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Saturday, January 1, 2011

O Holy Kensington (From The Star)

A couple of years ago, while helping a friend to organize a moving expedition, I wound up near East Somerset Street in Kensington. It was a bright summer afternoon, so I didn’t think twice about lingering on the sidewalk for a cool twenty minutes. During that time I was approached by no less than five people offering to sell me heroin, crack cocaine, and an assortment of prescription drugs. The blatant, in-your-face salesmanship of the dealers went beyond being ballsy. It had an end-times sci-fi feel, like I had walked into a Philly redux version of Mad Max.

It was sad to see so many people on drugs, and to realize that little can be done to correct the situation outside of giving all the “problem people” one way tickets to a far-off island, then leveling the area and starting over.

How do you encourage people to change their lives when they have no interest in doing so?
Government-funded help for drug addicts is not coming anytime soon. The nation’s economy is well beyond any sort of new Marshall Plan or federal subsidy, and with the election of so many Tea Baggers and Republicans to Congress, they’ll be no new FDR-style programs to lend a helping hand. Private organizations and churches can help, but often this sort of assistance is nothing more than food, overnight shelter, or a short term recess from addiction.

This brings me to the recent media focus on Kensington because of the ‘Kensington Strangler.’ The hunt for this killer has created a lot of commentary about what’s wrong with the area. On one hand, you have busloads of Penn academics traveling through Kensington streets on sightseeing tours. As reported recently by The Philadelphia Inquirer, a group of professors and anthropologists took a ride through “rough and tumble” Kensington to get a first hand look at prostitution and open air drug transactions.

Images of an Ivory Tower bus filled with Margaret Mead and Jane Goodall types staring at the natives through binoculars would be amusing if it weren’t such an exercise in futility.

“It’s not hidden from view. You can see it along many streets. People scattered as the bus passed,” The Inquirer quotes one “in the bus” professor as saying.

Of course the natives are going to run. Nobody likes to be on the statistical end of an anthropological study. “Oh, look at that one will you!”

“Get a load of her—no teeth!”

\ While I realize it’s the business of universities to do studies-- often these tomes wind up in glossy binders or as graphs in textbooks where the print is too small—they rarely if ever produce any kind of change.

So what kind of change would ‘the experts’ want for Kensington?

Some say that Northern Liberties should be Kensington’s role model. Kensington advocates, in fact, like to talk about “tipping points,” and a “positive transformation of the area led by artists and entrepreneurs.”

It amazes me how people are so quick to call for a massive immigration of artists, as if this group constituted a financially stable demographic. Generally, the opposite is true.

Artists, as a rule, don’t have much money, so if a thousand artists move into an area you’re going to have people looking for a cheap lifestyle. Artists may be peaceful and creative, but they are not likely to help the locals find jobs. A neighborhood filled with only artists would quickly fall apart. Kensington needs a vibrant business influx.
Even a Wall mart would help.

Northern Liberties, or Philly’s “New Hope-style” neighborhood, has become an upscale enclave filled with stock brokers, lawyers, physicians and other “young” professionals. It’s an area where even the corner restaurant is pricey—gone is the classic and cheap “mom and Pop” diner. Pop into a Northern Liberties or Girard Avenue Fishtown bar and chances are you’ll pay $9 to $10 for a glass of wine. I don’t know about you, but I call these, “stockbroker” prices.

A Northern Liberties woman friend of mine often complains about the cost of getting her hair done in the neighborhood. “The second a hairdresser moves here they up their prices 30% because they acquire a Northern Liberties address,” she says.

I’d like to see Kensington change in the manner of Port Richmond. In Richmond, you have clean and stable neighborhood businesses without the overpriced “chi chi” Liberties elements.
You also have a good cross section of people, a seemingly harmonious blend of new residents and old.

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