Diana: My name is Diana Cooper, my daughter’s the oldest; her name’s Crystal Conway. She’s seven years old, and I got…the second one is Michael Conway Jr., and he’s five and a half, he’ll be six March 23rd. And I got Jonathan Conway, he’s three years old. I lived here all my life, I mean I’m thirty-four, and I lived here all my life.
JS: Can you tell me a little bit about what it’s like raising three kids here in Kensington?
Diana: It’s horrible…It’s easy when I’m inside the house, because they ain’t gotta see what goes on outside, on the corners. When I take them to school, they go to visitation school, it’s a catholic school on the other side, it’s like, on Lehigh, B and Lehigh, and every morning I walk them to school I see them, them ladies do prostitution on the corners, and I don’t…my kids always ask, “Mom, what are they doing?” and they see them jumping in and out of cars, I mean I…and like, you can see them smoking their dope on the side streets and everything. I mean, no matter where I go, if I try to take another way, they’re everywhere. And on the way home, the same thing. You know? And I’d seen a couple of them fighting because one got the john before the other one I guess. I mean it’s horrible, and I see a lot of drunks around here…
JS: How do you explain that to your kids?
Diana: I don’t know what to tell you…I said “I don’t wanna ever…” I don’t, I don’t want my kids turning out to be like that. I don’t know what to say to them because, I mean, that’s not a job, that’s not a good way to make money. You need to go through school, get your GED or high school diploma, and get a real job. That ain’t…I told my daughter, “that ain’t what kinda job you wanna get.” I mean, that’s not even a job, I told her. I said “don’t…”, I don’t…that’s why I wanna move out of the city, move away from here, ‘cause that’s not really a job, I mean, it’s nasty, they got bad drug problems, why don’t they just get help, you know? Then they sleep on the streets and they wonder why they’re on the streets because they money they get they, they drug it up. You know? It’s because they ain’t got nowhere to go, and I said…and I tell them but there’s shelters they could go to and get cleaned up, there’s rehabs…why do they gotta do that? I mean, it’s horrible. And you tell your kids not to talk to strangers or jump in cars with strangers, but you got these ladies, I mean, they’re setting a bad example for these young girls, they say “oh, they can jump in cars with strangers…” and the kids don’t know why they do that, but…they’re supposed to be setting…and no matter who you are, you’re grown up, you’re supposed to be setting good examples for these kids, like, not to jump in cars with strangers. And they’re doing it, you know? It’s horrible. She don’t even…they don’t…my daughter said, “she don’t even know that guy, he just pulled over and picked her up.” And they look horrible too, them ladies on the ave. They look bad, very bad. And they found… did you hear about that… they found prostitutes murdered, from this one guy…some people say they deserve it because they’re out there desperate to make a buck. There’s jobs out there that you can get through welfare; they don’t need to do that, you know? And if they got a bad drug problem, there’s rehabs. I mean, they don’t care about their lives, it seems to me. And every time I see ‘em, I get depressed, cos I’m saying, why are they gonna ruin their lives like that? It makes me depressed. I’m like, there’s too much in life to do that, you know?
I met Edward Merchel III while photographing on the abandoned Lehigh Viaduct, also know as “the tracks”. This is a place where addicts retreat from the street in order to shoot up without fear of getting busted. A few weeks later I was on the corner of Kensington and Somerset, sharing new prints with people I potentially wanted to photograph and I met Robert.
Robert: He died, uh, July 25th they found him at the gas station on uh, at the Sunoco station. I’m not lying to you.
JS: I believe you.
Robert: Uh, my brother Eddie, that’s him…that’s my brother Eddie.
JS: Were you close with Eddie?
Robert: Yeah, he was my only brother.
JS: Were you helping him at all dealing with his addiction?
Robert: Yeah. Yeah.
JS: He was on it for a while, right?
Robert: Since he was 12. Wow, do you have one where you can see his face real good?
JS: I do, the boy took it. Here it is, right here.
Robert: Can I have that, that’s my brother.
Passerby: I know it is but I really like it.
JS: I’ll give you another one.
Passerby: E-mail it to me. E-mail it to me.
Robert: My brother, my brother’s dead.
Passerby: I know he is.
JS: I’ll give you another one man.
Passerby: Can you email it to me?
JS: Yeah yeah yeah.
Passerby: I’ll give you my email address, here. (Passing the photo to Robert)
Robert: Ah, man.
Passerby: That’s a good picture, ain’t it?
Robert: Ah man. Thanks.
Passerby: I was gonna hold onto that. I was just with him a month ago. I was just with him.
Robert: He died.
Passerby: I know he did, let me see the other one.
Robert: He was a wall writer.
Passerby: That’s amazing, man.
Robert: His name was pretty boy back in the 70’s.
Robert: …I was on vacation, and uh, I called home and my father said uh they found my brother we used to call him Stachi.
Passerby: Yeah, that was my home boy.
Robert: and uh, they found him on uh 25th, it was a Mon…it was a Tuesday and uh, they took fingerprints and uh, my father’s name’s Eddie, Eddie Merchel his name is, right and uh, my dad’s brother’s a cop but he’s retired so when they got the fingerprints he thought it was his brother and he came down and met my father at, ya know, went to his house and he was like, they found Eddie at the Sunoco station on uh, Frankford and Lehigh. I went there last week and knocked on the window and asked the woman about the guy they found dead, she said I was here that day. I said, How long was he there? She said he was there an hour and 15 minutes.
