painkillers such as Oxycontin isn’t much different chemically from addiction to heroin; Oxycontin’s nickname is “hillbilly heroin” for a reason. The potential for vast numbers of oxycodone addicts to transition to heroin has always been there, but the cheapness and availability of black-market oxycodone kept that potential in check.
We’re beginning to see the troubling answer to this question: What happens when pills become expensive and heroin is cheap?