Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby Celebrates Human-Powered Transit

This year’s Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby attracted more people than ever before to Kensington’s streets where crowds watched the parade of handcrafted, human-powered floats loop through the neighborhood and attempt to cross a giant mud-pit finish line on Saturday.

The annual celebration of art and human-powered transit “started as a way to get wacky, crafty people together and get them to do a fun project together,” said Henry Pyatt, who organized the event as project manager for the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, which started the derby in 2007 as a an economic development initiative.

The derby, now in its sixth year, is the single event that draws the most people to the neighborhood and possibly Kensington’s prettiest day, Pyatt said.

Philadelphia is not the only city to have a kinetic derby, but Pyatt said he believes the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby is more visually appealing than the two he knows of in California and Maryland. The Philadelphia event is also unique because, unlike the other two, it is a parade rather than a race.

The kinetic sculptures on parade this year included everything from a bicycle-powered cow promoting Philadelphia CowShare surrounded by flies on bicycles to a human-powered Philadelphia Brewing Company truck and a genetically modified organism.

Neighborhood Bike Works and the 40th Street Artist-in-Residence (AIR) program partnered with approximately 10 students to build one of the sculptures, a spaceship welded around two tandem bicycles. The group of “cyclenauts” who built and piloted the spaceship sculpture met once a week for nearly five months to prepare for Saturday’s derby.

“As an adult it’s a blast,” said Jim Garvey, a former 40th Street AIR artist who worked with the group. “I felt like I was having just as much fun as the kids.”

This is the second year Neighborhood Bike Works and 40th Street AIR have worked with a team of students to build a kinetic sculpture, and Garvey said it is impressive for the kids to be doing a project of this size and have access to the bikes, tools, welding equipment and artists’ supervision.

In addition to the kinetic sculptures, artists and food and craft vendors lined Trenton Avenue near Norris Street.

For many small businesses the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby has become an important day of the year.

“Everything we do is based on being out in the community,” said Nic Esposito of the Emerald Street Urban Farm Project. “This is another way for us to be out doing that.”

Representatives form Emerald Street Farm have been tabling at the derby for three years now, and Esposito said each year the farm sees an influx of people after the event.

Those who live in Kensington got a front-row view of the activity Saturday.

Marie Perez whose daughter lives on Norris Street spent the morning watching both the derby and the crowds.

“It’s fantastic,” Perez said of the annual event. “It’s been getting better every year.”

Perez, Esposito and Pyatt all hope the derby will continue to thrive. Pyatt said he hopes it will continue to attract more people and more positive attention to the neighborhood.

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Photos by Christine Fisher | Video by James Robertson for Eyes on the Street.

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