Driving down Kensington Avenue in the early morning, I often get a nostalgic feeling for what the Avenue used to be — a bustling row of businesses, block after block, owned by hard working merchants. Their customers came from all around the city, including from the thousands of homes that line the blocks off each side of the business corridor.
There are still a lot of hard working merchants, but the rows of stores are now broken up with all too many shuttered businesses and empty lots. My father used to tell me that there was a time when it was nearly impossible to rent or purchase a property on Kensington Avenue. It was an incredibly desired location. I’m 50 years old. I don’t think that was in my lifetime.
In the past few years, I’ve seen what looks like Kensington’s best hope for the future taking form. Impact Services has done an incredible job in making improvements happen. The Philadelphia Department of Commerce has programs including the Business Security Camera Program, Storefront Improvement Program, and InStore forgivable Loan Program . Free security cameras, free money to improve storefronts and free loan money for businesses. The Philadelphia Resilience Project has fixed, cleaned, and improved countless things in the neighborhood.
The area is seeing major residential development. Numerous companies, including Shift Capital, are putting big bucks into the neighborhood. Old factories are becoming mixed-use for commercial and residential use. The results to this date have been impressive.
Residents of Kensington have a pride that rivals any neighborhood. I’ve met a lot of people that never want to leave. They LOVE Kensington. While they’ve been fighting for their neighborhood for decades, they choose to continue the fight. Their love for Kensington makes them the biggest critics for what they see right outside their windows.
This morning, after taking less than 20 minutes to take a few photos and speaking with one woman, I wanted to share my experience and interactions. I’m on Kensington Avenue most days, so I’m familiar with much of what happens here. But here’s a few moments, with time-stamped photos on a cell phone as my timeline:
Wednesday, 7:37 am — I stopped to drop off some copies of the newspaper at J&J Restaurant. The place looks great, having just taken advantage of the Commerce Department’s Storefront Improvement Program. I picked up a flyer that was on the window sill inside the front door. “We Need To Take Back Our Neighborhood,” it read, citing an address on the 3200 block of Kensington Avenue. “NEED TO GO”. It alerted that a protest is coming soon. I walked outside and snapped a ‘humorous’ picture of a cardboard sign that read “Too Ugly to Prostitute”. I know it’s supposed to be funny, but it didn’t make me laugh today. Yesterday (Tuesday) I dropped newspapers at Sherry’s Diner at Kensington & Ontario Street just before 5:00 am. After saying good morning to the Tony, the owner, along with the friendly crew and some morning regulars, I walked outside and let a girl walk by before I proceeded. She appeared to have no destination. Most likely (if not definitely), she was one of the many prostitutes that walk along the Avenue. She appeared to be younger than my daughter — probably somewhere in her early twenties, or even late teens.
Wednesday, 7:45 am — I see one of the new hand washing stations for folks to sanitize their hands. They are being installed to try to reduce the spread of hepatitis A in the neighborhood. Brand new, it was pushed over into the trash can. It was secured to the street pole, but not fastened to the ground yet. I parked my car in front of McPherson Square Park, where numerous people were on the grass, lying on mattresses in the area of Indiana Avenue near Kensington Avenue. There was also one tent. Within 5 seconds of getting out of my car, a guy yelled over to me “works?” I moved on my way to take a photo of the wash station without answering the man. I also snapped a shot of the Needle Drop Box that looks a little unsightly, before heading out.
WEDNESDAY, 7:52 am — I stop back at Kensington and E. Westmoreland Street to take a photo of a large pile of discarded items on the sidewalk. An unusually high number of people were making the sidewalks between Thayer Street and Madison Street their place to sleep. I took 2 pictures of the pile when a woman walking by stopped to say how disgusting the sight is. A Kensington resident, she walks by each day, back and forth as she goes to Hilton Street to help her five-year-old granddaughter get ready for school. She didn’t know that I worked for the newspaper when she first started talking, and was eager to give her thoughts to a total stranger that she just saw taking a few pictures. She pointed to Kensington and Willard where a bunch of people were standing, sitting and lying on the sidewalk. She said that walking by that area is terrible, with needles on the ground and the smell of urine permeating the air. She said it’s a shelter, adding that she’s had to tell the drug users to turn around when they shoot-up. She was angry that they don’t even have the decency to turn around when children are walking by on the sidewalk. I told her that I was from the newspaper and would tell her story.
The Philadelphia Resilience Project has done incredible work. City departments and volunteers have cleaned up so much, taking over 600 abandoned cars off the street and cleaning thousands of vacant lots. If you walk down Kensington Avenue at the right time of the day after the city mechanical sweeping, the sidewalks look great. It doesn’t take very long before they’re littered with trash again. One step forward and one step back (or two steps back) seems to be a common refrain.
Appearance means so much. What is this daily view doing to the mental health of children who see this as normal everyday life in the neighborhood? I know that most people have seen crazy things. Human beings, looking like zombies, walk slowly down the street or are ‘dipping’ in place — every day. They defy gravity. These people need real help. I was walking on Kensington at Madison Street recently when I saw a stream crossing my path. I looked over to see a young man urinating against the building in the beautiful afternoon sun in front of all passers-by. Staffed public restrooms are being installed by the city to try to curb this activity.
What’s most incredible is that so many people are doing so many positive things to make things better. What would happen if these valiant people stopped for a week or two?
These are just a few observations. I always share the good that I see. Today, after speaking with a frustrated Kensington grandmother, I wanted to share some other stuff that I saw in less than 20 minutes. It’s every friggin day … like a punch to the gut or a smack on the head … no one wants it … yet tomorrow you can bet on what you’ll see on the Avenue. Let’s do better!