Concluding A Project

When I initially decided to investigate what was happening to the neighborhood of Kensington, I wrote down the thesis question “Is Kensington gentrifying? Or is it too late to save this troubled place?” My phrasing in hindsight seems perhaps a bit melodramatic now that I’ve become accustomed to the once-daunting region. Now that I’m passed being spooked, I realize I’ve come to learn some valuable lessons about the definition of what is going to “save” a bad neighborhood.

Gentrification will ultimately be the savior or doom of Kensington, depending on how you look at it. The cost of changing a neighborhood for the better is that it becomes desirable to those in a higher socio-economic class. While community gardens, art programs, and increased safety are all pluses for a place like Kensington, with them will come higher rents and less available housing.IMG_2847

From all of my research, including public records, articles, and countless interviews, I personally believe the Kensington is definitely on the cusp of gentrification. Locals tell me they are seeing more middle-class families move in. Landlords are buying up properties left and right. Rent prices are beginning to rise. The community that once made Fishtown artsy and young is spilling into Kensington following that neighborhood’s own gentrification.

But I am no longer convinced that gentrification equals saving a neighborhood.

I mourn the loss that families will feel when the cost of living spikes and they are pushed out of their homes into more reasonably priced neighborhoods. I’ll mourn the sense of community and the collective memories of the “old” Kensington that will fade with the diaspora of its residents and the influx of other Philadelphians. Kensington has a history and character to it that cannot be found anywhere else.

But hark, a ray of light in this investigation of pre-gentrification. Though some may consider Kensington’s heyday to have ended in the 20th century, I will argue that it’s actually happening right now. In this year and the next several, Kensington will become safer and a more pleasant place to live.

Its plucky, diverse community has really come together to establish a neighborhood of people who care about where they live. Changes are being made for the better. While there are still problems with drugs, violence, and crime, it’s slowly becoming a more livable place.

This period of time is the peak, the sweet spot, right before the area is claimed by the growing middle class that has expanded north of Center City. This is the time for the people who grew up in Kensington to enjoy their neighborhood’s improvements and cherish their collective group history.

I know that in 10 years, I won’t even recognize the Kensington I grew to appreciate as I completed this senior project. But for now, I refuse to be anything but happy for the people who live there. After years of struggling to beat back the problems that plague them, they deserve this little bit of success. Even if it’s only temporary.

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Kensington Gentrification May Push Out Locals

It comes cloaked in a myriad of names with positive connotations: urban renewal, neighborhood revitalization, or even economic stimulation. But the truth is gentrification is not always a good thing.

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New coffee shops move in next to businesses along Kensington Avenue.

When this blogging project began, the thesis question was to discover whether Kensington would ever gentrify, or if it was too late. The wording of this very question implies that gentrification equates positive influence in the neighborhood. Still, gentrification usually indicates that a displacement of a portion of the community will occur for the transition to be “successful.” The influx of new businesses, middle- or upper- class people, and new homes will ultimately push out the pre-existing communities and structures that once made the neighborhood unique.

Kensington has experienced small forms of revitalization before. During the golden age of industrialization in late 1800s, the growing community of factory workers welcomed in businesses to their neighborhood. The construction of the elevated portion of the Market-Frankford line, which was finished in 1922, made way for a bustling avenue of businesses below its centipede-like structure. According to “Images of America: Philadelphia’s River Wards” by George Holmes, the construction of “the El,” as it came to be called, was essential for making the district more accessible to the rest of the city. Five stops currently run along Kensington Avenue, within Kensington’s borders. The stretch of stores below the El between Tioga Street and Somerset Street came to be known as “the Av.”

“In the era before shopping malls, a trip to the Av was somewhat of a social event. In edition to running errands, shoppers would stroll the strip, stopping for lunch at one of several restaurants or, perhaps, for an ice cream treat at the counter at the five and ten.”

The intersection of Kensington and Allegheny, or K&A, even had an outdoor market in the mid-1970s. Though the neighborhood has struggled to combat drug users and dealers from loitering around these areas, the Av continues to be lined with businesses.

Kensington’s proximity to the El and wide sidewalks make it a perfect location for foot traffic and blossoming businesses. The neighborhood’s plethora of vacant industrial spaces makes it ripe for renovations and renewal efforts. For example, the Beatty’s Mills Factory Building, a former textile mill, has since been converted into the Coral Street Arts House. The building now provides low-income housing to artists.

So how does actual gentrification occur? Writer and urbanist Benjamin Grant published an article for PBS in 2003 explaining the gist of gentrification and what makes a neighborhood appealing for revitalization.

            “America’s renewed interest in city life has put a premium on urban neighborhoods, few of which have been built since World War II. If people are flocking to new jobs in a region where housing is scarce, pressure builds on areas once considered undesirable. Gentrification tends to occur in districts with particular qualities that make them desirable and ripe for change. The convenience, diversity, and vitality of urban neighborhoods are major draws, as is the availability of cheap housing, especially if the buildings are distinctive and appealing. Old houses or industrial buildings often attract people looking for “fixer-uppers” as investment opportunities. Gentrification works by accretion — gathering momentum like a snowball. Few people are willing to move into an unfamiliar neighborhood across class and racial lines. Once a few familiar faces are present, more people are willing to make the move. Word travels that an attractive neighborhood has been “discovered” and the pace of change accelerates rapidly.”

