Silhouettes, undated

An artist paints his canvas on a pedestrian bridge in the Fairmount neighborhood, not far from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The 37-foot William Penn statue stands atop Philadelphia City Hall in the distance.

I have no idea when I took this picture but it was probably during the 1990s. I remember spotting the scene from my car and hopping out for a few minutes.

Botched robbery scene, 1998

Philadelphia Police SWAT team officers help a woman away from the scene of a botched robbery in the Frankford section of the city in 1998. Several suspects were captured and no injuries were reported, as I recall.

If I understood and remember correctly, the suspects tried to blend in with the customers inside a check cashing shop after they were surrounded by police.

Each person was taken out separately and then sorted into suspects and witnesses during an afternoon drama that also played out on live TV.

I was shooting through a narrow gap between utility poles and obstacles from about a block away, using a Nikon F5 film camera, 500mm lens and 1.4x extender.

This is still a dramatic crop from a head-to-toe horizontal picture captured under the “El” on a wintry afternoon; so, I probably had to “push” the film too, which would explain the grainy image quality.

Had we made better choices

After I blogged some photos from covering addiction in 1995, I was invited to write about the experience for the online Opinion section at Philly.com. Here’s what I said:


It was a memorably cold day more than 20 years ago and I was walking around one of Philadelphia’s most distressed neighborhoods with a veteran police official who was known for not wearing a gun on his holster.

But when he rapped on the unlatched front door of a vacant row house and pushed it open with his nightstick, everyone huddled inside seemed to know the drill. He gave no orders and they asked no questions but clearly understood that it was time to stand up, put down the drugs and walk away.

One young man dashed out the door sideways, as if to run an errand. Others staggered and stumbled and struggled to button their coats. I took some pictures, though I was worried that the freezing temperatures might cause my film to crack or tear.

This block of North Darien Street near the historic Fairhill Burial Ground honestly could have passed for a war zone, with many homes boarded up and trash strewn among abandoned cars.

But some of the homes were still occupied by “decent people” – code words for neighbors who managed to avoid addiction, the drug trade and the criminal justice system. And one of the neighbors had called the police to deal with this popular drug house one more time.

So, recent news reports on the growing opioid crisis made me think about the pictures I took that December day in 1995. Decades after moving here I am still struggling to understand the intersections of guns, drugs, poverty, homelessness, addiction and other issues that lead to so much suffering in our city.

I am no expert on solutions to addiction, but we can’t expect that driving people who use drugs out of a park or a rail yard or a church will do anything but lead them to gather elsewhere.

I wonder what might change if we could send out more intervention workers and fewer police officers. Could we turn our jails into shelters or treatment centers or maybe harm reduction centers?

Now, I am learning about the city’s new plan to address the immediate crisis but we must also sustain that support for as long as it takes.

Meanwhile, I spend a lot of time thinking this city might be better off had we made better choices when I took these pictures.


Photo at top of page: Men and women walk away after police drove them from a drug house on North Darien Street following complaints from neighbors in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia in December, 1995

Demonstrator, 2003

A woman waits outside the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia for a visit by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2003.

A New York Times story at the time said Ashcroft would “visit states key to President Bush’s re-election chances to defend the government’s use of the anti-terrorism USA Patriot Act, which is drawing increased criticism as a threat to civil liberties.”

According to Wikipedia:

“Opponents of the law have criticized its authorization of indefinite detentions of immigrants; the permission given law enforcement officers to search a home or business without the owner’s or the occupant’s consent or knowledge; the expanded use of National Security Letters, which allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to search telephone, e-mail, and financial records without a court order; and the expanded access of law enforcement agencies to business records, including library and financial records.”

This photo came to mind for me after spotting a few more older protesters around Philadelphia recently.

SS United States, 1996

I grabbed the photo at the top of this page when the historic SS United States was first docked at Pier 82 along the Delaware River in Philadelphia in 1996.

And my friend Sean Kardon posted the photo in the tweet embedded below the with a different view captured at the same location just last night.

During the decades in between there have been countless restoration efforts but it’s not easy to contain my skepticism at this point.

You might spot her faded red smokestacks if you pass through our city along I-95 and it’s easy to hop off and catch the same view I recorded more than 20 years ago.

I also remember that the ship was previously docked further south near Oregon Avenue for some time but that period is never reported in historic accounts for some reason. It seemed like a couple of years.

Finally, I had been thinking that the dark spot on the right side of the image was an overdone darkroom “burn,” but I am beginning to recognize that look you get when shooting close to an out-of-focus chain link fence.

Phillies, 1995

I’m pretty sure I grabbed this photo op with the Phillies starting lineup during spring training in Clearwater, Florida in 1995.

I can identify Gregg Jefferies, Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra, Mickey Morandini, Jim Eisenreich and Dave Hollins.

But who are the other two guys?

p.s. The line seen across one guy’s face is probably a hair that I failed to remove from the film negative before scanning the image.

Addiction in Philadelphia, 1995

Local news organizations seem to be rediscovering addiction in Philadelphia recently — as overdose deaths have been skyrocketing in recent years — but it wasn’t a new problem when I took these photos in the Fairhill section of the city in 1995 and 1996. Maybe we could have done more then.

In the photo at the top of this page, men were pacing around a barrel fire for warmth in a vacant lot on West Indiana Avenue near Germantown Avenue. Drugs, needles and syringes were being sold in an open air market on the nearest corner and users were gathered inside nearby vacant houses, many of which were eventually demolished by the city.

A man and women gather some of their belongings after police ordered them out of a vacant house that neighbors complained was being occupied by drug users. Headlines at the time called these spaces “shooting galleries.”

A Philadelphia Police officer looks into a tomb inside the historic Fairhill Burial Ground. The door had been kicked in and drug paraphernalia littered the space inside.

Philadelphia Fire Department medics demonstrate treating overdose cases with naloxone for a newspaper reporter during a ride-along.

Men and women walk away after police drove them from a drug house on North Darien Street following complaints from neighbors.