Of the many, many terrible things that have happened to Theresa Lugo in front of her house, getting stuck in the foot with a used syringe is not, if you can believe it, the worst — although that was bad.
She was loading the kids into the car for a trip to the beach, and had put on flip-flops: "The needle went right through my heel," she recalls. Lugo now makes regular visits to a doctor for tests. So far, they've come back negative. "I never touched a drug in my life," she muses, "and now I have to deal with this."
That's not all she and the other residents of the 300 block of Tusculum in Kensington have had to deal with — not by a long shot. In an already-rough area (the drug-ridden neighborhood is, among other things, the murder capital of the city), their block, a small row of tidy, owner-occupied houses, stands out.
Drug dealers, junkies and prostitutes roam the street at all hours. Ambulances arrive daily, if not more often, to retrieve the living or dead bodies of people who have overdosed. The sounds of beatings — and, sometimes, pleas for help — wake residents up at night.
The people on the block can point to a single, unique source of their misery: an old, mostly defunct railroad bed that passes their houses just below street level — just, that is, out of sight, winding its way through the roughest neighborhoods in the city like a kind of dry driver of drugs, prostitution, violence, murder and crime.
Their little street happens to be a major access point, and the access couldn't be easier: The only barrier between this wild swath and their front porches is an ancient, crumbling iron fence, wide open or just plain missing in several spots on their block alone.
WIDE OPEN: Theresa Lugo (left) and mother-in-law Lydia Lugo (right). The tracks face their houses, separated by a largely nonexistent fence. (Photo: Neal Santos)
"When you see the line of people going in there, it's ridiculous," says Lugo.
And so the residents' lives revolve largely around protecting themselves and their children from the constant danger lurking outside. Luis Vera, a retired city worker, occasionally has to call ambulances for the people he sees overdose outside his window. "You see them walking, then they just fall over," he remarks.
The Rev. Bruce A. Lewandowski, pastor of the nearby Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, recalls once when four bodies were retrieved from the tracks in a single week. He had to cancel last year's Good Friday procession when his parishioners witnessed, en route, an attempted rape by the tracks.
Nor is the crime limited to drug use and prostitution. "There's always people running from the cops in there," affirms Lugo. Not long ago — and this, probably, is the worst thing that's happened — her teenage daughter, son and nephew were held up at gunpoint, just down the block from her house, right in front of the tracks.
"We really are just left here, forgotten," is how Lugo sums up the situation, as she sits in her living room surrounded by her husband, children, mother-in-law and neighbor, all of the block. "That's what it feels like."
This, indeed, is a story of abandonment: the catastrophic abandonment of Philadelphia by industry; the gradual (and still-partial) abandonment of a once-busy railroad by its owners; and, according to residents and community groups, the abandonment by the city of its own people when they need the city most.
(Illustration: Alyssa Grenning)
Starting from the Delaware River in Port Richmond, the tracks — or rather, the track, now a single active railroad track flanked by a stretch of land a city block wide — meander west, right above Lehigh Avenue. Climb up, and you enter another world. Apart from the one-rail track still in use, the land has gone completely wild. It is surprisingly beautiful but deceptively dangerous: Up there, you're on your own.
As the track approaches the Market-Frankford Line, it descends from above the street to just below it — an area referred to as "the cut" — and things change drastically. Trash is everywhere: heaps of tires, discarded mattresses, used hypodermic syringes. Beneath underpasses are signs of habitation, or something like it. And here and there, off to the side, but not exactly hiding, are drug users, injecting themselves with heroin.
It wasn't always like this. The vast swath of land, the "Richmond Branch," as it was first dubbed, is a kind of giant monument to the rise and fall of Kensington itself as the country's industrial heartland. The now-defunct Reading Railroad constructed the branch in the 1840s to service the factories and docks that were sprouting up along the Delaware. At its peak, the 100-foot-wide viaduct handled more than 40 freight trains a day on 11 tracks.
But during the long collapse of Philadelphia's manufacturing might in the 20th century, traffic on the viaduct began a terminal decline. By 1976, when Conrail, the current owner of the railroad, was created by the federal government after a series of railroad bankruptcies, only a few trains a day were still in operation, mostly bringing coal and grain to the port. By the early '80s, even those shipments had ended.
Today, only five or six customers in and around the Tioga Marine Terminal, in Port Richmond, use the single remaining track. The others have been torn up, leaving the vast majority of the land unused and unmaintained.
It's a story by no means uncommon in Philadelphia, where innumerable once-thriving industrial sites now sit vacant and abandoned, blighting the neighborhoods they once nurtured. The Richmond Line is just one more piece of blighted private property.
What makes it special, though, is its unique propensity to attract crime.
The tracks happen to descend to street level just a block from the El and the open-air drug market that exists beneath it: "They buy the drugs on Kensington, and then they come here to get high," explains one resident of the 300 block of Tusculum, probably the single nearest entrance to the tracks from the El.