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.
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.
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.
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.”