One Shantytown for Another: Kensington’s ‘Tracks’ Replaced With ‘Emerald City’

Dozens of homeless people, many addicted to drugs, now live under a train overpass just blocks from the site of a notorious area that the city and a train company cleaned up months ago.

Four months ago, a cleanup long sought began at what was simply known as "The Tracks," a notorious stretch of Conrail railroad that runs through the Kensington section of Philadelphia.

The cleanup included tons of garbage piled up over the years by the dozens of transient drug users who called the area home. It was an easy place for those addicted to heroin and other opioids to choose to stay.

The Conrail tracks run directly through the epicenter of the city's opioid crisis.

But the cleanup also meant the removal of those illegal tenants.

Where would those drug users go? That question appears at least partially answered now: "Emerald City."

An underpass only several blocks from The Tracks on Emerald Street, just north of Lehigh Avenue, is now an illegal shelter. 

City officials, including Mayor Jim Kenney, believe the effort to help those in Emerald City as well as the many others who come to Kensington to buy illegal opioids every day is still in earnest. But, they told NBC10, it's a process that doesn't occur overnight.

"There’s only so much you can do in a free society – you can’t just lock people up and lock them away," Kenney said when asked about Emerald City.

That's not great consolation for those who have staked their homes and businesses in Kensington like Pat Coughlin.

For three years, he said he operated a bed-and-breakfast out of his home in the neighborhood. He showed off a map in his kitchen with pins marking every part of the world his guests came from. 

After The Tracks were cleared in early August, Coughlin said the number of homeless and drug users walking the streets has increased.

"When they closed down the Conrail tracks, basically everything moved west over to here. Almost overnight," Coughlin said.

City managing director Michael DiBerardinis, who is overseeing the post-cleanup  management of the neighborhood, believes that the cleanup of the tracks has had a positive impact overall. He promised that the neighborhood will get all the attention is deserves in the months ahead.

For now, once a week, city sanitation workers spend a morning cleaning out the garbage, including drug paraphrenalia like used syringes, that accumulates at Emerald City.

A city spokeswoman said that in addition to the weekly cleanups of Emerald City, new LED lighting has been installed under the overpass to allow police and pedestrians better visibility.

The city wants to hear from Kensington residents, according to the mayor's office. They can always call 3-1-1. In addition to the city's main complaint line, if residents encounter someone in need of shelter, they should call (215)232-1984, which operates 24 hours a day. Anyone requiring mental health services can call (215)685-6440.

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