One of the worst-kept secrets in Philadelphia for years has been the open-air drug trafficking at Kensington Avenue and Somerset Street underneath the Market-Frankford elevated line.
On any given day, cars drive slowly around the intersection looking for drug dealers, guys walk up and down the street shouting "work," advertising their illegal activity, and money changes hands in plain sight.
"A lot of things been ignored," said a woman who only identified herself as Naomi for fear of retaliation. She said she has picked up trash in the neighborhood for 12 years and used to stay in a house about 100 feet away. "It's a shame that little kids have to be exposed to the needles, the trash and the dirt."
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But yesterday, something else appeared at the busy intersection: uniformed SEPTA police. The transit agency, in partnership with Philadelphia Police officers from the 24th District, began an enforcement effort to make the area a safe corridor for riders and residents.
SEPTA said it will maintain a police presence there around-the-clock and step up cleaning efforts.
"The number one expectation is that the station will remain clean," said SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel III, a former Philadelphia police officer. "Number two is that people can make it safely to our station and from our station without being afraid. We want to attack the fear people have in going to the Somerset station."
Nestel said officers will look to crack down on drug trafficking, prostitution, loitering and the sale of needles, but won't turn a blind eye to other crimes. At the same time, he said those who want help will be directed to social service providers.
"Everything is on the table at this location, especially in the beginning stages. We want to set the tone and we want to set it pretty strongly," he said, adding that no end-date has been set for the effort.
Business owner: Where have cops been all along?
While business owners welcome more enforcement, some blame police for not addressing the drug corner sooner.
“I used to call the cops and now I don't even call them because they don't come and I see that nothing was being done,” said one business owner, who declined to give her name. The woman, who does not speak English, said she has been in business since 2008, but has seen a steady decline.
“[The customers] don't want to come here because they don't want to get stuck up. When they drive up, people walk up to their cars thinking they want to buy drugs” she said, through an interpreter. “When the police are not around, [drug dealers] are all out in front.”
Constant presence promised at station
One of the problems with such enforcement efforts is that criminals simply relocate to another neighborhood, but Nestel said SEPTA plans to address that.
“Displacement is always a concern, which is why we’re really focused on making sure we have options for people that really want help. We want to try to get folks hooked up with social services and get them out of that neighborbook and get them off of that corner,” he said. “If it displaces then we’ll work with the 24th District on addressing that problem.”
He also vowed that when an officer leaves to process an arrest, another officer will replace them to maintain a constant presence. “We’re in this for the long haul.”