Land and housing in Kensington has been pretty cheap because of the problems with drugs and crime. Still, the neighborhood has historic buildings and beautifully designed houses. Kensington’s next-door neighbor Fishtown once underwent a similar change. Now, Fishtown is starting to overflow into Kensington. Recent documentation of the housing prices in Kensington are showing a general rise in property value. The number of construction permits issued in Kensington increased 12.7 percent from 2012 to 2013.

There also has been a substantial cleanup effort among neighborhood organizations that has made the neighborhood a less daunting location for families to settle into. Still, roadblocks exist to Kensington gentrifying.

Heroin remains an ever-strong problem along Kensington Avenue. Recent national trends and interviews with locals show that heroin addicts who use the local parks and alleys for drug use are coming into Kensington from the suburbs. After a crackdown on accessibility to prescription drugs, heroin has become a cheap alternative to those with addictions. Though local law enforcement has made great strides in cracking down on the open-air drug markets that used to occupy the corners under the El, some worry that it will be impossible to ever truly clean up the neighborhood when the users are coming from elsewhere.

Kensington's once vacant factories and warehouses, like the one above, are now being refurbished for art spaces or renovated housing.

Kensington’s once vacant factories and warehouses, like the one above, are now being refurbished for art spaces or renovated housing.

In some ways, this becomes the double-edged sword for the people of Kensington. Cleaning up their neighborhood makes it a safer place to live, but also a more fertile location for gentrification to occur. The inevitable displacement that comes with gentrification worries residents. Individuals who have lived in Kensington their entire lives, perhaps in families that have been there for generations, may no longer be able to afford the neighborhood. Another worry is that the identity of the neighborhood will be altered when new faces move in and change the way the community looks, thinks, and operates.

For now, Kensington is moving in a good direction. For the first time in decades, it has become a desirable place to live and visit. But with these changes may come the alienation of the people who make Kensington what it is today. It remains to be seen whether gentrification will be a good thing for the community.

History of Fishtown hints to Kensington’s Future

In an effort to predict the future of Kensington, it is helpful to look to the history of its similar next-door neighbor Fishtown.

Kensington wraps around Fishtown in an L-shape, with the hard boundaries still being fuzzy to anyone who doesn’t live there. Fishtown gentrified when the population in Northern Liberties spilled into the neighborhood’s borders during its own wave of gentrification. Now Fishtown is overflowing into Kensington and some are anticipating that it’s next on the list to gentrify.

Once a place where heroin addicts and prostitutes roamed, now Fishtown houses young professionals and the artistically inclined. Trendy bars, art galleries, and retail shops have blossomed in the previously troubled neighborhood, resulting in a higher demand for housing. Those who can no longer afford Fishtown are pushed into neighboring areas like Kensington. If the pattern is to be believed, Kensington might soon be filled with up-and-coming businesses.

But is predicting Kensington’s future as easy as looking to Fishtown’s past? Comparing the two districts does, in fact, reveal a number of similarities.

Fishtown has experienced its own roller coaster of success and downfall over the years. During the 19th century, the industrial revolution was alive and booming in Fishtown. In an 1870 industrial census, more than 200 industrial factories were recorded as operating out of Fishtown. Following the Great Depression and World War II, the neighborhood experienced a decline of industry leaving many of its residents out of work.

According to the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, the decline of industrialization in Philadelphia’s River Wards coincided with an increase in poverty and crime.

           “The worlds of white and black Philadelphia slowly converged during the late 1960s, as a collapsing economy and growing heroin use destroyed working-class neighborhoods.  Heroin users fueled a dramatic increase in burglary, larceny, and robbery, which largely unskilled and uneducated young men used to support their habits.  White flight, already apparent in the 1950s in response to African American migration and the lure of the suburbs, accelerated in the 1960s as the crime rate rose and abandoned factories drained the value out of nearby row houses.  Philadelphia’s homicide rate increased by 300 percent between 1965 and 1974, the same decade the city lost about 40 percent of its industrial jobs. Racial tension, job loss, and increased gun ownership resulted in frayed personal relations and a spiraling homicide rate.”

For several decades, crime and heroin dominated the neighborhoods, giving them a dangerous reputation. It wasn’t until the highly publicized Sweeney trial came to national attention that the community in Fishtown banded together to initiate change in their neighborhood.

The Jason Sweeney murder trial drew attention to Fishtown’s drug problems in the early 2000s particularly because of the shocking nature of the murder. Four teenagers had bludgeoned their friend Jason Sweeney to death to acquire his paycheck and spend it on drugs. The trial garnered attention because of the shocking lack of remorse and understanding on the part of the accused. Following the trial, nearly 200 Fishtown residents gathered with public officials to address the drug problems within the neighborhood.

