Three weeks before Christmas, a car made its way slowly up Howard Street, a narrow one-way thoroughfare in the Latino section of West Kensington, Philadelphia. It was heading north, toward Gurney St. and the Conrail train tracks that split the area of the city long known as the “Badlands” in two.
On both sides of this divide, dozens of drug corners flourish. Hundreds of street “trappers” hawk everything from branded stamp bags of fentanyl and heroin, to crack and powder cocaine, synthetic cannabinoids and crystal methamphetamine―which has been slowly regaining a foothold here as Mexican cartels (the main producers of high-purity crystal) have replaced Colombian drug lords as the dominant suppliers of illicit drugs.
The intersection of Howard and Gurney, which sits on the northern edge of one of the oldest continually operating open-air drug markets in the US, is a final destination for some of these drugs. And for at least the past two years, according to sources familiar with Kensington’s drug “sets,” the corner’s overseer was a stout, well liked 31-year-old named Jose Ortiz Vargas, known to his friends and family as “Tito.”
As Tito made his way on foot from the house of his sister-in-law to a bodega on the corner, a passenger in the car reportedly opened fire and Tito fell bleeding to the pavement. He died of multiple gunshot wounds, according to official reports, making him one more casualty in America’s War on Drugs. He left behind a wife who, according to a report from the Spanish-language television station Telemundo 62, was nine months pregnant.
Though I never met him, I had spent a lot of time around Tito’s small stretch of territory, just a short walk from “El Campamento,” the drug user encampment which was shut down by police, with many unintended negative consequences, in 2017.
For most of 2018, a close source of mine worked sporadically for the Howard-and-Gurney set, usually as a lookout, which earned her little money, but occasionally selling drugs as well. On many afternoons, she and I would stroll up and down Gurney Street talking, my dog Mara meandering behind us, ever-vigilant for stray chicken bones.
So two days after Tito died, I found myself standing before an impromptu alter that had been constructed in his honor, and pondering the numerous “war monuments” across North Philadelphia that don’t appear in tourist maps or official guidebooks.
[A memorial on 3300 block of N Howard St. in North Philadelphia, where 31-year-old Jose “Tito” Ortiz Vargas was gunned down on December 6.]
[Less than a month prior, two other men died on the same street after getting in an argument.]
The compassion and solidarity that these undisturbed monuments represent within and between different communities are no surprise to anyone familiar with these neighborhoods. The disdain and stigma that most Americans exhibit for people who use and sell “hard” drugs is based on a caricature of drug-user criminality eagerly served up by media and government. But the truth is, you won’t find Tuco Salamanca—the tightly wound sociopathic meth dealer from Breaking Bad—on the streets of Kensington. Instead you’re more likely to encounter young men and women who have grown up too fast in a world where few opportunities exist for escape. Some speak little-to-no English, and many have never set foot outside of the Badlands.
In a talk given shortly before his retirement in 2016, Charles Ramsey, the former police commissioner of Philadelphia, described the relationship between police and poor, marginalized communities as fundamentally different than that experienced by more privileged Americans.
“When all an individual has is his or her dignity,” he said, “they will fight that much harder to keep it intact when they feel it’s being threatened.”
This applies not only to relationships with authorities but also within the community itself. I don’t know why Tito was killed, but based on many past incidents he could have been gunned down for a slight as seemingly meaningless to you or me as stepping on someone’s shoe and failing to apologize.
The violence associated with the illicit drug economy ebbs and flows. It is often arbitrary and impulsive, all the more since large-scale anti-narcotics operations have removed many older (and more level-headed) players from the streets, leaving a generation of ambitious youth to fight over what’s left. It is driven not only by personal beefs, territorial disputes and perceived disrespect, but also by policy decisions and aggressive policing that puts everyone on edge and turns entire neighborhoods into pressure cookers with no release valve. This form of policing contributes to increased rates of violence, and trend lines in Philly are on the rise.
