The Wasteland: A neglected railroad has become a neighborhood nightmare

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Posted on Thu, Mar. 10, 2011

By Isaiah Thompson

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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.

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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.

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.

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.”

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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.

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.

Conrail doesn’t like the situation any more than anyone else, added Conrail lawyer Jonathan Broder, pointing out that the company has to hire extra security to accompany its workers.

But the executives seemed reluctant to admit responsibility for the problem, blaming the state of the neighborhood instead for the condition of their property: “The neighborhood has changed, unfortunately,” said Broder.

Community leaders saw things somewhat differently.

“When you look at the photographs,” broached Brother Joe Dudek, development manager for the Archdiocese’s Community Development Office, “you see fences are down and haven’t been attended to.”

Indeed, it didn’t take CP much time to see that the iron fences separating the tracks from the street in that area are extremely old and, in many places, functionally useless — a point which Broder himself acknowledged later, over the phone: “That’s fencing probably put up by the Reading Railroad 50 years ago.”

And why, in 50 years, hasn’t it been replaced?

“Fencing tends to be a situation that over time doesn’t work very well,” he says.

Conrail doesn’t currently have a single security camera mounted on the viaduct. Asked whether the company has its own police force, Broder says it uses rail police, and that “they’ve issued warnings and ejections to numerous trespassers” but that “the scope of the problem is so large and so constant it’s very hard to stop a hundred percent.”

It’s questionable how active that force is: CP saw no evidence of law enforcement of any kind while on the tracks. Brother Dudek recently walked the entire length of the passage: “We were up there for hours, and I said, ‘Well, I’ll stay up here until the police run me off.’ I fully expected that would happen! But, of course, it didn’t.”

What these groups want most is for Conrail to commit to cleaning and re-fencing the tracks, at least the most crime-ridden parts of them. In return, they’ll take responsibility for recruiting volunteers and/or paid staff to help maintain the area outside the fencing and to make sure the fences stay closed.

Under the recently de-funded Community LandCare program, pointed out Willie Gonzalez of the Hispanic Association of Contractors & Enterprises, “We went out and cleaned lots, and maintained them for three years. We have the experience, we have the people.”

These groups are (very) cautiously optimistic that they can work something out with Conrail. Some even have bigger plans — NKCDC executive director Sandy Salzman wants to see the vast, wild expanse next to the one working rail track become a rails-to-trails park, along the lines of the High Line park in New York City. It is, as she points out, “really beautiful up there.” The city’s Commerce Department wants to see the railroad take on a larger role in developing new industry along the Delaware waterfront, as called for in the city’s new master plan, the Commerce Department’s Jon Edelstein said at the meeting.

If the railroad isn’t cooperative, it’s not clear what, if anything, the city will be willing to do about it. First and Seventh District Councilmembers Frank DiCicco and Maria Quinones-Sanchez did send envoys to the meeting, but neither spoke to CP for this story. For all of the Nutter administration’s big-ticket plans — Greenworks, the waterfront, the city master plan — the nightmare railroad bed is a striking reminder of how much of this city has been left behind: by industry, by the bureaucracy, by the media (local groups are hoping to capitalize on all the attention surrounding the Kensington Strangler). It’s a reminder of all the progress the city isn’t making in reclaiming itself.

Without political support — and the will of city officials — all these residents can do right now is ask. So far, they’re still asking nicely.

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