What Philly’s addiction crisis looked like in 1995

Editor’s note: Jim MacMillan was a Daily News photographer from 1991 to 2008, during which time he covered many city issues, including the addiction crisis. Here, he shares photos and memories from his time on the streets of Philadelphia. 

Recent news reports on the growing opioid crisis made me think about the pictures I took one December day in 1995.

It was memorably cold 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.

Camera icon Jim MacMillan

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, in the Fair Hill section of Philadelphia in December, 1995. Headlines at the time called these spaces “shooting galleries.”

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 Fair Hill 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.

Camera icon Jim MacMillan

A police officer looks into a vadalized crypt in the Fairhill cemetery Friday. DAILY NEWS PHOTO / JIM MACMILLAN

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.

Camera icon Jim MacMillan

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.

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

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