How Kensington became an island

Welcoming to many and then cut off from transportation, support, and opportunity, Kensington has long been on its own.

People crossing the street under the El in Kensington.

People cross Kensington Avenue to reach the Somerset Station. (New Kensington Community Development Corporation)

SEPTA’s temporary closure of the Market-Frankford Line’s Somerset Station is not a solution to the poverty and substance use problem that is impacting the station — and our city. The closure is instead another step toward a displacement of some of our most vulnerable citizens — another divestment in a community already depleted by capital flight.

While being opposed to the closure of the train station, New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) is supportive of SEPTA’s employees, since they are victims too. A train stop should not have to be a choice between SEPTA employees and residents — or between health, safety, and employment — and we have no interest in pitting one against the other.

There is no question that the Somerset Station is a dangerous place, but let us not pretend that it randomly became that way. Let us not pretend that the residents who will be most impacted by its closure are those who have torn it apart. It isn’t random that this stop became a safety hazard. It came through years of divestment and the intentional relocation of Philadelphia’s challenges here.

I live and work in Kensington

As it is for thousands of residents, the Somerset Station has served as my primary train station for the last 20 years. My home stands three blocks away at McPherson Square. As the new executive director of NKCDC, it also now stands 150 feet from the steps of my place of employment.

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I am one of the thousands of residents who rely on the train as a primary form of transportation to get to work, medical care, and school. Before judging or dismissing the significance of this station closure, I invite you to come and work that SEPTA booth or walk those extra blocks up Kensington Avenue with your children.

Countless residents could share stories of both the challenges of using a train stop with so many obstacles and the hardships they face by having to walk to either the Allegheny or Huntingdon stations.

Yet for an undetermined amount of time, these residents will have to either find their way across the Conrail train tracks or through the dark tunnels along Lehigh Avenue to get to the Huntington Station or will have to walk blocks up Kensington Avenue, littered with empty buildings that developers are hoping will eventually make them rich. They will pass through the greatest concentration of unsheltered people in the city, through the epicenter of the city’s opioid epidemic, to get to the Allegheny Station. Once they get there, they will face many of the same problems they faced at Somerset. Is that a solution?

A neighborhood mined for profit

The very real problems at Kensington and Somerset aren’t random and they didn’t manifest overnight.

The challenges residents face in this area are driven by decades of disinvestment, inequities, and racism after years of serving as an entry point into this country and region for European immigration, African American and Puerto Rican migration, and more.

This has always been a valuable community, as people from all over the world came to Kensington and, for generations, wealth was extracted through their labor on factory floors.

Value from this part of the city was even high during wartime: This was the neighborhood with the high school that had the highest casualty rate in the Vietnam War of any high school in the United States.

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When there was no more wealth to be taken by war or industry, people divested until they found the next great value, also built off bodies: the drug trade.

Now we are in the latest stage of incredible value extraction from a supposedly worthless part of the city and out of people that have already given so much: real estate development. Now, a $40,000 house owned by a person of color can become a $400,000 house owned by a developer. I guarantee you when this stage is complete, the trains will run.

Don’t tell me Kensington has no value. If it had no value, there wouldn’t be a line of real estate companies waiting to build around this train stop. There is value — just not for the current residents. Like the factory owners who extracted value out of bodies on shop floors 100 years ago, the value is now in the bodies with needles and in the property of the working poor.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

These words, written by Emma Lazarus and inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, have inspired generations of immigrants.

Now imagine that after everyone arrived at Ellis Island, the government stopped boats from coming and going and stranded everyone there. Kensington has become that island — welcoming to so many and then cut off from transportation, support, and opportunity.

No more divestment

The last 25 years of Kensington revitalization strategies have failed, and unless we make big moves our current approaches will fail as well.

The most recent strategy for Philadelphia to address poverty, the opioid epidemic, the unsheltered, has been for Kensington and its residents to very intentionally take on the tired, poor, the homeless of not only the city but of the region. These are your loved ones from the Northeast, from New Jersey, from the Main Line, from all over the city and region. Kensington took them in and gave them what little it had. But now here we are, and there are no actual solutions. It was a shell game, placing the heaviest burdens on those with the least power to push back. All that is left is to further isolate and extract from those that have already given everything, before eventually dispersing them through gentrification and displacement. “Problem solved.”

The history of isolation and divestment is important because it shows that Kensington’s story isn’t only about drugs and poverty: It’s about a neighborhood controlled by out-of-town investors and developers who are counting on the final step of divestment to maximize their profit. Let me clear up any illusion: Nonprofit community development corporations don’t own and control this space — NKCDC doesn’t own a single property or empty lot on Kensington Avenue. Politicians don’t have access to the resources of the private developers and speculators who own hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property in Kensington. Who do you think owns the countless abandoned buildings on Kensington Ave? Do you think they are owned by the residents who now don’t have transportation? This is a story of developers who own everything out here and are waiting to extract the incredible value of property sitting along a train line. This is a story of investors who continue to choose profit over people, as they have for over a hundred years in Kensington. Divestment turns into profit for a few.

This final stage of wealth extraction is occurring on our watch. We cannot allow it to happen, or to allow this station closure to be a part of it.

What we need

Anywhere else in the city, neighbors would have received more than a one-week notice that a primary form of public transportation was going away. Anywhere else, neighbors would be involved in planning the closure and planning a reopening with improved services. In fact, in no other part of today’s Philadelphia would a station be allowed to deteriorate to the point of closure.

We are calling for the following:

  1. A date for reopening the station
  2. Safe conditions for the SEPTA workers there
  3. Increased bus and shuttle service along Kensington Avenue
  4. An advisory board, inclusive of representatives from Kensington, residents, civic associations, nonprofits, and businesses, at the table, making decisions about long term solutions
  5. Guarantee of increased services available for the unsheltered and those suffering from addiction
  6. Support for businesses impacted by the closure

We have no interest in pushing problems elsewhere. We want to support those in need, whether they are in the street or in a house. We don’t want to make the Somerset stop better so that the Allegheny or Huntington stops get worse. We are here for solutions.

Kensington has always had incredible value, primarily in its people who have seen little return for the value they have created for others. We will not allow this to be the final divestment.

Past mistakes can’t be erased and we can’t be erased either. This community is rich in history and in future potential. Those who have held it together for so long should be those that benefit. We will work with anyone who wants to be a part of a solution.

Dr. Bill McKinney is the executive director of New Kensington Community Development Corporation.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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