Since then, slowly but surely, Fishtown has vastly improved. And now, in many ways, Kensington seems to be following in its neighbor’s footsteps.

The history of Kensington is somewhat identical to that of Fishtown. Initially, Kensington was also home to an abundance of industrial factories that produced glass, pottery, wagon and machine works, and textiles. By the mid 1800s, more than 120 textile factories completely dominated the neighborhood with a majority of the Irish, English, Scottish, and German immigrant workers living close by. However by the 1960s, the number of factories and mills had decreased significantly, leaving many of the old factory buildings vacant or abandoned.IMG_2824 2

Similarly to Fishtown, a decrease in jobs and introduction to heroin lead the neighborhood into decline.

Recently, the Kensington Strangler terrorized the women of Kensington and lead to a crackdown on drug use by local law enforcement. Following publicity generated by the Strangler, a push against open-air drug markets and prostitution has occurred. Many community groups are working toward cleaning up the neighborhood, some even installing lights in the once thought to be doomed “Needle Park.”

Though the Sweeney murder and the Kensington Strangler’s crimes were inherently different, a pattern is emerging between the way the neighborhoods are reacting to the crimes.

Still, some Kensington locals remain skeptical. Lisa Lewandowski, who was born and raised in Kensington, doubts that the neighborhood will ever gentrify.

“I never remember Fishtown being as bad as [Kensington],” Lewandowski said. “Whoever said it’s going to get like Fishtown is lying. They are just trying to make [Kensington] seem cool.”

Nonetheless, recent documentation of the housing prices in Kensington is showing a general rise in property value. PhiladelphiaNeighborhoods.com cited that the median sales price of homes from July 2014 to October 2014 increased by $24,000, according to Trulia, a real estate guide. The number of construction permits issued in Kensington increased 12.7 percent from 2012 to 2013.

Though the future of Kensington is still unclear, it’s a neighborhood with a rich history and rumblings of growth potential.

Property Crimes Difficult to Police in Kensington

A weathered-looking couple lugs a garbage bag of scarves into Sylvester Robinson’s boutique storefront on Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia.

Robinson, 54, opens the bag and inspects the goods. He does not ask where the scarves came from and the couple does not say.

Silently, he nods and the scarves are carried to the back of his supply room where they will wait until he finds buyers.

Robinson isn’t the only person in the Kensington neighborhood to sell goods with dubious origins. To the addicts that need money to fund their habits, stealing and then re-selling their plunder is an easy way to generate cash.

A crime prevention officer for one of the three police districts that monitors Kensington, who wished to remain anonymous to protect his job, said that 95 percent of the time the root cause of robbery and thefts in his jurisdiction is drug addiction.

“If someone is arrested for robbery, you look at their sheet and somewhere along the line, you’ll see evidence they’ve got a drug problem,” the officer said.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer Crime Data, there have been 180 property crimes reported in Kensington in November of 2014 alone, putting the property crime rate at 3.6 percent. That’s the 11th highest crime rate out of 55 neighborhoods.

In Kensington, retail stores selling furniture and household items are almost as common as used syringes lining the streets. Rent is cheap and the products available for sale are cheaper. The sidewalks along Kensington Avenue are littered with furniture and appliances waiting to be sold, with sometimes as many as four or five of these shops in one block.

Robinson’s boutique is one of them. He said he doesn’t always have knowledge of where the items he sells originated. Many times people arrive at his doorstep hoping to make a little cash off a few things they had buried in their closets. His store is adorned with remnants of times past – pairs of men’s platform shoes, obscure records, and old movie posters. While everything is available for sale right in his store, he makes most of his money selling the items on eBay.

Still, Robinson said every once in a while, he worries about the nature of his business.

“I see someone selling an iPhone with a picture of kids on it and I’m like, those don’t look like your kids,” Robinson said. Though Robinson mostly up-sells vintage items like shoes and bags that people bring to him from their closets at home, he doesn’t ask questions if an object’s origins are suspicious. The profits he keeps padlocked in an old cigarette machine in the back of his apartment.

Robinson stores the profits from his no-questions-asked retail store inside an antique cigarette machine in his apartment.

Robinson keeps the profits from his no-questions-asked retail store inside an antique cigarette machine in his apartment.

The officer said that all pawn shops in Philadelphia are required by city ordinance to register with LeadsOnline, which, according to its website, is an “investigation system used by law enforcement to recover stolen property, help stop meth makers, reduce metal theft, and solve crimes.” Through this system, businesses such as pawn shops are required to log a description and picture of an item onto the LeadsOnline website before it can be sold. Law enforcement can then search for reported stolen items and alert business owners to put them on hold.

The neighborhood of Kensington is divided up into several police districts, including the 26th and the 24th where the officer says there are only a handful of pawn shops, all of which are in compliance with using LeadsOnline. The real problem is tracking goods that have made it to scrap yards, which, the officer says, are not required to be registered on LeadsOnline.

