Making the Present the Enemy of the Future

Kensington, Philadelphia has a social problem. Harm reduction policies won’t fix it.

Even for Philadelphia, Kensington has a bad reputation. The neighborhood is home to some of the poorest census tracts in the country, with more than 65% of residents classified as poor or struggling. Not surprisingly, it is also exploding with gun violence. According to one analysis, 25 of the 57 most violent blocks in Philadelphia are in Kensington. But most shocking is the drug problem. Of the 1,413 overdose deaths in the city in 2022, about 20% were in Kensington, despite the neighborhood only accounting for about 2% of the city’s population.

Some who grew up in the area now call it “Zombieland,” a reference to the way drug users lean as they stumble down the avenue. But the moniker also works for the way the deindustrialized and depopulated neighborhood lingers on, undead, as social decay accelerates.

“Kenzo” was once the beating industrial heart of Philadelphia and a workshop of the world. But since the 1960s, just like everywhere else, manufacturing jobs have steadily fled. By one measure, nine in ten manufacturing jobs in Philadelphia have disappeared since its heyday, and Kensington, the most industrialized of all neighborhoods, was hit hardest. The area is once again a symbol of the age, now representing obscene inequality and social degradation.

Fixing the problems in Kensington won’t be easy or cheap. Unfortunately, one increasingly popular set of strategies—called “harm reduction”—has gained traction in part because it doesn’t cost much. Advocates for this suite of quick-fix policies counsel the decriminalization of drug use, and the establishment of safe injection sites to help alleviate the overdose crisis. But harm reduction strategies not only lack the needed ambition to address the scale of the problem, but they also embrace an ambivalence toward drug consumption and distribution—that is, an ambivalence toward drug markets—which makes them no solution at all, and instead, part of the problem.