‘I want to be able to heal’: Kensington residents begin yet another recovery

After days of violence, Kensington neighbors struggle to come to terms with yet another crisis. Community leaders fear it could take years to rebuild.

Volunteers with New Kensington CDC clean up in Kensington on June 1, 2020. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Volunteers with New Kensington CDC clean up in Kensington on June 1, 2020. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Adan Mairena has heard explosions every night, all night, since Saturday. He’s the pastor at West Kensington Ministry in North Philadelphia and lives next to the church.

“It’s the playlist, every night: sirens, explosions, gunshots,” he said.

Just in the last few days, he’s seen a row of stores and apartments collapse in flames on Kensington Avenue and many businesses vandalized and looted. A quadruple shooting wounded a 12-year-old boy on East Clearfield Street.

On Tuesday morning, death came closer to Mairena. A 24-year-old man died, allegedly trying to blow up an ATM on 2nd Street, outside of a sports bar, a block away from the church. And while the police and the Philadelphia bomb squad investigated the scene around 9 a.m., Mairena greeted neighbors coming for a free box of food, which the city has distributed in his church since the coronavirus pandemic started.

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Mairena says it’s one thing after the other for Kensington residents, who have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.

“People are hungry. We couldn’t distribute food yesterday because of the curfew and all that. And then, you know, having neighbors calling me that they can’t get their asthma inhalers or their medication because pharmacies apparently in the neighborhood have also been looted,” Mairena said. “So it’s just aggravated the situation. Has made a sensitive situation worse.”

Three SEPTA stations away, at Kensington Avenue and Somerset Street, a group of volunteers from New Kensington CDC cleaned up pieces of glass and debris from the street. A Boost Mobile store was completely destroyed overnight. While volunteers cleaned, the owner, who didn’t want to speak on the record, stared at his store in shock.

“I want to live in a neighborhood that’s better than this,” said Ruth Elliott, a biochemistry instructor at the University of Pennsylvania that lives across the block.

Elliott said she hasn’t been able to process the destruction and violence seen in her neighborhood over the last days. Especially because it affects a community that has already been suffering from both the coronavirus and the opioid epidemic.

“In many ways, this is an area of the city that has been ignored and isolated for a long time,” Elliott said. “So in some ways, it feels like more of the same, but worsening.”

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Half a block away, Rosalind Pichardo and Clayton Ruley, the director of community engagement of the country’s largest syringe exchange, Prevention Point Philadelphia, picked up used syringes and cigarette butts.

Pichardo, who founded Operation Save our City — an organization that works with families of homicide victims — after her brother was murdered, said the destruction and violence she’s been seeing in the neighborhood this week doesn’t make sense to her. The protests against police brutality and the death of George Floyd at the hands of police started peacefully, but the violence that came later stunned her.

“This is supposed to be in honor of George Floyd. We’re not supposed to be taking any more lives here. This isn’t doing George Floyd any justice, by destroying your own community,” she said.

Volunteers brought a broom and cleaning supplies to clear debris left in Kensington. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Pichardo believes it was outsiders that started the riots that are hurting an already suffering community. Kensington has the highest drug overdose rate in Philadelphia, and it’s also one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. During the pandemic, she has been providing free lunch daily to people in the neighborhood —  and handing out Narcan, the opioid overdose reversal drug.

But the violence has changed it all. Pichardo said the neighborhood’s homeless population are being moved from one place to another and instead of being able to feed people in a safe place, like she used to do, she’s been forced to deliver lunches by car. Businesses in Kensington have also lost stores they worked hard to maintain, while others keep losing jobs.

“Everybody is affected by this, you know? People can’t go to the corner store now because they’re afraid,” she said. “You can’t be burning stores down for … in the name of who? I mean, George Floyd’s family didn’t want that and they clearly didn’t want the violence to continue.”

Solomon Thomas, a bar and restaurant manager who lives in Kensington, said he went out to clean because he doesn’t want to see trash and debris on the street for days.

“I want to be able to heal after it’s over,” he said. “As a Black man, I deal with stress daily, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t act. So here I am, doing my little part.”

Kensington resident and community leader Rosalind Pichardo (right) was out Tuesday morning cleaning streets after a night of unrest. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Violence is not what it’s all about

Maria Gonzalez, president of HACE, spent all of Monday on Kensington’s commercial corridors, at Front and Allegheny streets, 5th Street and Lehigh Avenue, and Kensington Avenue.

She says watching pharmacies and retail stores destroyed was stressful and disappointing.

“In a community that is predominantly Hispanic and very low income. It is distressing to see that level of violence and destruction when we know how long it takes for us to be able to rebuild our communities,” Gonzalez said. “We suffer through years of disinvestment, decades of disinvestment, and it’s taking it decades to rebuild back. And to see it gone within a few moments, it is sad.”

Gonzalez especially worries about small businesses — ones that are owned by people from the neighborhood. Most of them, she said, were already struggling not to lose their stores after the pandemic forced them to close their doors.

“And the little they had, the inventory that they had, was now stolen. So many of them may not be able to open up again,” she said. 

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Charito Morales, a long time activist in North Philadelphia and community organizer at the Providence Center in Fairhill, said she understands people’s anger. But she regrets the direction the protests have taken in the last few days. What started as a call for action against police brutality turned into attacks on small businesses mostly owned by people of color in Kensington, she said.

“I’m seeing massive destruction. People losing jobs, wages … I’ve seen our people that have worked all their life because they are also part of the minority,” she said. “They have to close their stores because now they don’t have anything.”

“We’re not going to tolerate the abuse from the government and the oppression,” Morales added. “But from there, to start looting our own low-income community stores, our own families pop and mom stores — that’s not what it’s all about.”

Morales, a registered nurse, is worried about a new wave of COVID-19 spread caused by the protests, and the effect the violence and destruction seen in the last days will have on the election. She said many people told her that they were scared to go and vote, worrying that people may rob their home.

A building on Kensington Avenue burned Sunday night after a day of unrest. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Back in West Kensington Ministry, Mairena’s church, on Tuesday, some people seemed confused. They were not there to get a free food box, or to watch over the police line at the exploded ATM. They were there to vote. 

“Because we’re an election poll,” Mairena said. “We’ve been an election poll forever here, but today we’re not because of the pandemic and the way things are going.”

Mairena can’t believe everything is converging at his church — COVID-19 assistance, a death scene and election day. It’s challenging times, and as a pastor, he said he’s torned. He doesn’t condone the violence, but he understands the anger of people who have been exploited and disenfranchised for years.   

“Is justice just revenge and punishing people? That’s not what it is. It’s restoration, it’s healing, it’s amends,” he said. “And at the same time, look, we have 400 boxes of food here. A lot of people couldn’t care less of what else it’s happening. They are hungry. They want food.”


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