East Kensington: The Artists Of Coral Street

Painters, sculptors, illustrators and representatives across just about every other artistic medium are transforming the East Kensington neighborhood into an art district.

For many of the neighborhood’s artists, the 2400 block of Coral Street has become both a place to work and live.

Side-by-side, Coral Street Arts House and Viking Mill serve as landmarks of the creative influence that is being generated in the neighborhood.

“We have a nice mix of different artists who live here,” said Marilyn Cruz, property manager of Coral Street Arts House.   “We have painters, jewelry makers, musicians, graphic designers, writers – basically everything.”

Cruz, 44, has managed the art centric residential project since 2007. Since her time managing the 27-unit building, artists both young and old have created a tight knit community, which has created channels for social interaction and collaboration.

Audrey Taylor, a 64-year-old jewelry maker, has been a resident of the building since 2011, but has lived in the area since 2005.  Since calling Coral Street Arts House her home, she has felt support from the residents, and her neighbors have been there to discuss her ideas, she says.

“If I develop another interest and want to bounce the idea off somebody, they are there to listen,” said Taylor. “I get positive feedback on my ideas. I get support inadvertently and overtly from the residents.”

In terms of the interaction that Coral Street Arts House residences have, multi-talented artist Sharif Pendleton says, “it’s not your typical apartment complex.”

“It’s not like a normal apartment building, where there are random people with differing interests,” said Pendleton. “The thing that brings us together is that, whether we are practicing art or not, we are people who have a strong interest in art. It’s nice to have people like that as neighbors.

“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve knocked on people’s doors looking for materials for a project,” he continued. “I’ll ask a neighbor and they’ll say, ‘I got ten of those, do you want some?’

The 35-year-old runs Masters of None, a company that specializes in laser cut products and accessories. Referring to himself as, “the chief of everything” for the company, Pendleton is currently working on zip code keychains, as he has noticed many Philadelphian’s closely identify with their home zip code.

“Philadelphia is so neighborhood centric, “ said Pendleton. “I’ve noticed it for a long time.  So I thought the keychains were a fun, tongue-and-cheek way of identifying where you are from.”

His next-door neighbor, Nathan Smith, draws character sketches based on his friends, his childhood heroes and his cats. Most of his inspiration, however, comes from his exposure to Japanese anime at a young age.

While in his apartment room at Coral Street Arts House, Nathan Smith worked on a sketch.
While in his apartment room at Coral Street Arts House, Nathan Smith worked on a sketch.

“My best friend was Japanese and he exposed me to anime,” said Smith. “He showed me Gundam and Astro Boy – all of those things.”

As the neighborhood evolves, Smith hopes to see more showcases open up in the area.

“I’d like to see more things related to cinema,” said Smith. “Definitely, I’d like to see more galleries.”

While many different artists call Coral Street Arts House home, not as many call it their workspace.

The situation is reversed just across the street.

Viking Mill, originally a textile mill built in the 1880’s, offers affordable workspace for artists. Opened in 2008, the building hosts sculptors, musicians and a number of other businesses.

Among those who have opened shop at Viking Mill is Dave Kazarov, founder of Philadelphia Bike Rescue. Kazarov’s company specializes in refurbishing old bikes that have been tossed out by their previous owners, while also repurposing the parts for things such as jewelry and furniture.

“All these bikes that get thrown away can be used for other things,” said Kazarov. “Bikes take an incredible amount of infrastructure to create and we’re trying to do our part to see that the bikes get used.”

A resident of Philadelphia for three years, Kazarov noticed that there is a clear market for bikes.

“I started to fix bikes and sell them on Craigslist, to which there was a response,” said Kazarov. “People are into the vintage bikes. Some people may see an old bike from the ‘60’s and say, ‘my grandfather rode that, I don’t want it.’ But some people might view it as an old record player. I think people’s perceptions of what is vintage are starting to change.”

But like many businesses in Viking Mill, Kazarov took a hit when the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) closed the building in October, citing a number of fire and electrical code violations.

Viking Mill,  an affordable work space for artists, recently reopened after being shut down by Philadelphia' Department of Licenses and Inspections.
Viking Mill, an affordable work space for artists, recently reopened after being shut down by Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections.

“It was shocking that we were given 48 hours to get out,” said Kazarov. “L&I definitely didn’t take into consideration that this was people’s livelihoods at stake.”

Since reopening, Kazarov believes that the issues were promptly addressed and he hopes for a positive future.

“The buildings owners are committed to making this a working space for artists,” said Kazarov. “The rent isn’t very expensive, and that’s one of the most important things.  It allows for creative people to come in, work their magic and then the neighborhood flourishes.”

Text, Images and Video by Mark Whited and Lauren Arute