We shouldn’t assume that violence is always the natural state of affairs in drug-dealing communities. “Typically it’s in everyone’s best interest to play nice,” said Luis, a former drug dealer whose extended family was once a powerful force in the Kensington cocaine trade. “You may have two dozen individual corners selling product, right? But they all getting it from the same two or three suppliers. And violence draws attention, so shooting each other up is a good way to create problems higher up the chain. There used to be rules. Some of these young boys got no respect for that.”
During many years covering the War on Drugs, I’ve frequently been reminded of a quote attributed to the author Marty Rubin: “Order is what exists before you start arranging things.” The repercussions of more than four decades of “arranging things” through zero-tolerance drug policy are evident all over Kensington, in the memorial walls and sidewalk alters that exist on nearly every street.
I’ve been photographing these murals for years, initially as a graffiti enthusiast who admires the beauty of urban street art, but more recently as a way of recording of the death and decay that accompanies militaristic incursions into American neighborhoods.
[A street-side memorial near Ormes and Somerset St, in West Kensington.]
If you pay close attention, these memorials―some of which are so old they pay homage to Irish Americans killed during ethnic unrest in the 1990s, as gentrification pushed Puerto Ricans out of the now-posh neighborhoods around the Philadelphia Art Museum and into Irish East Kensington―teach an important lesson. Within some of America’s most impoverished communities there endures a time-honored code of respect, honor and humility that is lacking in many more affluent communities.
Yet behind these works of art there is also a sad reality that was first described by Jeff Deeney, a social worker-turned-street ethnographer and a close friend. Deeney frequently wrote about his experiences working for Philadelphia’s broken drug court system. In a 2012 piece in The Fix he described the life of a client he called Billy the Kid, who was shot and killed and subsequently memorialized, and reflected:
“It occurred to me that this was what Billy had wanted all along. He didn’t mind dying as long as he went out big. He’d become a legend, his name ringing in cries across North Philadelphia like a fallen mafia don’s. He had said he wanted to live to see his nine-month-old daughter grow up, but ultimately there was no reason to live great enough for him to refuse the call of the streets that demands fealty until death (or jail) from those hustlers who are true to its code.”
After Tito’s death I phoned Deeney, who now lives in Connecticut, as I stood beneath a mural depicting two of his other former clients, including a drug dealer named Gilberto “Gilly” Velasquez, who was gunned down in 2010 for allegedly ignoring an order delivered by his jailed block owner that no one was permitted to set up business on his territory without explicit permission.
Gilly shares a memorial wall with another of Deeney’s clients, “Pookie,” near Fourth and Indiana Streets.
[A memorial near 4th and Indiana remembering Gilberto “Gilly” Velazquez and his associate “Pookie,” who were killed within a year of each other in drug-related violence.]
“These kids live and die in a five-block radius. They never go downtown, they don’t go to school, they don’t go to parks. The game is literally all they know,” said Deeney. “Gilly was … the game was his life. He loved it. He was ambitious to the point of recklessness and it got him killed. But I think if Gilly would come back today and see his face plastered right there on the block where everyone can see it, he’d be just fine with that.”
I don’t know what Tito would think of that. It’s a long way from the age of 19 to 31 on Kensington’s streets—if you manage to make it that long.
In the weeks before Tito died, my source had been talking about setting up a meeting between Tito and me. She had been working on it for a while, and was confident he’d be receptive. That meeting won’t happen now. But I like to imagine that, given the choice, Tito would prefer to be back on Howard Street, watching his block and seeing his newborn child grow up.
But for many others there is too little else in life but the block, what happens on it, and the names and faces looking down on them, etched in spray paint and blood. For years to come, Philly’s unofficial war memorials will tell the story of how faraway policies impact marginalized communities.
[“Real Hasta la Muerta” (loyal to the end). A fading yet untouched mural from 1994 remembers the names of casualties of America’s War on Drugs.]
[“In Memory of Raul.” One of the oldest wall memorials still visible in West Kensington spans the side of a house just across from the former site of the drug user camp “El Campamento,” near one of the oldest continuously operating drug corners in the city.]
The main image shows an undated mural at C and Cambria Streets on the edge of West Kensington, Philadelphia.
Credit for all images: Christopher Moraff