“They all have signs up saying we don’t buy stolen goods, but how the hell do they really know,” the officer said. “Someone comes in with $200 worth of copper pipes every single day, you have to know something’s not right.”

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Though Robinson mostly up-sells vintage items like shoes and bags that people bring to him from their closets at home, he doesn’t ask questions if an object’s origins are suspicious.

Copper and metal stripped from air conditioners, washing and drying machines, cars, bikes and other household appliances can fetch a lot of money in scrap yards. According to the police officer, the law in Philadelphia only requires that a person show identification if they collect more than $125.

The officer says diligent practices are the best shot people have to recover their property. He suggests writing down the serial numbers on all cell phones, bikes, and computers. The Police Department of Philadelphia offers a bicycle registration program that allows residents to record the serial numbers of their bikes in a city database, making the chances of recovery more likely should it be stolen.

“There’s a lot of issues to combat in successful prosecutions,” the officer said. “You may find your stuff on Craigslist but then what? If you don’t have your serial number, too bad.”

Problems In Needle Park: Part II

Neida Lopez, 25, watches her son Carlos like a hawk when he plays on the jungle gym at McPhereson Square Park in Kensington. Just behind the bench where she sits, a used hypodermic needle is laying hidden in the grass.

Lopez fears that if she lets the 2-year-old out of her sight for a second, he might grab a heroin addict’s discarded syringe and be exposed to a myriad of dangerous diseases.

McPhereson Square Park, known colloquially as “Needle Park,” has been the focus of several cleanup efforts by local police and neighborhood organizations. Though needles still pepper the grass, the park has become significantly safer in the past few years.

Despite a large community effort to clean up Needle Park, children play on its jungle gym until dark when the area is reclaimed by drug addicts.

Despite a large community effort to clean up Needle Park, children play on its jungle gym until dark when the area is reclaimed by drug addicts.

“It’s safer but I do got to be concerned with where he is going,” Lopez said. “We’ve seen so many kids pick [needles] up, it’s crazy.”

Lopez, who grew up in the neighborhood, remembers how she and her brothers used to have to shoo the junkies out of the park themselves. Now the police are around more frequently, she says. Still, some days the park remains unsafe for children.

“People who be coming here ruin it,” Lopez said. “Sometimes we don’t bring kids because of that.”

Lopez and her son left the park just before nightfall, the time when the park is reclaimed by the addicts and dealers. Minutes later, a man walked to a bench near the playground, turned his back to the remaining families hanging around the equipment, and proceeded to inject something into his arm. As soon as he finished, he left the scene, lackadaisically dropping the syringe and wrapper on his way down the sidewalk.

Previously, this blog series has discussed the problems with cleaning up Needle Park when many of the drug users are coming from outside of the neighborhood.

Some locals say that people from the suburbs make up most of the addicts that pollute the park.

In 2011, The Daily Beast reported on a wave of police raids on crack houses in Kensington, following the hype of the rapist nicknamed the Kensington Strangler. The logic was that crack houses were the places with the highest likelihood of sexual assault, so to crack down on rape they needed to crack down on the heroin dens. Even now, a stroll down a side street off Kensington Avenue will reveal numerous vacant houses tightly boarded up and wrapped with barbed wire to deter squatters.

After buying the heroin from dealers in the neighborhood, the addicts have nowhere private to shoot up. As a result they head over to the plethora of benches and unlit corners of Needle Park.

Judy Moore, supervisor for the Free Library of Philadelphia’s McPhereson Square Branch, located in the center of the park, said it is a sad but good reality that many of the children, especially the older ones, know not to pick up the needles they find in the park.

“The thing that makes me mad is that the people doing stuff with needles are usually from suburbs that don’t have to live here,” Moore said. “I’ve been told by police that it’s because we have better drugs [in Kensington]. That’s not to say people in the neighborhood don’t [use] but they aren’t doing it in the park.”

Used hypodermic needles lay discarded near to where children play in McPhereson Square Park.

Used hypodermic needles lay discarded near to where children play in McPhereson Square Park.

Moore, who has been working at the library since 1988, said for years she had been jaded about the condition of the park surrounding it. The wake-up call to clean up the park came a few years back when a temporary guard was hired and became horrified when she saw the conditions of the park.

“She was appalled and it sort of took seeing it through someone else’s eyes to get the ball rolling,” Moore said. “Now it’s a more pleasant place to be. I’m not saying that there’s never any needles, but it’s better.”

As the neighborhood is slowly beginning to change for the better, Moore says, she has noticed more middle-class families moving into the neighborhood.

The library has responded by offering more activities and resources for locals.

“We like to keep the park busy to keep out non-protected activities,” Moore said.

Some of these activities include karaoke, free music concerts, and even a Halloween party this year. More than 200 residents of the neighborhood arrived dressed in costumes for the festivities.

Moore’s hope for the park is that one last safety measure will give it the final push toward being a needle-free place for children.

