Grays Ferry: Local Civic Remembers Past, Works Through Present, Looks To Future

Michael Bradley (second from the left) and Kyle Shenandoah (second from right) with other leaders of the Grays Ferry Civic Association (Courtesy: Michael Bradley).

The Grays Ferry Civic Association was established in 2011 to be a resource in the southwest Philadelphia community.

Michael Bradley, the president of the nonprofit organization and Grays Ferry native, has been a driving force for a lot of the support work in the community. But Bradley wasn’t the only figure leading various community cleanups, zoning meetings, or job postings. 

Kyle Shenandoah, the vice president of the Grays Ferry Civic Association, tragically died in August 2019. Bradley remembers him as a one-man superteam who did so much for the community he cherished. 

After Shenandoah’s passing, GFCA’s efforts slowed down while the community grieved. By the time the association and its members began to get back to work, the entire world shut down from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Now, Bradley and the Grays Ferry Civic Association look to Shenandoah’s past example to move forward.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How would you describe the Grays Ferry Civic Association to someone who knows nothing about the area?

The Civic Association was a group of us that felt as though the lead RCOs, or Registered Community Organizations, weren’t servicing the wider community. It’s a really old organization, from the old neighborhood and as the neighborhood changed, they kind of still stayed with the shrinking population of long-term residents. 

We started this organization to kind of service the community at large and bring some of the resources and tools to bear such as, you know, Facebook, emails, and try to do some things that other communities are doing. Whether it’s group cleanups or making sure information gets out to meetings and stuff like that. The organization itself was done in response to that. Or lack of service, if you will, to try to see if we could do better. 

Since then, the Grays Ferry Community Council has spun around and really done a 180. And one of the members of the board who has been the driving force for that change actually started in our organization. So, in a way at least we achieve the goals of what we were trying to do. And so, our organization has kind of ebbs and flows with members and activities.

You mentioned it hasn’t been the same since Kyle Shenandoah passed away. Who was Kyle and what was his role or contribution to the group?

Kyle came on right after the last recruitment drive that we did to try to bolster the members. It was me and Andrew Shuh. He was kind of like exiting, but he didn’t want to leave me hanging. So, we did like a big recruitment drive and he had a couple members. 

It’s the same people in these meetings so you’re going to know everybody that’s involved in the community because it’s the same people over and over and over again. So, I had met Kyle a couple times in some of these meetings. 

Kyle was worth like no less than 10 people with the amount of things he was working on. The stuff that he was doing. I mean, it really was everything, you know. The stuff that guy could do was amazing. And he had his hands in everything. People were just starting to get an understanding of who this guy was and everything he was doing.

Can you talk about the challenges faced during the pandemic and how things have changed?

Like most organizations, everything shut down during the pandemic. There were no meetings, no email traffic, there were no activities. It was pretty much no nothing. Everybody was locked in their houses. 

Kyle had passed away in November 2019. We were already kind of back on our heels, trying to come to grips with him not being around. My intent was Kyle needed this organization as a conduit for some of the things that he was doing. 

The only thing we were really doing was with the other organizations. We were doing zoning meetings and back to what the GFCA always relied on when times membership dropped low and that’s information dissemination. We were still tied into all the outlets. So, our information flow never kind of stopped. When there was information, that’s the only thing that we’ve kept constant. 

My intent was to talk to the treasurer and the other board members and kind of be like, “Hey, listen, guys, do you want to do a recruitment drive?” Or, “What do you want to do to take this thing forward?” I was basically telling them that I needed to step back. We were already in a flux once the pandemic hit. We were already like, back on our heels trying to figure out what direction to go from Kyle’s loss. The pandemic just gave us some breathing space.

What else can you share about the neighborhood itself? What makes it unique or special?

Well, I’m a big history buff. Grays Ferry has got a rich history. It was, for the time frame of like the ’20s and ’30s, I would hear my grandparents talk about Grays Ferry may as well have been the suburbs. When everybody started to move out there it really was like moving out to the suburbs because you’re so far removed from everything that was considered like the big city. 

When I was growing up, there was a lot of racial tension in the neighborhood. When I was in the army, and I was stationed in Germany, Grays Ferry actually made the news from like the Klan and the Nation of Islam marching down there. Clashes in the streets and stuff like that. 

The neighborhood was very much segregated. It wasn’t a defining line between like Black and White. Even in the White community, there were still lines between spillovers from different corners in different neighborhoods that used to play with each other all the time.

There was still kind of that weird animosity. Almost like the ’50s — Greasers and SOCS type of thing from like The Outsiders. A lot of that to deal with.

How has the neighborhood changed over the years?

Very happily, the kind of tension that I grew up in, with not only racial lines but neighborhood lines, have for the most part disappeared. That’s been incredibly nice. 

If you backtracked 35 or even 40 years, there’s no way that [the diverse group of community leaders] were talking with each other, much less working with each other. It just doesn’t happen. Sometimes it comes up in our meetings. 

The fact that we are able to pull together and kind of work on things together for the betterment of the entire community has really been a treat in my life. 

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