Boundaries of Kensington

“Excuse me, but is this area Kensington or Fishtown?”

The convenience store cashier’s eyes widened just enough for me to realize it was a mistake, possibly even an insult, to ask her that. She pointed north.

“It’s like way more ghetto, you know,” she said. “Yeah, if you say that to someone around here they’ll get mad.”

The boundaries of Kensington are fuzzy at best, with definitions differing depending on whom you ask. Even Google Maps and Wikipedia seem to disagree if you try searching online for hard boundaries.

View of Kensington, Philadelphia from Google Earth.

View of Kensington, Philadelphia from Google Earth.

The U.S. Postal Service has designated the 19125 zip code to Kensington. However, that zip includes the neighboring Fishtown area where I made my directional blunder with the cashier.

While it’s never been truly clear where the northern border of Kensington exists, Frankford Avenue is a definite southern border.

In general, the easiest way to find Kensington is to follow the Elevated portion of the Market-Frankford Line. Getting off at Girard Station will land you right on the borders between Fishtown and Northern Liberties. But just a few stops north, around Huntingdon station, the neighborhood breaks down. It’s here that Kensington Avenue begins to run directly below the El.

The center of Kensington really revolves around the El, fanning outward, and running as far north as the Tioga stop. Cutting perpendicularly through the center of it all is Somerset Street. In May 2007, the corner where Somerset and Kensington Ave. intersect was named the number one corner for recreational drugs in Philadelphia.

Still, the parade of dealers and customers moves continuously up and down Kensington Avenue. When four police officers post themselves outside the stairs to the El, the rest move a few blocks over.

And so each day the rotation continues.

First Observations and Personal Experiences

Though this project seeks to illustrate the changing atmosphere of Kensington from a journalistic perspective, I feel that it is important to share my personal observations of the time I spent there.

The first time I ventured up to Kensington, I was afraid to get out of my car. I wished I wasn’t female, that my eyes weren’t blue, and that I had chosen a different topic for my senior project.

It’s difficult to research stories of the terrible things that have happened in Kensington and not have your nerve reduced to that of a young, female, cub reporter alone in a shady neighborhood.

IMG_2827When I did finally wander along the littered sidewalk, a passerby immediately scolded me that if I didn’t get off of the corner right now, I might be gang-raped. I had only been walking for 30 seconds.

Upon first glance, the only joy I could see in Kensington was that I had the ability to leave it. Still, this neighborhood where I felt so uncomfortable is home to more than 50,000 Philadelphians, according to demographics published on the Philadelphia Inquirer website.

As my visits to Kensington became more frequent, I learned the rules of the locals. Never stay standing in the same spot for long, for fear of being harassed or worse. Don’t be caught outside after 4 p.m., for that’s when the more unsavory characters tend to begin their days. But the most important lesson I learned was this: befriend the local neighborhood figures.

From these people, I found the good in Kensington. Usually when I finally gathered the pluck to approach someone and introduce myself, I was pleasantly surprised by the way they took me under their wing. They not-so-gently said that I looked out of place and quickly noted the places I should go, people I should talk to, and types of characters I was to avoid.

“If someone calls at you from their front door, even a woman, and asks you to come inside their house, don’t!” one gentleman said to me when he discovered I wasn’t from Kensington. Though I thought that advice seemed obvious, I appreciated his knee-jerk reaction to look out for me.

Kensington has real dangers and a dark past, but my take-away hasn’t been the drug-filled “Zombieland” that others have painted it to be.

There are neighbors looking out for each other. There is improvement from the way it used to be. There is color, life, and community. And most importantly, there is good in the people who live there if you just take the time to say hello.

Kensington, An Introduction

When other Philadelphia streets disappear beneath autumn leaves, Kensington Avenue – which runs beneath the elevated portion of the Market-Frankford Line – rustles only with the sound of trash. The streets bustle with shady activity and packs of police officers loom sporadically, turning their heads when small parcels of drugs pass hands on the corner.

But the story of Kensington is not unique. Other neighborhoods, such as nearby Fishtown and Northern Liberties, were once home to similar problems. In recent years, younger generations and artistic types have moved in, bringing with them trendy nightlife and small businesses. This begs the question whether Kensington will ever gentrify, and what that might mean for those who live there.

Below the El, Kensington Avenue is lined with numerous businesses and apartments.

Below the El, Kensington Avenue is lined with numerous businesses and apartments.

Kensington is home to more than 50,000 Philadelphians, according to demographics published on the Philadelphia Inquirer website.

The neighborhood’s booming textile industry, once housed in historic buildings, such as the Beatty’s Mills Factory, has since faded into a distant memory. These days, at least 20 percent of people in Kensington are unemployed and more than 46 percent are living below the poverty line, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Though Kensington’s heavy presence of drugs, violence, and prostitution make it seem unlikely to undergo gentrification, low-income housing for artists have begun to open.

Barbed wire lines the fence of a Kensington church. Here, a community tries to reconcile the needs of a neighborhood with the dangers that come with it.

Barbed wire lines the fence of a church. The people of Kensington are working to reconcile the crime of their neighborhood with the poverty that drives it.

Buildings like the Coral Street Arts House are catering to those who work in fine arts, dance, theater, photography, writing, music, spoken word, and graphic arts.

A number of locals report their landlords have begun buying up properties in anticipation of a real estate boom. Others still, are quick to say that Kensington is too far gone with crime and violence to ever be a safe place to live.

With this blog, I hope to illustrate Kensington by sharing the stories of those who live there and what they believe the future holds for their neighborhood.