Prior to being elected Philadelphia’s 100th mayor—the first woman in the post—Cherelle Parker pledged to make Philadelphia the “safest, cleanest, greenest city in America.” Her election was a rebuke to the city’s left-wing Democrats, who had hoped to capture City Hall and remake it in the image of Seattle, San Francisco, or Portland. The Left’s favored mayoral candidate, Helen Gym, had the support of woke millennial elites and the Working Families Party, as well as endorsements from national left-wing figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Gym’s well-funded campaign overshadowed Parker’s, but in the end Parker, a native Philadelphian, triumphed over Gym, a Columbus, Ohio, native who had moved to the city to attend the University of Pennsylvania.

At a preelection candidates’ forum sponsored by the PBS affiliate WHYY-TV, Parker made it clear that, unlike many of her colleagues on the city council, she had never supported defunding the police, and she reiterated her support for the reinstatement of stop and frisk. Throughout her campaign, Parker also committed to cleaning up the Kensington and Allegheny neighborhood (or K&A), a multiblock area largely forgotten by the city and populated by “tranq”- and fentanyl-addicted homeless.

Parker’s plan is to return Kensington to the way it was in the 1950s and 1960s, when Quaker lace, Stetson hats, and cigar stores lined the streets and the area was known as a sturdy, blue-collar center of commerce. The Kensington businesses that managed to survive the drug crisis—like a heavily guarded, dilapidated Walgreens and a take-out-only Dunkin Donuts—have now closed, leaving only pawn shops, mom-and-pop dollar and electronic stores, and the odd pizza joint. Here one can find hundreds of people living on the streets in a ghetto largely created by the city over the past few decades to concentrate addicts and the drug trade in a small area—the logic being to keep them out of other neighborhoods.   

As she promised throughout her campaign, Parker’s first public act as mayor was an executive order declaring a citywide emergency to combat shootings, theft, and widespread open-air drug markets. “We are going to expeditiously get every available resource into neighborhoods struggling from scourges of crime, gun violence, drugs, and addiction,” she said in her inaugural address.  

During the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce’s annual Mayoral Luncheon in February, Mayor Parker stated, “I want you to know that the status quo for me and Kensington is unacceptable,” she said. “That help is on the way. We will not allow the voices of the homegrown people—who can’t afford to pick up and leave and move because they don’t have the financial wherewithal to do so—we will not allow anyone to reduce their voices because they want children to live a higher quality of life,” Parker said. “They deserve it, and we’re going to work hard for it.”

Parker’s mission to shut down the city’s open-air drug markets is a lofty goal that few expect to be reached anytime soon. In 2018, then-mayor Jim Kenney declared an opioid emergency in Kensington, though that declaration was little more than podium handwringing. The Philadelphia Inquirer faulted Kenney administration for spending about $1 billion a year to fight crime “with little to show for it.”

In the year 2022 alone, the city registered 1,413 unintentional overdose deaths, most occurring in homes. Tranq (or Xylazine), a non-opioid medication used in veterinary medicine, often results in flesh-eating wounds; when mixed with fentanyl, it can easily lead to fatal overdoses. Philadelphia’s open-air drug markets cover at least 100 blocks stretching from the Kensington, Fairhill, and Harrowgate neighborhoods. Three or four blocks in any direction from K&A, you might find 75–80 drug-block owners ready to do business. (Drug-block owners control the flow of drugs in their zone, employing runners who do the street selling. Block owners are often violent and do not tolerate competition from newcomers.) Should police arrest one block owner and his stable of runners, another team of players will immediately replace them. Arrest the replacements, and another team will pop up to fill the gap.  

Eradicating this entrenched underworld network, as well as the homelessness and crime it generates, may be beyond any one mayor’s reach; the situation in Kensington has been allowed to fester for too long. While reports of Parker and her entourage walking through K&A generated positive buzz, nothing substantial has changed so far, though occasionally one sees police interacting with obvious users and sellers while exchanging friendly high-fives.

Conversely, during my walks throughout Kensington, I’ve heard reports of non-uniformed police officers stopping people who appear to be on drugs, then roughing them up and taking their valuables without arresting them. Perhaps this is what the Philadelphia Inquirer meant when it said the city had been spending billions of dollars “with little to show for it.” That same report also called the police union “recalcitrant” and the Philadelphia Police Department a “model of inefficiency and corruption.”

Parker appointed Kevin Bethel, a 29-year veteran of the PPD, as the city’s new police commissioner. “We have a job to do as part of policing, we have to enforce the law,” Bethel told WHYY.

Bethel placed special emphasis on the Kensington corridor. “The community has told us what we want, our responsibility has to come from the community and it’s our duty to respond,” he said. “The challenges our city faces are significant, but they are solvable.”

Yes, but it might take decades.

Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images


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