“We’re about to get lights installed for the park at night really soon,” Moore said. “I’m not saying that there are never any needles but we are doing what we can to make this park better bit by bit.”

Problems in Needle Park Start in Suburbs

Ask Kensington resident Teddy Hackett if Needle Park is still dangerous and he will somberly recall the recent story of the young child who decided to play doctor after he found a hypodermic needle in the grass.

The child, who stabbed himself with the needle, become one of the many cautionary tales that led Hackett to volunteer to pick the used syringes left behind by drug addicts in Kensington’s notorious McPherson Square Park.

This mural lining McPhereson Square Park, known colloquially as Needle Park, does little to deter addicts and dealers from using the area for nefarious activity.

This mural lining McPhereson Square Park, known colloquially as Needle Park, does little to deter addicts and dealers from using the area for nefarious activity.

Known colloquially as “Needle Park” and located on East Indiana Avenue, McPherson Park was once known for its high volume of drug dealers and abusers who used the park for selling or shooting up, often in broad daylight. After a large-scale effort by several Philadelphia Police Districts, SEPTA police, the Parks and Recreation Department, and numerous volunteers from the neighborhood, McPherson Park has vastly improved in safety.

Efforts to clean up the park have been in the works for the past several years but just recently children have begun playing in the park again. Kids clamber all over on the new jungle gym, donated by the Philadelphia Flyers, and run among new trees and plants donated by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society. Police are seen patrolling the area and local organizations host events in the park for families.

Still, the problem remains of policing the park after dark when dealers and addicts reclaim the haven for conducting nefarious activity. Though many in the neighborhood have vouched that the park has greatly improved, used hypodermic needles and empty dime bags once containing heroin still lurk in the grass where children now roam.

Every day Hackett patrols the park, picking up and disposing of the hazardous materials before the schools let out and children arrive. He said he still struggles with warding off the drug users in the park, even in the middle of the day. Hackett himself used to abuse meth and cocaine but has since kicked the habit and spends his time cleaning up the neighborhood instead.

Teddy Hackett, who spent time as a child playing in Needle Park, now volunteers there every day picking up used hypodermic needles before the children arrive.

Teddy Hackett, who spent time as a child playing in Needle Park, now volunteers there every day picking up used hypodermic needles before the children arrive.

“I have a group of kids that like to play Yu-Gi-Oh! Cards on this one bench during the day so I try to make sure that’s clean before school is out,” Hackett said. “I have to be careful because at night that’s a favorite spot for the junkies.”

Hackett estimates that he finds up to two dozen needles and syringe plungers each day. Though efforts to clean up the neighborhood have increased exponentially, some locals say the addicts who come and use the park are actually coming in from the suburbs.

On July 29, 2014, Philly.com published an article titled “Homelessness is on the rise in Kensington.” In it, University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Phillipe Bourgois, an expert on the drug trade, said heroin is typically the drug choice of young whites.

In 2000, Census Records indicate that 25- to 34-year-olds were the largest age group at 15.2 percent of the population. In 2010, the same age group had spiked to 22.7 percent of the population. Bourgois said this may be the reason Kensington is seeing an increase in them.

In fact, this trend is being observed in many cities across the United States heroin is currently undergoing a comeback.

Heroin is making a comeback in the United States in part because access to addictive prescription drugs has been tightened over the past decade.

Heroin is making a comeback in the United States in part because access to addictive prescription drugs has been tightened over the past decade.

An article published in The Economist Nov. 23 outlined some of the reasons why heroin is coming back in fashion. Heroin was at its height of popularity in America in the ‘60s and ‘70s but has resurged with nearly 700,000 Americans taking the drug last year. That’s twice as many as a decade ago, according to the article.

One cause is the growing popularity of another drug: the prescription painkiller. Opioid painkillers such as OxyContin became more widely prescribed in the 1990s and 2000s. They are effective painkillers, but they are commonly abused: about 11 million Americans use them illegally every year. That has led to a crackdown on prescriptions: doctors can now check databases to make sure patients have not already been prescribed the drugs somewhere else, for instance. So they are harder to obtain. But that means that some prescription-pill addicts have turned to heroin, which sates the same craving for a lower cost. More than two-thirds of heroin addicts have previously abused prescription painkillers.”

Those trying to clean up Needle Park are working to suppress a drug problem that exists outside of the neighborhood. The transition from heroin haven to a place where children can play is not without its overlaps. So until the needles are completely out of the park, Hackett says, he will be there every day rummaging through the grass and litter, looking for any errant syringes before the children arrive.

This is part one in a series focused on the efforts to clean up
Kensington’s Needle Park.

Food Assistance Offered by Community Programs

Every week day from 2 to 5 p.m., Maria Rivas, 56, descends into the basement of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s McPherson Square Branch in Kensington and becomes “Maria the Lunch Lady” to more than 40 hungry students.

Some kids grab the pre-packaged meals from her hands more eagerly than others, ripping open the cellophane covering before even sitting down at the one lonely table in the room. Those who are not quick enough to grab a chair find a spot on the floor, their small mouths tearing into the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that was carefully prepared for them.

