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.
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.
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.