Kensington businesses

One of the treats of living in a diverse, developing neighborhood is setting foot in new and old businesses. From hand-crafted guitars to bougie ice cream to a comic book shop lauded by The New York Times, Kensington is always surprising. This year Forbes magazine proclaimed southern Kensington (Fishtown) as America's hottest new neighborhood. Here are a few of the unsung and farther-flung businesses they didn't mention.

Habitat home dedication

Habitat for Humanity’s vision is a world where everyone has a decent place to live. Families qualify for their homeownership and home repair programs by showing a need for safe, affordable housing, by meeting income criteria, and by being willing to contribute “sweat equity” by working on Habitat projects. 

I attended a joyful home dedication ceremony in North Philadelphia in 2017, and met some of the kindest and most photogenic new homeowners in the world!

Contemplative photography

Photographer and restorative justice pioneer Howard Zehr introduced me to the term “contemplative photography”—a way of using the camera to slow down, practice mindfulness, think imaginatively and renew myself.

Working and living in a neighborhood wrestling with drug addition, rapid development and displacement, I find daily walks with dog and camera to be a good way to wind down and remind myself of what's ordinary.

A mobile kitchen for making healthy meals

You've probably eaten food from a food truck. Now imagine cooking at one.

Vetri Community Partnership runs a Mobile Teaching Kitchen that delivers pop-up cooking classes and demonstrations at schools, community events and farmers markets across Philadelphia. They invite children and families to participate in 15-minute hands-on cooking demonstrations where they learn basic skills they can use to make healthy dishes at home.

Multicultural Festival

Somerset Neighbors for Better Living (SNBL) is the neighborhood organization for about 90 blocks of Kensington, Philadelphia, centered on Somerset Avenue. Along with advocating for neighborhood safety and making residents’ voices heard in zoning decisions, SNBL organizes community gatherings. Their vision for the annual Multicultural Festival is a big party celebrating one of the most racially and ethnically diverse places in Philadelphia.

The image of a rising star...

This Thursday, Tess Donie receives the “Rising Star Award” from the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations. I photographed her for her application last fall on a quiet side street a few blocks from her Kensington office.

Community Development Corporations, or CDCs, are nonprofit organizations that connect government dollars to important work in local communities. Tess came to Philadelphia to pursue medical school, but was drawn to community development after seeing the power of residents’ place-based work in West Philadelphia.

Now Tess is Associate Director of Community Engagement at New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC), where she oversees its Community Connectors program, supports the work of a local civic association—Somerset Neighbors for Better Living (SNBL)—and leads the organization’s trauma-informed approach to community development. 

Donie serves the Kensington community with sincerity, love and drive. ”It is my job to work with residents, empower them to realize their own vision as a community, and help them make it a reality,“ she says.

”I am a firm believer that this community in Kensington has given so much more to me than I could ever give to it in my lifetime. Without our community members’ support, and the leap of faith they have taken to welcome me into their homes and challenge me each day, none of my work would be possible.“

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Brickmaking & placemaking

In August 2017, artist Michael Morgan showed adults and children how to shape and glaze blocks of wet clay at a workshop in Kensington, Philadelphia. Weeks later, he fired the blocks into bricks and used them to build a piece of public art at the "Frankford Gateway," near the intersection of Frankford Avenue and Sterner Street.

Morgan's sculpture is part of a series of projects to turn neglected lots into a source of community pride. The project was made possible by New Kensington Community Development Corporation, Mural Arts and Philadelphia LISC.

Thanks to footage from Bea J.E. Rider and the ongoing miracle of iMovie, I was able to edit and voice this video at my kitchen table one evening after work.

City snow

It was a weird winter, but weird seems to be typical these days. Mind-numbing cold at the beginning of January, then balmy spring showers in February. Here and there, a few bits of "normal" winter. These images from a sudden snow squall in Germantown, Philadelphia.

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Cleaning and greening

Existing land use in the River Wards, from a 2014 Philadelphia City Planning Commission survey. Vacant land (brown) is more than double the 5% city average.

