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Friday, September 24, 1999
 
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Streets of Philadelphia, 'Badlands' offer sobering sights of depravity

By STEVE FELDSTEIN '00

A

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 city.

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 better understanding.

(Steve Feldstein, a guest columnist from Bloomington, Ind., is a politics major. He can be reached at feldsten@princeton.edu.)

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