Hope & Dope In Philadelphia

George W. Bush's theme of "compassionate conservatism" may fall on deaf ears in another, rougher part of Philadelphia.

Al Gore probably wouldn't fare any better there, either.

The other day, I took a tour of Kensington, the poorest neighborhood in the City of Brotherly Love and in all of Pennsylvania.

What I saw were abandoned factories that are now shelter and playgrounds, rows of empty homes bolted shut with padlocks, rubble from demolished buildings, murals in memory of slain drug dealers, vacant lots teeming with overgrown weeds, and trash lining the street curbs.

Kensington was once a working-class community where textile factories and Schmidt's Brewery were top employers. After those businesses closed or moved away, the neighborhood's economy took a tailspin from which it has yet to recover. Welfare is now the main source of income and drugs are - officially, at least - the runner-up. Low-end retail jobs that pay 6 to 8 dollars an hour are about all that's left.

What used to be "a nice area where everyone was making ends meet and had living wage jobs" is now where "everyone's turning to prostitution, everyone's turning to drugs, everyone's turning to all types of underground economies" in order to survive, said Brian Wisniewski, an organizer with the Kensington Welfare Rights Union.

This past week, Wisniewski's group has given neighborhood tours to journalists in Philadelphia for the Republican National Convention. While the welfare-rights group has its own agenda, Kensington itself is the convention's polar opposite. Anything but scripted, anything but festive, and anything but smiley-faced for the TV cameras.

Poor people are stereotyped "as being lazy or crazy or not wanting to work," said Wisniewski, who grew up and lives in the multiracial neighborhood. But if you're living on welfare, he added, then "you have to think and do so much more than if you just had a regular job that paid a living wage. It's 24-hour work, really, because you always doing something on the side."

You could call the corner of Kensington and Lehigh Avenues a one-stop shop in the neighborhood economy. A heroin detox billboard hangs in front of a bridge for the subway line. Underneath that bridge, prostitutes and drug dealers transact their business, which they tout on the corner to lure customers.

Across from the bridge, a church displays a mural which reads, "There is hope." Pointing to the mural and then the bridge, Wisniewski remarked, "There is hope - and there is dope."

On other corners only minutes away, drug sellers in broad daylight hawked their trade by shouting, "Dope! Dope! Dope!" or "Rocks! Rocks!" Like the New Economy of dot-coms and day traders, this too is a 24-7 venture.

"People don't sell crack because they want to kill the person next to them," said Wisniewski. "People sell crack because they're broke - It comes out of survival."/b>

"Crime comes from poverty. Prostitution comes from poverty. Selling drugs comes from poverty," he argued.

Just off Kensington Ave., a man rolled a shopping cart brimming with metal.

"That's another way to make money around here," Wisniewski explained. That man and others like him "go into abandoned factories and spend all day pulling out copper and different types of scrap metal" which they then carry in shopping carts to the junkyard in exchange for cash.

At the abandoned and dilapidated Schmidt's Brewery, some of the people that used to work there, live there now.

"There was some illegal boxing rings in there for six months," said Wisniewski. "People live in there, many kids go in there. It's dangerous, things are falling apart. All kinds of stuff goes on there." The cops crack down from time to time, he added, but that only reshuffles the deck and doesn't change anything.

As for the politicians and their party conventions in the age of welfare reform, Wisniewski called their promises the "same thing every year, every four years, whatever." That is why, he said, only 17 percent of registered Kensington voters casted ballots in Philly's last mayoral election.

"They're not fooling anybody in my neighborhood," said Wisniewski. "If they were, people would be voting for them. Nobody's voting for them - either (for a) Democrat or Republican."
"Under the illusion of 'redevelopment' or 'helping the neighborhood' - it's the same words over and over" from the politicians with their pet projects, he added. "Just changed up a little bit."