The food is delivered to the library as part of an after-school program sponsored by the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department, Rivas said.

Rivas is one of a number of volunteers who help hand out after school snacks – though she says they are closer to dinners – to children who attend the Literacy Enrichment After-school Program, or LEAP, at the McPherson Square Branch, located on East Indiana Avenue in Kensington.

LEAP provides homework assistance, computer literacy, and library skills for students in grades K-12, and daily literacy enrichment activities for elementary school students, according to the Free Library of Philadelphia website.

The McPherson Square Branch, which just added the meal program in September of 2013, also offers meals in the summer to kids around the neighborhood. Rivas said there is a huge need for food assistance in Kensington.

“It’s important that we are feeding them because they’re happy to come here and do homework with stomachs full,” Rivas said. “And some are really hungry when they come.”

According to School District of Philadelphia website, families are no longer required to fill out paperwork to qualify for breakfast and lunch meals at no cost to the student. Still, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the poverty rate for Kensington is an astonishing 46.9 percent. With so many living below the poverty line, the need for food extends beyond school hours.

“There is a poverty side to it but sometimes it’s that the parents just don’t care,” Rivas said. “I spoke with some of them and their parents have no food at home because they are too deep in drugs.”

McPherson Square Branch library supervisor Judy Moore said that though the LEAP program has been in effect for 25 years, the meal program is still very new. Without the food, the children have trouble concentrating and behaving.

The School District of Philadelphia’s Food Services Division does offer After School Program Twilight Meals that schools can apply for on a yearly basis. However, the school district’s rocky budgeting and large deficit has led many programs and services that were once considered essential, such as transportation, to be drastically cut.

According to the School District of Philadelphia’s 2014-2015 budget, individual pupils living in the poverty range were only allocated from $135 to $667 in additional assistance per year. On Nov. 11, 2014, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports a lawsuit was filed against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, alleging that Pennsylvania’s education funding system was “irrational and inequitable.” Two Philadelphia School District parents were listed as plaintiffs, though the Philadelphia School District did participate in filing the suit.

The article states plaintiffs alleged that state officials have “adopted an irrational school funding system that does not deliver the essential resources students need, and discriminates against children based on where they live and the wealth of their communities.”

Now, many children and families are turning to private services for food assistance. Some of them include the Philadelphia Hunger Coalition, SHARE Food Program, The Kensington Neighborhood House, and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Nutritional Development Services.

For now, Rivas is doing what she can for the students by volunteering her time to them. Though she has fed up to 55 kids a day, she says, she is pushing to make even more meals available daily.

“The kids are happy to come here and feel safe,” Rivas said, smiling as tears welled in her eyes. “I feel complete because of it.”

Kensington A Charity Haven For Needy

Barbara Haggert, 53, counts herself as one of the few people who has moved to Kensington for its perks.

She didn’t bat an eye when she told of her relocation away from her daughter, friends, family, and old job in South Philadelphia to live out a better life in the notoriously troubled neighborhood.

The high volume of charitable organizations in Kensington was ideal for staving off Haggert’s alcoholic tendencies and economic woes, which were more difficult to manage in south Philadelphia.

“I’m not alone up here,” Haggert said. “Before, the only [people] I could go to was my family.”

Haggert is one of the many who benefit from the numerous churches and charity programs that have managed to blossom in the shade of the El. For every problem in Kensington – drugs, alcohol, prostitution, abuse, or hunger – there is a grassroots effort to counter it.

Over the years, opponents of increasing state and federal aid for those living below the poverty line have argued that people abuse the system. On paper, Haggert may appear to be one of those people. However in person, her burnt-out appearance and frail demeanor tell a different story. Though sober for six years, she has struggled with mental illness that prevents her from keeping a steady job.

Every day of the week Haggert says there is a different shelter or charity offering a free meal or place to spend time out of the cold.

On Sundays, Haggert begins her mornings at the Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center, located at 2646 Kensington Ave. Her wiry salt-and-pepper hair and stained, blue jacket makes her stand out from the packs of Hispanic children running around. The center offers after-school programs, GED and English classes, intramural sports, and drop-in hours for women. Free spaces in the center are often rented out to Dominican and Honduran councils.

The Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger estimates that there are more than 700 food pantries and soup kitchens citywide. Currently, the poverty rate in Kensington is at an astounding 46.9 percent, more than double the city rate. Many in Kensington, like Haggert, benefit from non-profits and public programs such as food stamp assistance to help them get by.

According to the Coalition’s website, “Food pantries are experiencing more demand but are less equipped to help. For example, in 2013, there was a 7 percent increase in requests for emergency food assistance in Philadelphia, but the city’s emergency food assistance budget decreased 32 percent.”

Since then, the Coalition announced Jan. 5, 2015, that it had partnered with 57 organizations on a briefing paper for Governor Tom Wolf entitled “Meeting Pennsylvania’s Hunger Challenge,” which highlights the impact of hunger on children and older residents and urges increased action as he begins his term as governor.