The River Wards section of Philadelphia—a growing district northeast of Center City along the Delaware River—is a former industrial area with more than double the percent of vacant land as the city average.

In 1996, a community engagement process led the local community development corporation (New Kensington CDC) to begin cleaning vacant lots in the Fishtown and East Kensington neighborhoods.

Over the next two decades, with strong community support and a partnership with Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, NKCDC stabilized and reclaimed more than 1,000 vacant parcels. In the process, it set a national best practice for using vacant land management as a tool for economic development. The improved appearance attracted investment, and today those neighborhoods are among the fastest-growing in Philadelphia. 

NKCDC's Vacant Land Management crew continues to clean, stabilize and maintain hundreds of lots each year. On average, it cleans about 900 parcels and removes 30 tons of trash each year. NKCDC also organizes two community cleanup days and facilitates projects with volunteer groups to "clean and green" the neighborhood. 

50 cent Bin

If you want to know whether a recording artist is a musician, listen to them live. In small shows without lights or special effects, real musicians shine. What's compelling is fundamental: their presence, their voice, the conversation between instruments.

I'm lucky to know many musicians. 50 cent Bin is a family with roots in Greece, Iceland and Germantown, Philadelphia, where they share a rambling, quirky home with several other households. Their winter house concert celebrated the release of their first, self-titled album

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Tuesday Tea and Textiles

On January 23, Philadelphia government officials signaled they would be open to establishing the nation's first supervised drug-consumption site to combat the city's surging opioid epidemic. The announcement provoked immediate reaction from residents of Kensington, a large district northeast of downtown Philly that has shouldered the brunt of the drug epidemic for decades. 

“We’re one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation, and we have white addicts from Oregon panhandling,” Juan Marrero, pastor of Christ Centered Church, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It’s a dynamic I’ve never seen before. Still, that people here give money shows the hospitality they have.”

Two people not stunned by the need or the city's response were Kathryn Pannepacker and Lisa Kelley, artists who have been hosting a weekly weaving workshop on Kensington Avenue for the past year. They welcome neighborhood residents and visitors to sit down together and, with instruction, create a simple piece of weaving to keep and a larger piece that will become part of a community project. 

"Where there is life there is hope," Pannepacker wrote on Instagram. "We know first-hand at Tuesday Tea and Textiles that Narcan saves lives. And we are so encouraged by Philadelphia's announcement this week RE: creating CUES (comprehensive user engagement sites), as this will save lives."

Long live the big bottle!

Neighborhood identity is more testy in Philadelphia than anywhere else I've lived, and yet the boundaries are just as fickle.

By one map, I live in Fishtown; by another, East Kensington. My teenager has taught me to say we're in Fishtown—a neighborhood now associated with tony restaurants and plush condos—because his friends aren't allowed to visit him if he lives in Kensington. Type "Kensington, Philadelphia" into a search engine, and you wouldn't send your kids there, either. And yet, technically, Kensington envelops a huge section of North Philly, including Fishtown. 

Even as I selectively disown East Kensington, I chafe at how boundaries are bent to fit a neat, popular narrative. A cool new mural in Kensington? That must be Fishtown. A drug bust on Frankford Avenue? Let's call it Kensington.

So I was thrilled this month when the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted unanimously to give historical status to the old Harbison’s Dairy and its iconic milk-bottle-shaped water tower. That tower is squarely in East Kensington, and it's visible from the El train and roof decks for a mile around. 

I regularly snap pictures of the bottle as it appears through (quickly disappearing) gaps between rowhomes. I ran this New Year's Eve photo (top) through Twitter's "Fame" filter for social media posts.

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Happy New Year, Philly style

After Philadelphia's famous Mummer's Parade made its way down Broad Street, a couple progressive troupes (the Rabble Rousers and the Lobsters) took their party back to the neighborhood. A march through Kensington and down Frankford Avenue culminated in a party outside Philadelphia Brewing Company and the Lost Bar, Billy Penn reported. Here, the group dances down Dauphin at Amber Street.

