Needlepark Zoo

ALEXANDER E. HOOKE

February 28, 1992|By ALEXANDER E. HOOKE

Needlepark, Switzerland's experiment to control AIDS, has closed down. It was from the start a strange ambition: spotlessly PTC clean Zurich handing out sterile needles to contaminated citizens. In a country whose quality-of-life index ranks highest in the world, even admitting the need for such an experiment must have been difficult.

What resulted was part zoo, part freak show. Imagine taking a stroll through Baltimore's Inner Harbor. You then detour up to Federal Hill for a panoramic view of the city. Instead you are treated to a quite different spectacle. You see a lad, wearing an Orioles cap, injecting his friend with heroin. The friend is too far gone to find a usable vein.

You turn away, only to spot a neighbor's daughter in a Hammerjacks T-shirt, numb and huddled on a nearby bench. A man patiently talks to her. Later you learn that the man was either a private investigator, hired by the girl's parents to retrieve her, or a pimp who offers a better deal. That was Needlepark.

It also resembled a human observatory. Everyone was looking or being looked at. Medical aides kept an eye on possible overdoses. Pedestrians watched out for dazed and stumbling addicts on a high. Pushers and addicts were in mutual searches for a sale. And tourists nervously let their cameras do the seeing.

Like a zoo, Needlepark was full of gazes containing a mixed message: a sense of utter detachment among the denizens with an eerie feeling that we still had some connection.

Needlepark was not only a spectacle. It was an attempt in social policy, one that American cities have considered emulating. With the fear of AIDS rapidly spreading, particularly through needles, urban and medical officials were eager to hear about the merits ** of the Swiss experiment. Yet the novelty of the experiment probably had too little time to be proved successful or not.

Still, most will conclude that it was a failure, thus keeping Americans as well as the Swiss and the world guessing about dealing with the spread of AIDS. Others might disagree. Perhaps, they argue, American ingenuity can correct the mistakes of the Swiss.

That ingenuity, though, will have to accomplish the following: Persuade all of Baltimore's addicts to come to Federal Hill, or some centrally located area, without fear of arrest, exchange dirty needles for clean ones, inject their heroin two blocks from Baltimore's main tourist attraction, and then pray that no one finds it very strange, or ugly.

Needle park was strange. It could show you old schoolmates walking about with blood trickling down their necks, or needles dangling from the back of their knees. It would have you glancing at half-naked lovers, oblivious to the dying surrounding them. It might catch you staring at a rescue of an overdose.

Suppose, then, that an expert panel could convince us that a properly administered Needlepark could reduce the spread of AIDS. How many of us are willing to accept the spectacle? The Geraldo show is one thing, but would we let Federal Hill become a public freak show? Who says that our sons and daughters may parade about in a human zoo?

Alexander Hooke teaches philosophy at Villa Julie College.

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