Investigation: Returning to Philadelphia's drug den, 'The Tracks,' after cleanup

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Returning to 'the tracks' after cleanup: wendy Saltzman reports on Action News at 11 p.m., Sept. 25, 2017

For decades, heroin addicts from across the country flocked to "The Tracks," Philadelphia's notorious open-air heroin market.

Action News first brought you to the drug den back in April, and since then the city and Conrail, which owns the property, have made strides in cleaning it up.

It was ground zero for Philadelphia's heroin epidemic, just miles away from the city's affluent Center City.

It's where drugs were bought and sold on the open market, and where some users spent the last moments of their lives.

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Action News investigates open-air drug dens. Wendy Saltzman reports during Action News at 11 p.m. on Apri 28.

But now, four months after our initial visit to "The Tracks," all signs of the blighted past have disappeared.

Conrail began the massive cleanup effort in July, clearing 2,700 tons of debris, including an estimated 500,000 used syringes, tires and trees.

"It was very overgrown, there was a lot of dumping, a lot of trash, there were structures where people were living," said Conrail spokeswoman and Assistant General Counsel Jocelyn Hill.

This has been a two-year labor of love for Hill. She took Action News along for an inside first look of the cleanup.

"We did it, and we pulled it together. If you are up street side it is as if we are in a different neighborhood," Hill said.

Conrail cleared a mile and a half stretch along the tracks in Kensington's "Badlands." The railroad is now in plain sight for police to safely spot drug transactions and patrol for illegal activity.
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Watch the report from Wendy Saltzman on Action News at 4 p.m. on July 31, 2017.

"I'm glad they cleaned it up, I am glad there are not people under there anymore. I have spoken to a couple of police officers about it and they say it is zero tolerance down there. People who go down there and are seen, they are pulled out right on the spot," said resident Gary Stubbs.

"It was hidden from view, from the street, because we've got structures over here. And you couldn't really see back here, so what we had to try to do was clean it all up, make it a little less accessible," said Hill.

That included taking granite boulders recycled from the I-95 project, and laying them beneath the bridges, like one where the "Lounge" once stood, and a man called "The Doctor" shot up users for cash.

"My hope is that this is just the first step and that we can use this to leverage a lot more change in the neighborhood," said Hill.

But Hill, and DEA Special Agent in Charge Gary Tuggle, both agree that this cleanup, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, is just the beginning.
"It is not going to solve the problem overnight. We recognize that addiction and substance abuse disorder is a very complex issue. It is going to take sort of a village to get this done," Tuggle said.

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Drug cleanup consequences. Christie Ileto reports during Action News at 11 p.m. on August 2, 2017.

In fact, a small encampment has already formed outside the walls Conrail has built, in an area called the Emerald City.

"I would hope that the whole process of the cleanup was sort of an intervening event, that will cause them to want to get treatment and want to stop using," Tuggle said. "I think some will."

The impact for residents above the tracks is undeniable. Those who once had to walk their kids past drug dealers say it is already increasing their safety and quality of life.

"Now that it's clear, I haven't seen anyone hanging out. At all. Like nobody is down there ever," said Cartier Cole.

Conrail says the project is now about 95% complete, and they are expecting it to wrap up in the next few weeks.
For more news and updates to her investigations, be sure to follow Wendy Saltzman on Facebook.

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