Streets of Philadelphia, 'Badlands' offer
sobering sights of depravity
By STEVE FELDSTEIN '00
t a certain point in your life, you find yourself questioning
what you're doing, why you're doing it and what it all means. I
found myself in that position a few weeks ago.
It was nearly 10 p.m. and a group of friends and I were traveling
through a Philadelphia neighborhood in a dark green van. That in
itself was not cause for concern. Our guide was a Franciscan father,
however, and he was taking us through Philadelphia's Kensington
neighborhood, known by the police – and everyone else – as the
"Badlands." And a more accurate moniker could not be found. The area
truly is as ghastly a sight as you could find anywhere. We crossed
the railroad tracks that separate the Badlands from the rest of the
Just two blocks in, Father Fran, as he is called, pointed out
what appeared to be an abandoned building on our left. "Crack
house," he uttered simply. Peering more closely, we noticed an eerie
incandescent glow in a second story window. "That's where all the
junkies huddle," Father Fran informed us.
Moving further along, he pointed at a fenced enclosure on the
right surrounded by the collapsed rubble of an adjacent building:
"This man used to have a whole zoo in here – dogs, pigs, sheep, even
a cow, until the police cleared him out."
The van stopped for a second and, through the chain-link fence
that separated the makeshift shacks from the sidewalk, we spied a
lonely fire slowly petering out. The van turned left into a narrow
alley bordered by grotesquely overgrown weeds. Father Fran motioned
to a dilapidated house set back 50 feet from the road and observed,
"These are squatter homes where children live. Many lack electricity
and often the rooms are crowded with up to seven people. How can you
expect children to learn and do their schoolwork in this manner?"
After a pause for reflection, the van moved on to the next tragic
sight. Vacant factories, brothels, drug dealers and abandoned cars
inundated our senses for the next hour. At the conclusion, we
silently emptied out of the van, our heads reverberating with Father
Fran's words, "Just remember, we are all just one step away . . .
from all of this."
Unintentionally I questioned a number of deep-seated beliefs.
First and foremost, I was forced to confront the notion "not in
America." What I saw rivals conditions in the most impoverished
countries. The heart of the Badlands lies only two-and-a-half miles
from the Liberty Bell – the cradle of American liberty.
Could I have ended up in Kensington? Have I done enough to help?
Will I forget all that I've seen when thesis pressures, job search
doldrums and cold weather have me distracted?
I talked with an overweight homeless man affectionately called
Santa Claus. He didn't talk much, mostly lounging on the stairs
leading to our makeshift apartment, staring at the flies buzzing
around the scattered garbage.
Later it started to storm. I watched through the window as rain
furiously slammed onto the pavement. Where was Santa Claus? How
would he get dry? Where would he go?
I haven't found an answer, a miraculous panacea for this sadly
deteriorating neighborhood. Often when I reflect on what I
witnessed, I cannot help but feel sad and helpless. But at least I
am aware of the problem and I am beginning the process of reaching a
(Steve Feldstein, a guest columnist from Bloomington, Ind., is a
politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)