The charities in Kensington, however, offer more than just supplemental access to food. When Haggert’s apartment was broken into, her landlord said he would not replace the lock on her door. The volunteers at the Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center composed a letter for Haggert compelling the landlord to provide a lock and threatening legal action if he failed to do so within a week.

Every block or so in Kensington, a line of people can be found winding the corner, waiting patiently to be let inside. Sometimes they are waiting for a clean bed, or just a warm meal. And for now, Haggert counts herself lucky to be waiting with them.

Sexual Assault Difficult to Prosecute in Kensington

Women trickle into the small gymnasium of Rock Ministries in Kensington each Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. to find a few tables topped with several worn copies of the Bible and a modest breakfast spread waiting for them.

Seven of the women, who arrived together, headed straight for the table closest to the speaker’s podium with a swiftness reserved only for those who had clearly been to the meetings before. They flipped silently through their Bibles’ tattered pages to the book of Esther, shushing the rest of the room as the women-only support group meeting began.

In the month of November, this same number of women was raped in Kensington, enough to fill a table at the Rock Ministries support group meeting.

Though the women-only support group breakfast is open to any female working through problems with drug abuse, unhealthy relationships, and alcoholism, Marlo Panvini’s group of seven came together from her home and makeshift halfway house on East Glenwood Avenue.

Panvini, 32, decided to end her life of drugs and open her house to others after she was raped because the experience, a common one for the female addicts of Kensington, “should not have been normal.”

“I had gotten raped, beat, and strangled,” Panvini said. “It got me sober and made my life turn to the better.“

Panvini opened her own version of a halfway house for women that she named Bellevita, Italian for ‘beautiful life,’ last year and is working to help women get off the streets and back into a stable life. Her own assault, which led her to quit using drugs, was never prosecuted.

Sexual violence toward women and the methods of policing it have long been a source of difficulty for the notorious Kensington, a neighborhood located in the northeast section of Philadelphia.

Kensington has one of the highest rates of violence in the city, with more than 40 rapes reported in the neighborhood in 2015 alone according to the Philadelphia Inquirer Crime Records breakdown, which uses information reported by the Philadelphia Police Department and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Still, for the women of Kensington, prosecution can be tricky when the victims of the rape are known prostitutes in the area. Though prostitution is often thought of as a victim-less crime, a number of the women who turn tricks in Kensington are far from willing participants. Many are driven into having sex with strangers in exchange for heroin or cash that can later be spent to acquire drugs.

Some of the faces of the women who arrived at Rock Ministries were more weathered than others, with the youngest of the group only 19 years old. Still, all had experiences to share about drugs, the things they’d done to get high, and the nameless men who had taken advantage of them.

Despite her escape from the life of drugs, Panvini is not optimistic that Kensington will ever change.

“I don’t think it will ever stop,” Panvini said. “There are cops on every corner but people just gave up. Everyone finds out fast where the dealer is.”

Because prostitution is illegal, it’s often difficult to establish exact figures for the number of women assaulted while working as prostitutes. However, information published on Rapeis.org cited several studies that reported 68 percent to 70 percent of women in prostitution have been raped.

In 2010, a serial killer dubbed the “Kensington Strangler” murdered several female addicts who had been working as prostitutes along Kensington Avenue. The case was considered high profile and numerous media outlets, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, reported that the neighborhood had undergone a crackdown by local law enforcement in the search for the killer.

However an article published by The Daily Beast in August 2011 reported that after 22-year-old Antonio Rodriguez was arrested and charged with the murders, the presence of police in the neighborhood all but died down, leaving the area dubbed an unofficial drug-bust-free zone.

The Daily Beast quoted Philadelphia Police Department public-affairs officer Lt. Ray Evers as saying “there is no ‘hands-free zone’ in the city of Philadelphia, and there never will be. The article also said Evers “confirms that there were coordinated efforts to empty Kensington’s shooting galleries during the strangler’s killing spree, and he says this brought crime rates in the neighborhood way down.

He adds that the department does the best it can to guarantee public safety and stop drug use with the resources it has, but that it can’t lock up people without good reason.”

Now, Kensington is undergoing another police crackdown. Areas like McPhereson Square Park, better known to locals as “Needle Park,” have been cleaned up. SEPTA stations like the one at Kensington and Somerset streets are now actually being used by commuters for travel instead of operating as an open-air drug market. With the crackdown on drugs, comes a push to flush out the prostitution market.

Though there are several sections of Philadelphia well known for their problems with prostitution, Kensington is one of the more well-known parts. In June of 2013, the Philadelphia Police Department conducted a targeted sting operation against prostitution in Kensington.

In an interesting move by the police, local media was invited to broadcast the arrests of the johns and the impounding of the customers’ cars. Newsworks, one of the news outlets that tagged along on the sting operation, reported that the “effort was intended to dispel the notion that prostitution is a victimless crime, and bolster efforts aimed at improving the quality of life along the Kensington Avenue corridor.”