Christmas is for the birds

On a bright and cold December morning, students from St Laurentius Catholic School decorated a tree in Palmer Park, Fishtown, with handmade ornaments—many of them edible to birds.

Tell me something good

Block leaders on Amber and Auburn Streets in Kensington have been improving their neighborhood for years. They have completed leadership courses through NeighborWorks America and Philadelphia LISC, and meet regularly with staff at New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) to hone their organizing skills, find city and business resources for the neighborhood, and learn "asset mapping”—a way to discover skills already in the neighborhood and find the best way for everyone to work together. 

For more than a year, Kensington neighbors also have been working with Maria Möller, a Philadelphia artist funded by the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations (PACDC). Möller has been teaching creative placemaking techniques and building relationships with residents as part of an ongoing artwork called “Tell Me Something Good.” 

In June, three blocks of Amber Street were closed to traffic for a celebration that was part block party, part art opening, and part dedication of a new community garden space.

Frankford Gateway

With funding from Conrail, NKCDC installed LED lights along the Lehigh Viaduct underpass at Frankford Avenue in 2016 .

With funding from Conrail, NKCDC installed LED lights along the Lehigh Viaduct underpass at Frankford Avenue in 2016 .

Delaware Valley Green Building Council (DVGBC) and New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) have been working together to revitalize vacant lots at the "Frankford Gateway"—a stretch of Frankford Avenue near the underpass of the Lehigh Viaduct rail line in Kensington, Philadelphia. 

Improving the Lehigh Viaduct underpass has been a priority of the Somerset Neighbors for Better Living (SNBL) civic association since its founding in 2012. Working with Community Design Collaborative at SNBL meetings, residents envisioned Frankford Avenue as a clean and safe neighborhood entrance that included attractive lighting, landscaping and public art. In the following years, with financial support from Conrail, Domus and Wells Fargo Regional Foundation, NKCDC stabilized vacant lots along the viaduct, planted small gardens and installed LED lights under the tracks. 

This year, a full transformation of the vacant lots on Frankford was made possible by the inaugural Community Impact Project partnership with DVGBC. DVGBC and NKCDC raised over $13,000 and secured multiple in-kind gifts from the community, including a large capstone gift from Mr. Contractor Inc. Landscape architect Hans Hesselein of Apiary Studio drafted a series of designs to meet the needs of landowners, residents and local businesses. 

This past summer, more than 30 volunteers built trellises, installed a drip irrigation system, and planted fruit trees,  perennials, berry bushes and wildflowers. At the same time, the city's Community Life Improvement Programs (CLIP) cut weeds and removed trash on adjacent streets. And AKRF GreenUP offered to water the new plants for a year. We can't wait to see how it looks!

Farm to Families

Last year I began working for New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC). Since 1985, NKCDC has worked alongside residents and businesses to spark sustainable development in the Kensington, Fishtown and Port Richmond neighborhoods of Philadelphia.

Farm to Families is one such initiative. In growing communities that until recently had very limited options for fresh produce, NKCDC partnered with St. Christopher's Foundation for Children to provide affordable weekly boxes of fruits and vegetables from Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative.

The program runs year round, and boxes can be ordered on a week-by-week basis. Everything is organic and is picked within 48 hours of delivery. Additional fresh items including local eggs, meats, yogurt and jam are offered at affordable rates. Cash, credit and EBT are accepted. And during the summer, boxes are picked up outside at NKCDC's Garden Center.

The Workshop School

The mission of The Workshop School is to unleash the creative and intellectual potential
of young people to solve the world’s toughest problems. For 30 ninth grade students in 2017, the tough problem was how to build a human-powered vehicle that could complete a two-mile course and survive a series of obstacles, including a mud pit. The Workshop School won $4,000 grant from Philadelphia Federal Credit Union (PFCU)  as part of PFCU's sponsorship of the annual Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby & Arts Festival this past summer.