A single block, bounded by Emerald, Willard, Jasper and Madison streets, is a microcosm of Kensington, representative of an entire neighborhood.
Though at times it can feel pleasantly and uniquely far from the stark reality of the surrounding neighborhood, the block has its problems. These problems generally seem to travel into the block. There is a vacant lot, which seems to be the source of most of the residents’ numerous complaints about both the block and the greater neighborhood. It is a magnet for the undesirables, prostitutes and addicts, for which Kensington is infamous. It is a major blemish on a small community.
Dennis Payne, 51, was born and raised in the neighborhood, just blocks away from his current home on Willard Street.
“I used to ride Big Wheel out on this street here when I was a little kid up here on the corner of Willard and Emerald,” Payne said.
Payne is one of the few who has been around long enough to see the neighborhood evolve into what it is today. “The people in this neighborhood, most of them ain’t been here 20 years,” he said.
“The Kensington I grew up in is definitely not the Kensington I live in today,” Payne said. “The only thing that’s making money in Kensington is the drug dealers.”
The Kensington Payne grew up in was the industrious, middle-class neighborhood prior to the deindustrialization that began plaguing the it around 1950s.
“Most of these old factories were filled by the very residents of this neighborhood, and now you see there’s no factories anymore. And what’s left, they’re barely standing,” Payne said.
One such factory stands on the corner of Willard and Emerald Streets. Beside it is an empty lot which, though abandoned, draws dozens of people daily. It is overflowing with trash and weeds, except for one well-beaten footpath leading to a recess hidden from the street. In the corner is set of crumbling concrete stairs used by its transient visitors.
“People are back there at all times of day and night — shooting up, having sex, anything you can imagine,” said Marie Rodriguez, 26, who has been living with her husband and children on the block for five years.
The proof is everywhere. Scores of orange syringe caps are sprinkled across the ground, as if someone threw candy at a parade. Used condoms, needles, bits of clothing and trash are an unavoidable sight.
“My kids are starting to ask questions and they’re not at an age where I feel comfortable explaining it to them,” said Rodriguez, whose front door stares directly into the vacant lot. “I don’t want them to learn this way. I want them to be able to keep their innocence for a bit longer.”
Rodriguez moved onto the block because she needed a place to raise a family. The neighborhood offered options for cheaper housing and she found the block an acceptable choice.
“I didn’t really take a close look at the neighborhood before I moved,” Rodriguez said. “It looks fine at first glance, but then after living here a little, I realized it was much worse than I thought.”
Though she has owned the house for five years, Rodriguez is having second thoughts about the area. “I can’t even let my kids cross the street,” Rodriguez said. “I’m seriously considering moving just because of that empty lot. It’s a terrible place to raise a family.”
Bill Richardson, 41, owns a small masonry business on the block. He has lived on the block for 30 years and has worked in and around Kensington for just as long. “It’s a good neighborhood…working class. It’s always been that way.”
Not everyone entirely agrees with Richardson. Molly Black, 36, has lived in a dozen U.S. cities and abroad in Kuwait, Spain, the Netherlands and other countries.
“I absolutely hate it. It’s the worst place I’ve ever lived,” Black said. “I’ve never been anywhere that compares to the open violence, drugs, prostitution and aggression of Philly and Kensington.
“I’ve had to chase people off my roof several times. I’ve had to buy a .38,” she said as she pulled a large, black revolver from underneath her couch.
“When I was in Kuwait I couldn’t walk down the street without at least a two-man escort less than five feet away from me,” she said.
Black said she believes there is little difference between mid-1990s Kuwait and her current neighborhood at night. “I’m afraid to even walk to the corner bodega to grab a pack of smokes past 9 p.m.,” she said.
Despite her dislike of the area, Black stays because the rent is cheap and she has no present alternatives. “Don’t get me wrong,” Black said, “the people on this block are great people. For the most part, everyone here are just normal, hardworking people. It’s the neighborhood that sucks.”
Dave Thomas, 34, has lived on the block for three years. Like Black, he has become unhappy with the condition of the neighborhood. Thomas tries to spend as much time as possible away from the home he was more or less forced to inherit from his family.
“I don’t hang out here. I don’t work here,” he said. “I don’t even want to live here.”
In its truest sense, the block is a microcosm of the neighborhood as a whole. Both the block and its neighborhood feature a diverse mix of people, many of who follow its working-class tradition.
Residents of the block admit that even though it has provided respite from some of the surrounding areas, it too has obvious and definite problems. Although the neighborhood may never return to what it was during Payne’s youth, his block still contains the people and the certain charm only this community can offer.