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A new window on drug blight

In stricken part of Philadelphia, a bus tour moves residents to address drug culture

By Stephen MurdochSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 17, 2003



PHILADELPHIA

It's not your standard bus tour. For three hours, passengers on the Drug War Reality Tour ride through North Philadelphia's neighborhood of Kensington, seldom disembarking to see the sights on this trail of smuggling and addiction.

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A short ride from Philadelphia's Center City, the neighborhood has come to be synonymous with extreme poverty, drugs, the sex trade, and violence in the minds of many in the city.

Local textile jobs have long since gone to cheaper labor in the South and abroad. Boarded-up houses line the streets, lots stand vacant, and shops string razor wire along their rooftops to ward off burglars. Most of the businesses - liquor stores, pawnshops, check-cashing offices, and inexpensive Latin American or Chinese eateries - cater exclusively to the very poor.

But there's another local economy in Kensington, though it's an illegal one. The drug trade, says bus-tour organizer Arun Prabhakaran, is second only to public assistance as the major source of income in the neighborhood.

The community's serious drug problem is what led the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in September 2001 to start the Drug War Reality Tour. The point, says Mr. Prabhakaran of KWRU, is to educate the impoverished people of Kensington about the realities of the drug trade - how drugs arrive in the community, who profits, and what can be done about it.

Freedom through information

"Very often the information and the knowledge necessary to end these conditions [are] not shared with the people who are in the best position to bring about change - the people who are the most affected," he says.

KWRU, online at www.kwru.org, is made up mainly of low-income people from Kensington and nearby neighborhoods. And it's educational tour has a decided point of view: Everyone has a right to recover from drug addiction and people should not have to resort to selling drugs to feed their families.

The group advertises its tour by flier and word of mouth. All are welcome; participants pay on a sliding scale. Outside Kensington, though, this unique approach to improving an American neighborhood plagued by drugs has gone largely unnoticed.

Walter DeTreux, aide to Philadelphia Councilman Richard Mariano, says he's heard of the tour only in passing, though Kensington is almost entirely contained in Mr. Mariano's district, the state's poorest.

The view from the bus

On a cool, sunny March afternoon, KWRU's bus is packed full of riders from New Jerusalem Laura, a residence for people recovering from drug addiction; university students; social workers; and community activists.

The bus trip is like a travel lecture, with urban blight for backdrop. Prabhakaran stands up front with a microphone. People on public assistance are not "welfare queens ... riding around in Cadillacs" with 10 kids in the back, he says. Part of his aim is to debunk what he sees as a common myth: that drug dealers are callous, violent black men. The reality, he says, is most are family people making some extra money to survive.

Prabhakaran also tries to put Kensington's drug problems in a larger geopolitical context. As the bus weaves among the office towers of Center City, he says many preeminent companies indirectly benefit from the illicit $500-billion-a-year trade. Firms such as Dow, Kodak, and DuPont produce a chemical called acetic anhydride for legitimate purposes - to develop film, for instance - but the chemical is also vital to manufacturing heroin. Almost half of the acetic anhydride brought into Colombia comes from the US, though certainly not directly from these blue-chip companies.

As the bus stops by city docks, he points to stacks of containers from around the world. Customs officers search only 4 percent of these, he says by way of illustrating how easy it still is for illicit drugs to slip through the border.

During the tour, Kensington residents also take up the microphone. J.R. Rivera says he got hooked on drugs because they were "fun" and helped him escape memories of childhood abuse. But he adds that he was not personally "the major [force] responsible for my drug addiction. Of course, I picked them up, but if they were not there to begin with I would never use them."

Heather McKelvey, a KWRU member, says her parents used heroin while she was growing up. Her mother died, but her father remains addicted. Gesturing out the window, she says, "there's a possibility I might see my father. He tends to hang around Somerset and Kensington Avenue."

Ms. McKelvey, now working toward her master's degree in social work, has never been addicted, but in struggling to raise two children she has been on and off welfare and worked low-wage jobs. For her, volunteering at KWRU is "kind of like my therapy. It's one thing for me to ... talk to someone and unload my problems, but it's another to ... try to change them."

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