Once nicknamed “the workshop of the world,” Kensington was a manufacturing district with business opportunity and thousands of jobs. As the factories closed, the jobs and residents decreased. Vacant homes began to line many of the streets, attracting poverty and crime with the diminishing neighborhood value.
According to Maura Kennedy, the director of strategic initiatives at Licenses and Inspections, there are now nearly 40,000 vacant homes in Philadelphia, many of which are in Kensington.
Jamie Moffett, a local film producer, fell in love with the neighborhood after community work in the area.
“The light bulb went on for me when I took a look at the city block and thought of it from a movie director’s perspective,” Moffett said.
“The question became, what kind of movie do I want to be in? Do I want to be in a crazy drug-addled, post-apocalyptic nightmare or do I want to be in a great clean environment with plants and trees and flowers and kids playing?”
Moffett took his inspiration to form Kensington Renewal, with an objective to decrease the amount of vacant houses in the area.
Moffett’s goal is for the organization to buy the local abandoned buildings and remodel them. He will then lease them at a fraction of the cost. Presumably, families leasing the house will soon buy them at an inexpensive rate, creating neighborhood ties, instead of vacant buildings.
Moffett’s first project was the 900 block of Westmorland Street.
In 2012, Moffett leased 921 E. Westmorland St., his first remodeled home, to a family who will purchase the house in June.
Although they declined to comment, Moffett said the family’s transition into the neighborhood has been a smooth one and they are active members in the community. The family helped run a neighborhood Earth Day event and often worked to sweep the streets with residents of the block.
A once-vacant house next door to the family will also soon have occupants.
Moffett said the prosperity in the neighborhood was contagious and the newfound positivity is best shown in crime statistics.
According to an economics study by Lin Cui at the University of Pittsburgh, vacant buildings often coincided with crime and a place for criminals to gather. Moffett hoped that by decreasing the abandoned houses in the community, the morale would improve, and crime would decrease.
In 2011, a study by the William Penn Foundation found Fifth and Westmoreland streets, just a few blocks away, the fourth-largest drug block in the city. However, Moffett said the local drug activity has decreased. According to the Philadelphia Police Department database, during the April, there were no reported crimes on the 900 block of East Westmoreland.
Resident Elaine Weinberger also said that she noticed a difference in the community.
“This was a vacant house and he took it and made it a beautiful home,” Weinberger said. “Now there’s flowers and he planted a tree on my sidewalk.”
Moffett has his sights set on another vacant house on the block, which was once a haven for drug dealers. Instead of placing barbed wire to keep out crime and squatters, Moffett placed heavy flowerpots in front of the door. He said that his efforts have been successful, while adding to the aesthetic of the neighborhood.
Moffett said that he hopes to improve other aspects of the neighborhood, in addition to the vacant houses.
On the grounds of the former textile warehouse at H Street and East Westmoreland, an abandoned warehouse that burned to the ground in 2007, a park is being developed, intended to add community involvement. He said the community plans to name the park the Phoenix Community Park and Garden.
“It’s the best outcome that we could have imagined,” he said.
In the future, Moffett said that he plans to get Kensington Renewal certified as a nonprofit so he can accept donations of houses. He said he hopes he can turn over a vacant house on Tampa Street, whose owner is no longer able to take care of it and has agreed to donate it to him.
In the next few years, Moffett said that he would like to see developers move in to the neighborhood.
“If the houses sell for $80,000, $90,000 or $100,000, that’s still a $600 or $700 a month mortgage,” Moffett said. “When rent is $600 or $700 a month, the neighborhood would go from renters to buyers.”
Moffett said he would also like a neighborhood coffee shop as a gathering place or for town meetings.
Moffett added that Kensington Renewal had worked as a domino effect and he said he hopes to see the neighborhood continue to improve.
“I’m hoping for a quiet neighborhood with plants, trees and flowers,” he said. “And so far, we’ve got that.”
For a look at what the city is trying to, take a look here.