Kyle Shenandoah worked hard to make his Grays Ferry neighborhood — infamously known as Forgotten Bottom — seen.
One of his many efforts focused on improving public transportation and walkability in an area secluded and divided by the Schuylkill Expressway, rumbling six-lane roads, and train tracks.
He did plenty in recent years. But he arguably could have done much more had some of the improvements he was working for come faster.
Shenandoah died Wednesday when a car hit him as he walked near the intersection of South 34th Street and Grays Ferry Avenue. The accident occurred about 3:30 in the morning, according to the Philadelphia Police Department. The corridor where Shenandoah was fatally struck ranks as one of the city’s most dangerous roadways, with an exceptionally high rate of injuries per mile, according to city data.
“It’s a bad intersection,” said Michael C. Bradley, president of the Grays Ferry Civic Association, where Shenandoah was vice president for three years. “The crosswalks could be a little bit wider and visible. Everybody is trying to get on and off the Expressway. So it gets a little hairy during peak traffic hours.”
Police are still investigating the crash. The car involved and at least one witness remained on the scene after Shenandoah was struck. At this point, “the incident does not appear to be criminal in nature,” police department spokeswoman Tanya Little said.
An inspiration who gave back
Shenandoah, 34, a senior tax specialist for H&R Block, had advocated for a crosswalk just a few blocks from where he was hit. He walked or biked everywhere, Bradley said.
But Shenandoah’s signature work in the neighborhood, Bradley said, was a job fair he had led since 2017 to help lower the unemployment rate there. Shenandoah constantly posted jobs, grants and other opportunities on his Twitter account and on Instagram, where he called himself “resources_guru” and had more than 5,600 followers.
“He brought everything into the association. He was everything we were doing.
He took the association everywhere he went,” Bradley said. “He’s an example of what it means being solely community-minded, and purely, in his heart, doing things for the betterment of this community. He had no ulterior motives, he did not have a hidden agenda — he just wanted to make his community and the city a better place.”
Gentrification and neighborhood revitalization were among the many issues on Shenandoah’s mind — he was working on a documentary and had just finished filming, said Bradley, who is making a commitment to finish it.
“The ‘G-word’ is one that’s a scary word down here,” Shenandoah told WHYY last summer.
In 2017, he co-founded the Tasker-Morris Neighbors Association in Grays Ferry to “address residents’ concerns and establish a communication with developers,” according to his resume.
In March 2018, Shenandoah started a campaign for a new bus route that would connect his neighborhood, which has high rates of poverty and unemployment, to University City, where job opportunities and health services abound. He often noted that even though his neighbors were less than a mile from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, they would have to take a bus to Center City to get there. In February of this year, SEPTA implemented Route 49.
In May, Shenandoah gave a TED Talk about gentrification in Forgotten Bottom titled, “Embracing Optimism in an Age of Gentrification.”
Shenandoah was also the vice chair of Spectrum Health Services, a nonprofit community health center in Philadelphia; an appointed board member of the SEPTA citizen advisory committee and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission task force; a co-chair of advocacy and policy at the Urban League of Philadelphia; a board member for the civic organization Young Involved Philadelphia; and the block captain for his block on Grove Street in Grays Ferry.
During his short but accomplished career as a community advocate, he received multiple citations, including those from Mayor Jim Kenney and City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson.
Shenandoah was “a rising star, a young man with a passion for advocacy,” said Johnson, who saw his work during the last two years. “Overall, this is a really big loss to the South Philly community because he had so much promise.”
Shafiyq Ali-Reid is one of many friends who posted on a memorial Facebook page set up by Shenandoah’s family. Ali-Reid said that he met Shenandoah at the United American Indians of the Delaware Valley family center in Philadelphia, and that they worked together on issues regarding indigenous populations.
“Kyle gave everyone inspiration,” Ali-Reid said. “His love for humanity. He loved to see people rise up from their conditions, and that was something that he felt that he could do.”
Ali-Reid said even though they had known each other for only about a year, Shenandoah had texted him early in the morning of his birthday, less than 10 days ago, to wish him a nice day.
“He texted earlier than my family did, that’s the kind of person he was,” said Ali-Reid. “It was more than just some kind gesture, it was a sign of just the love that he has for people.”
This year, Shenandoah was a winner at the Philadelphia Innovations Awards for public policy and systems change, and he received a community leader award from the Philadelphia Association of CDCs. This month, Shenandoah was chosen by peers, local sustainability leaders, and the community as Neighborhood Champion at the SustainPHL awards.
“Kyle Shenandoah exemplified a neighborhood champion, passionate for his community and working towards a more sustainable, accessible and equitable city. As a true leader, he began his speech by recognizing the other nominees, asking them to stand [for] a round of applause from the audience,” said Julie M. Hancher, co-founder and chief editor of Green Philly, the publication that organizes the awards.
In his speech, Shenandoah spoke about the fire at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery and its impact on Grays Ferry.
Donna J. Carney, director of the Citizens Planning Institute, said she saw Shenandoah last Tuesday at the PES refinery community meeting. In 2017, Shenandoah attended the Citizens Planning Institute’s seven-week course to empower community leaders and became a strong supporter of the organization. He had applied to fill an open position for program manager at the institute, and the day after the refinery meeting, Carney said, she had emailed him telling him to come to CPI for an interview.
“And never heard back, which was unlike him,” she said in an email. “I’ve gotten over 150 applications for the position, but Kyle was in the top of the pack.”
A Shenandoah testimonial is now at CPI’s website. Carney said some graduates are talking about setting up a scholarship fund in his name.
“One of the reasons why I want to work for Citizens Planning Institute is because the organization focuses on empowering communities through advocacy efforts and grassroots organizing,” Shenandoah wrote in his cover letter for the job.
In that position, he would have inspired change from within.
Shenandoah’s family is organizing a fundraiser to fund his funeral arrangements.