Factories and textile mills line the neighborhood’s streets. The owner of a local restaurant runs down the street to fill up on supplies. The number of those employed outweighs the number of those unemployed. Business is booming and food is on nearly every table.
This was Kensington just over 50 years ago. Life in the neighborhood has changed drastically. A neighborhood once full of job security and overall neighborhood safety is now a neighborhood where unemployment is the norm and the crime rate deters new residents from moving in.
“I walk into businesses all the time looking for work. And I’m not asking for anything long-term. I’m talking a day’s work. Washing the dishes, anything. There’s nothing,” says 32-year-old Kensington native William Peterson.
Peterson still walks around with his inmate identification from his time in prison, which was just two months ago. He’s unemployed and sleeping on various family members’ couches. Less than two miles away, Philadelphians are dining at pricey Northern Liberties restaurants and William is lucky if he sees one meal a day.
“Twenty dollars has to last me all week now that I can’t find a real job. It didn’t used to be like this.” And Peterson is right. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in the city hit 11.2 percent. The U.S. jobless average is at 9.2 percent. Camden, N.J., and Salem, N.J., are the only other counties in the tri-state region that are higher than the U.S. average.
One woman who has witnessed the drastic change in the neighborhood over the past 50 years or so is Kensington native Sandy Salzman. She describes the 1950s as a time when residents were coming back from the war, getting married and moving to the suburbs because of the newly built highways that made the city more accessible.
The number of vacant homes began to increase and businesses began to close. There was little incentive for any residents to stick around if they did not have to.
Salzman is about to approach her 16th year as the executive director at New Kensington Community Development Corp., an organization that strives to strengthen the communities that make up Kensington, Fishtown and Port Richmond. The organization has grown successfully since its start in 1985. What started as a corporation that primarily focused on housing, housing counseling and energy assistance is now a corporation that focuses on economic development, real estate development, housing counseling, land use management, community organizing and neighborhood planning.
“At that time Kensington had a lot of vacant property so we tried to take the worst of them. Some of these properties had just been abandoned because the land in the neighborhood was holding absolutely no value. You could buy a house for around five to ten thousand dollars,” says Salzman.
According to NeighborhhoodLink, an online source for demographics, geography and economic statistics, the average house value in the 19125 zip code of Kensington is now at $43,500. This number is shockingly low compared to the overall Philadelphia average of $122,113 but is still better compared to previous years.
Some of this home value increase can more than likely be contributed to the partnership that the NKCDC has with the Pennsylvania Elm Street Program, a program that works with homeowners to improve the façade and streets outside their homes. The program offers 75 percent of the cost of any work done to the façade of their homes. One hundred percent of the cost of any work done to the infrastructure outside the home, including sidewalks, lanterns and street trees, is refunded to the homeowner from the state.
While it is hard to reach out to every resident in the area, the NKCDC is doing the best that it can by holding community outreach meetings and allowing walk-ins at the Frankford Avenue location. Most members at the organization recognize that some issues that face Kensington, such as drugs, are almost out of their control, but that doesn’t stop them from giving up. The NKCDC is now working on forming a partnership with the crime prevention and community revitalization organization Weed and Seed to tackle the drug problem.
“The sad part about it is that we had a drug problem here in the 19125 zip code, but now it’s not as open-air selling as it is now in the 19134. What happens when you start putting a spotlight on a neighborhood or an area, people tend to just move. You don’t get rid of it [the drugs]. They don’t change. They just move on to the next neighborhood. Some residents have the approach that as long as it is not in my backyard, I don’t care where it moves. But that’s not really the answer,” says Salzman.
What is the answer to Kensington’s drug problem? And the answer to the other problems of unemployment, poor infrastructure and violent crime?
People like Sandy Salzman believe it is to continue with the creation of new community programs to strengthen the neighborhood’s infrastructure and boost residents’ overall morale. “I think that it can change. I’m an optimist at heart. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be doing the work that I do.”