The railroad, police say, has also become a de facto criminal highway. "Burglars use it to hide, suspects use it to hide," says 26th Police District Capt. Michael Cram, whose district encompasses Port Richmond. "They use it as an entry point to the residential neighborhoods." At night, residents say, police helicopters fly overhead.
For those residents and various neighborhood groups, the tracks aren't just some abstract crime problem. They're an outrage.
"In the winter, when my kids get excited about the snow, I can't let them go outside because of all the needles," says Luz Wolmart, who also lives on the 300 block of Tusculum. "In the summer, it's crazy!"
"I was thinking the other day, my children don't have a childhood where they can go outside and ride their bikes and play. Because we live in this fear," says Lugo, who lives a few doors down. "We get up and every day go to work, come home, take care of our families. ... There are a lot of good people here that are just left, forgotten."
"Theresa's absolutely right: Nobody does care," says a blunt-spoken Father Lewandowski of Visitation BVM, Lugo's church, right on the other side of the tracks. "We're not even a blip on the screen."
Lugo, her neighbors, her pastor and a slew of other neighborhood activists have complained about the tracks to everyone they can think of: City Council, the police, Conrail, their congressman — all, Lugo says, to no avail.
"Conrail says ... talk to the city," Lugo says. "The city says, 'What am I talking about, I have to talk to Conrail.' ... The cops say, 'Don't worry about it, it's under control' — but I live here! You get to go home, but this is in front of my house."
"We even went to the congressman" — Congressman Bob Brady — "and they suggested for us to do nothing. Nothing. ... They all say whatever, let them deal with it."
Indeed, ask any of the officials you might expect to take charge of the problem, and the fingers quickly start pointing the other way.
Karen Warrington, Rep. Brady's spokeswoman, says no one in the congressman's office has heard anything about the viaduct, despite the fact that Lugo and neighborhood groups insist they contacted Brady's office about the issue.
The Federal Railroad Administration, which regulates railroads, says it doesn't have any powers over "quality-of-life" issues, according to spokesman Rob Kulat.
Police officials, while acknowledging the problem, say their resources are stretched to the max in the neighborhoods affected. "We arrest hundreds of criminals" on or near the tracks, says 25th District Police Capt. Frank Vanore. "That property is really [Conrail] property. We really need them to be on board cleaning that up."
Asked whether the police could simply provide a heavy, permanent presence by the tracks — something like the South Street police detail — 24th District Police Capt. Thomas Davidson paused before answering: "I hadn't thought of that. It's an idea."
The District Attorney's Office doesn't target any specific area to crack down on drug use and distribution, according to spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson.
The Department of Licenses and Inspections, normally charged with taking absentee landlords to task, says it has no authority over railroads. That's the Streets Department's job, says spokeswoman Maura Kennedy.
The Streets Department forwarded questions to the Managing Director's Office.
A week after City Paper made its first call to the city on this issue, Deputy Managing Director Bridget Collins-Greenwald was unable to provide any solid information about the viaduct, though she did suggest that the city could probably cite Conrail for violations of the city's property maintenance code and take it to court if it didn't comply. But she had no knowledge about any previous or planned enforcement actions by the city — and wouldn't by our deadline, a day later.
"Absolute baloney," says Laura Semmelroth of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC), when CP describes the city's response thus far. "The city has a lot of damned nerve," she adds.
If it's hard to imagine a similarly lackluster response in, say, Rittenhouse Square, it's probably worth nothing that Kensington is one of the most politically and administratively gerrymandered neighborhoods in the city — meaning it's hard to get attention.
"We sit on the edge of three different police districts, we're divided by two City Council districts. It's a recipe for failure," sums up Father Lewandowski. "From the city's perspective, from the police perspective, you know what they say? 'Police yourselves.' Whatever the issue, their answer is 'Fix it yourself. Police yourself. Govern yourself.' ... You can't even call it benign neglect."
DUMPING GROUNDS: The tracks have become a dumping site and a convenient place to get high.There's one party whose responsibility, you'd think, is clear: the railroad's owners, Conrail. (Photo: Neal Santos)
Last week, a coalition of community groups in and around Kensington sat down, without any particular support from the city, for a long-anticipated meeting with Conrail executives.
The mood was cordial — hopeful, even — but with an undercurrent of desperation. Staff members of Visitation BVM had spent the day prior out on the tracks taking pictures — for about two minutes, that is, until Sister Karen Owens and Mary Brown of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's Office of Community Development were spotted and had to flee from a group of men through a hole in the fencing. Their photographs — showing mounds of trash, piles of needles and many, many openings in the railroad's mouldering iron fence — made for a poignant backdrop as they and the other groups sat, finally, face to face with Conrail.
The railroad company, emphasized Conrail's Thomas Bilson, has made efforts to clean up the area. Some time ago, the company removed 82 abandoned cars from the tracks. They tried putting up cyclone fence, he said, only to find it gone a week later. "My saying is that fences are for honest people," he said.