Still, in wake of inconsistent policing on the part of local law enforcement, the women of Kensington turn to other sources for help. There are more than a dozen locations like Rock Ministries with women-only drop in hours, aimed at targeting those in real need.

For now, Panvini and the rest of the women from her Bellevita halfway house will continue coming to the Wednesday morning meetings at the Rock Ministries. Faces new and old will filter in and out as always, but they know there will still be a spot and worn but soft, leather Bible waiting for them around the table.

Hispanic and Youth Populations on the Rise in Kensington

In drug and crime-ridden Kensington, a small but vibrant Hispanic community is working to carve a number of Spanish-language resources into the neighborhood.

In the past several years, many Hispanic immigrants have begun peppering porches with large Puerto Rican flags and setting up numerous bilingual community centers and resources for themselves around Kensington.

Kensington has seen a significant rise in its Hispanic population over the past 10 years, according to U.S. Census Records.

Kensington has seen a significant rise in its Hispanic population over the past 10 years, according to U.S. Census Records.

The 2000 and 2010 U.S. Census Records indicate that the percentage of Hispanics moving into Kensington increased from 10.8 percent to 14.2 percent of the population, with Puerto Ricans making up the majority of this group.

Kensington is widely known for its problems with drugs, prostitution, and crime. The streets and parks are littered with broken syringes and brightly colored heroin wrappers. Violent crimes are common, and many people know it’s not safe to be outside after dark.

Still, members of the community are making an effort to create havens for Spanish speakers looking to get out of the seedier sides of Kensington and back on their feet.

Edwin Rondrigues, 29, volunteers for the Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center, located at 2646 Kensington Ave. The center offers after-school programs, GED and English classes, intramural sports, and drop-in hours for women who work as prostitutes on the street. Free spaces in the center are often rented out to Dominican and Honduran councils.

“The problem is not the community,” Rondrigues said. “The city doesn’t do much for the community. They see a woman on the street and instead of trying to give her help, they arrest her.”

Rondrigues said he sees this scene every day but still isn’t discouraged.

“You make where you live,” Rondrigues said. “I don’t defend people hustling on corners but they mostly do it for their kids. If we don’t work together it’s going to get worse.”

In addition to the Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center, Kensington is also home to Clinica Bienestar, or Well Being Services, Philadelphia’s first HIV clinic specifically for the Spanish-speaking community.

The clinic, which also offers a clean needle exchange program, is located at Prevention Point Philadelphia on West Lehigh Avenue.

The city's first HIV clinic specifically for the Spanish-speaking community is located at Prevention Point Philadelphia on West Lehigh Avenue.

The city’s first HIV clinic specifically for the Spanish-speaking community is located at Prevention Point Philadelphia on West Lehigh Avenue.

Though the perimeter of Prevention Point usually has addicts propping themselves against its graffitied façade, its presence is welcomed by locals as a small step toward a better neighborhood.

Pedro Lopez, 65, has lived around the corner from Prevention Point Philadelphia on North Hancock Street for the past 24 years and said he has never had any problems with crime or drugs in the neighborhood. Originally from Puerto Rico, he doesn’t know much English and often asks his granddaughter, Catalina Vazquez, 17, to translate for him.

“Some of us [in the neighborhood] speak English and some Spanish, but we mostly all speak Spanish most of the time,” Vazquez said. “A lot of us all know the neighbors.”

Vazquez herself attends the bilingual charter school in North Philadelphia. She translated for her grandfather saying the neighborhood is all Puerto Ricans now but in the future he expects more white people will move into the area as the neighborhood progresses.

U.S. Census records also indicate an increase in the number of young people moving into Kensington as well. In 2000, Census Records indicate that 25 to 34 year olds were the largest age group at 15.2 percent of the population. In 2010, the same age group had spiked to 22.7 percent of the population.

This may be in part because of the rising cost of rent and gentrification of the neighboring area of Fishtown. As Fishtown continues to improve, Kensington receives its outcasts, with whites in their 20s becoming the primary new residents.

Puerto Rican flags decorate the streets of Kensington where many immigrant families have made their new homes.

Puerto Rican flags decorate the streets of Kensington where many immigrant families have made their new homes.

On July 29, 2014, Philly.com published an article titled “Homelessness is on the rise in Kensington.” In it, University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Phillipe Bourgois, an expert on the drug trade, said heroin is typically the drug choice of young whites. Bourgois said this may be the reason Kensington is seeing an increase in them.

Teddy Hackett, a lifelong resident of Kensington, volunteers daily at the McPhereson Square Park, known colloquially as “Needle Park” and located on East Indiana Avenue, picking up and disposing of used syringes left in the grass.

These days, Hackett, who is white, says most of the junkies he sees in the park are white and Hackett struggles to ward them off, even in the middle of the day. He himself used to abuse meth and cocaine but has sinced kicked the habit and cleans up the neighborhood instead.

“I’ve become racist toward my own people,” Hackett said. “This was my park when I was 7. I ain’t better than them, but when I shot up with needles at least I did it at home.”