This Week’s Cover Story: Top 10 Drug Corners, Part 2

In 2007, Steve Volk wrote a cover story for Philly Weekly titled Top 10 Drug Corners, which takes a street-level look at open-air drug-dealing in this city.


Volk obtained documents showing the Philadelphia Police Department had designated “priority” corners—intersections turned into war zones where drug trafficking is the only major employer around. The PPD’s list is constantly changing—some corners are removed after a week or two; others linger for years.

A kid in a bucket seat raised high on the fat rear tires of a four-wheeled ATV eyes the corner boys slinging dope and crack around the Chinese takeout. Then he turns and looks at what he probably takes for a car full of cops facing him.

Smiling, he guns the engine, rolls out into the intersection of Fifth and Westmoreland, and pops a wheelie—his front tires arcing skyward, his long fluid body cutting a pose like that of a cowboy on a rearing horse, a kid too young to know better than to celebrate the lawlessness of wild, wild Westmoreland Street.

Drug dealing in Philadelphia has changed.

It’s now a highly mobile enterprise: A hot spot might go quiet for a day, or even for several days, then come to life. Dealers employ pagers, cell phones and delivery services to stay on the move. But it’s still easy to find plenty of spots throughout the city where drug dealers work in the open air, making rapid hand exchanges with regulars and recreational enthusiasts alike.

Four years later, the story remains one of this newspaper’s most popular. And while the names, faces and corners have changed, drug dealing in the city of Philadelphia really hasn’t. The trade continues to erode many neighborhoods, where people live in constant fear of violence.

This week, with the help of and a grant from J-Lab and the William Penn Foundation, Volk returns with the Top 10 Drug Corners of 2011. Since 2008, he writes in this week’s cover story, “more Americans have been murdered in Philadelphia than killed in Iraq. And much of this violence, he says, is concentrated in North Philly.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the streets I walked in North Philadelphia is that the people risking their lives to either sell, take, or often sell and take drugs, are carrying out these deeds quite literally in the shadows of the old factory buildings that once upon a time employed thousands of hardworking Philadelphians who actually made things. Up until the 1960s, Philadelphia was a crucial pillar of the American manufacturing base. North Philadelphia was a working-class enclave. The many thousands of rowhomes both east and west of Broad Street were built to serve this population of workers; and the Broad Street Line subway was built in the 1920s to move passengers from the northern part of the city to City Hall quickly and conveniently.

But today, neighborhood-sustaining ‘good jobs’ for workers without college educations are scarce to nonexistent, and too many residents use that North Philly subway line not to attain marriage licenses and construction permits, to engage in the legitimate commerce of Center City, but to make it on time—or not—for court dates at the Criminal Justice Center. Solving the drug problem by purely economic means would require a level of public and private investment on a scale that is simply not tenable in this day and age. Barring some massive New Deal-style public-works initiative that revives the manufacturing base of the United States, the prospect of employing our way out of this problem seems remote at best.

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