For the five years David Kammiel has owned his house in Kensington, the alleyway behind it has been a heavily-trafficked — and trashed — thoroughfare littered with used syringes and the remnants of Amazon packages stolen from the porches of nearby homes.
The issues that plague this alley are not unique in Kensington, the epicenter of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis, but when a man jumped the fence that separates the alley from the backyard of Kammiel’s home this summer and tried to steal his wheelbarrow, he finally called police.
“The cops did come, but they kind of told me their hands were tied,” said Kammiel, 33, who chased the man off before authorities arrived. “They said even if they did find him, unless he’s done something violent or stolen something really material, they were told to leave people alone.”
So Kammiel took to a neighborhood Facebook group to see if any of his neighbors wanted to chip in with him to buy a gate and fence off the common alleyway, with an entrance on Coral Street near East Huntingdon Street.
Ken Schapira, a Kensington resident and owner of North Standard, a fabrication and construction business, did him one better. He offered to make and install a gate for free, even though he’d never met Kammiel.
“At first he said, ‘I’m not sure how cosmetic it will be, but it will definitely be functional,’" Kammiel recalled. “I told him if he could build one for free, I could care less how beautiful it was.”
Instead of going with standard metal bars, Schapira decided to get real weird with it and build a 7-by-3-foot steel gate of intricately-designed scrollwork that features a large portrait of actor Danny DeVito smack in the center.
“It felt a little risky because I’d never seen a gate like that and I wondered if people would be mad at me for putting Danny DeVito next to their house,” Schapira said.
“I get comments all over the neighborhood from people walking their dogs who tell me how beautiful the gate is,” said Kammiel, who works in finance.
DeVito wasn’t on Schapira’s mind when he first offered to make the gate, but given the pandemic anxiety and social unrest across Philadelphia this year, he decided to build something that might make people smile.
“I wanted to pick someone who was not controversial and had something to do with Philadelphia,” Schapira said. “Ben Franklin is a little cliché in Philadelphia at this point and Danny DeVito just seems like a pretty stand-up guy I could make a gate out of.”
It took Schapira and his crew just a few hours to make the gate on a CNC plasma cutting machine. The intricate scrollwork was added into the design to fit in with the Victorian architecture of the neighborhood, Schapira said.
The gate was installed quietly last month, with little fanfare. Kammiel didn’t even know when it was going up, he just walked by and saw it there one day. He was so excited he didn’t get a good look at the gate before running inside to text his neighbor to check it out and thank Schapira.
“Dave sent me an email that said, ‘Thank you for building this amazing Benjamin Franklin gate!’” Schapira said. “I wrote a nice thing back and said, ‘It’s actually Danny DeVito.’"
Kammiel said when he was finally able to fully take in the gate and all of its DeVito-ness glory, he was floored.
“I can’t underscore how grateful we are that he built a gate to begin with and would not let us pay for it,” Kammiel said. “And now we have this beautiful It’s Always Sunny artwork.”
Right now, on only one entrance to the alley is fenced off, but DeVitogate has already made a drastic difference in the amount of foot traffic and trash, Kammiel said. It’s also had an unexpected effect among the residents as well.
“It’s really made us want to keep the street and the surrounding area up better,” he said.