PHILADELPHIA – The cleanup of an open-air heroin market that has thrived for decades along a set of train tracks miles outside the heart of Philadelphia began Monday with officials cautioning that the effort will be long and difficult as heavy machinery rolled onto the site.
The problems are many, they said of dismantling a market that has helped supply the region with drugs during a national opioid epidemic.
Thick patches of brush provide cover for drug sales and usage in the sunken-in gorge. The hundreds of used syringes mixed in with layers of discarded tires, mattresses and other debris require the expertise of a specialized contractor because of the danger they pose to regular maintenance crews, officials said.
People who use heroin along the half-mile stretch of railroad notoriously known as El Campamento can easily find somewhere else to do drugs among the many abandoned or demolished homes that dot the neighborhood.
As city and Conrail representatives gathered in a grassy lot across the street from the tracks to announce the start of the cleanup effort, a woman who lives next door said neighborhood residents usually are forced to scour the lot for used needles before children play there.
"This is going to be a long journey, and today is really the beginning of many, many, many months of transformation," city Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez said.
A half-hour before her remarks, a man squatting around the corner near a hole in the fence that's supposed to block entry to the gorge was seen rummaging through his backpack, holding little baggies and pulling out a syringe. A half-hour later, a woman sat in the same spot, holding a needle in her hand.
Officials estimate the bulk of the cleaning will take 30 days but acknowledged the timetable could change. City representatives said they'll set up trailers that will offer food, health screenings and information about housing options to the dozens of homeless people who settle along the train tracks from time to time.
Blanca Maldonado, 75, said she has lived near the tracks for the last four decades and has encountered trouble numerous times with people who visit El Campamento.
Once, she said, her cellphone was stolen from her porch as she cleaned her front yard. A few years ago, a man entered her home and tried to rob her, she said.
"When things got really bad, I applied for a permit to carry a gun," she said.