Passerby: You’d think you could make a documentary about this neighborhood.
Robert: That’s what he is doin’
Passerby: Seriously..know what I’m saying, this is, this is one of a kind, this neighborhood, really…and throughout the United States there’s probably not a neighborhood like this, seriously.
Robert: Sure there is, every city has a neighborhood just like this. Like I been to the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Passerby: I don’t think there is..there’s something, you don’t even..
Robert: No matter where you go, if you meet somebody from wherever and they’ve been to Philly, everybody knows Kensington and Somerset.
Passerby: It’s like the Bermuda triangle down here.
Passerby: Yeah, man it’s hard.
Robert: Once you get in you can’t get out.
Passerby: …and like just cause I don’t use dope but I’m caught up in this too, I’m caught up in this too. Right there, she be up the street. (Refering to a woman in a photograph of mine)
Robert: I know everybody in that. (Refering to my stack of photos)
Passerby: That’s some picture, man. This is something, man. All this but nobody’s sayin, man, people gotta know what goes on right here, man. I’m telling you man, this is something man, people don’t know man. This is, this is…
Robert: This is Hell. This is my brother.
Passerby: What he’d do?
Robert: He’s dead.
Robert: At the gas station on Lehigh, there he is again. He’s dead now, OD’d. What did he sign, pretty boy? That was his wall right writing name back in the day. That’s what we used to do…tag.
Robert: (Reading Edward’s journal entry) My name is Edward Merchel, Edward Merchel the 3rd. I was once known as king of the graffiti, in this world from 1975 to 1978. I was, I was the king, which he was, but now its Feburary the 11th, I am on drugs Heroin, Coke and need to get off these drugs. I mean now.
Drug Dealer: Suboxone!
Danny: You mind talking to me for a sec?
Robert: Well, that, well…
Danny: I gotta talk to you about them pictures.
JS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll talk to you in one sec, man.
Robert: Well, that’s enough about me, see all of you later. That’s my brother. Edward Merchel… I’ll write something.
Robert: (Reading his journal entry) Hello Ed this is your brother Robbie, I knew I’d see you again and I did. It was crazy, I was coming down Kensington Ave, I met this guy that took your picture. I was shocked to see you but I knew where to find you. It made my whole day, its August 25th 2011, you’ve been gone one month to the day. It’s really crazy but I knew I’d see you again. I hope your with Mom, Nana and Jamie I miss you a whole…I miss you a whole lot, and everybody you know down here misses you too. Say hello to Mom, Nana and Jamie for me, come see me in my dreams. I’ll be waiting for you, love your brother Robbie. Aka Bolo NP with PB #1. Take it easy Ed.
Maria (Looking at a book of my photos): Oh my God.
Daughter: Pregnant lady.
Robert: That’s the pregnant girl?
Maria: That’s not her, that’s not her.
Robert: All these ho’s be out here.
Maria: That’s another one. Oh my God look at her arm, Jesus Christ. Oh my God, Jesus. You know that I don’t need no cable in my house. I see everything live, live.
Robert: I pray and pray and pray for the people like this. But I can’t do nothing but put them in God’s name.
Maria: I have a daughter, I’m the only one with a daughter in the building, I’m 2811 and nobody cares. People sell me, up and down, up and down, takin drugs, all over the freakin building, and I’m the only one that don’t take drugs thanks to the Lord, knock on wood, okay. I’ve been I’m been honest, very honest. I believe in the I believe in the Lord. Nobody does but I do. Okay. So far I’ve been here almost 8 years and I see a lot of bad stuff going around and I don’t, they say when you go between it, you gonna do it too. That’s a lie, but I’m, my daughter’s right now, she’s 11 years old and I’m tired of her seeing this. She got two bikes she cannot enjoy. She got, she don’t got nobody but me and her father. She don’t got no friends at all. So right now I’m about to move. Hopefully God-willing by next week we out of here.
Robert: Damn, the only people we know out here is, is junkies. Those are the only people we know out here is junk they all come up to us, you got this, you got a cup of water, can I get this, can I get that, can I get. And uh we help them. And we help them. We feed them, we give them clothing if they need clothing. If they want a cigarette if we have it we’ll give it to them you know but it, it’s it’s crazy out here.
Jeffrey: And your sittin here.
Robert: Yea, we sit here all day everyday.
Maria: Everyday we sit out here. I’ll be out here at 7 o’clock in the morning.
Robert: Yeah this is better than HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, everything combined. You don’t need no cable, you don’t have to watch TV. You just gotta sit out here. You see drama, you see soap opera, you see violence, crime.
Maria: You even see sex. Somethings that I’ve never seen before and I don’t bring my daughter out everyday outside. When I come outside, I say ‘Mommy come outside, stay a little while with me.’ But that’s about it. When I when I go in, right in, she go in. She don’t go in with nobody, she don’t like to be with strangers at all and a lot of people know, around here, they know that.
Robert: Right here, right there we seen this one guy stand right there and defecate. Right on the steps. He just stand right there and just defecate right there and we’re like, ohhh man. You know right in broad daylight I mean it’s like, and everybody’s walkin around nobody says nothin. That’s crazy. It, it’s, it’s crazy out here. I mean they sell drugs around, they sell drugs everywhere in Philly but this is like the worst spot in Philadelphia so far. They sell everything from pills to your mother. I mean, for real, they, they’ll sell your mother.