Saturday morning, 20 people gathered on Frankford and Allegheny Avenues and marched down Allegheny, crossing under the El and passing the National Guard troops that have loomed over their damaged neighborhood for days.
Organized for a peace and unity event, the marchers passed looted buildings as they chanted “Black Lives Matter” and the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, both victims of police brutality.
Protesters drew cheers from residents hanging out rowhouse windows and approving honks from drivers on the avenue.
Jameara Austin, 24, a Kensington resident, said she was there both to speak out for black lives, and also to show that residents of Kensington care about changing their community.
“Everyone is saying this year has been crazy — I think this year was more about change,” she said. “And sometimes things have to get destroyed for a change to happen. People are just tired.”
Kensington Avenue — home to so many Philadelphia crises, from the opioid epidemic to gun violence -- is a place that lives in constant tension between police, permanent residents, and people in addiction. It now is recovering from the looting that had taken place there on May 31.
Elsewhere, the city had been exploding in protests calling for justice in the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. Looting began in Center City last Saturday night and spread to Kensington by the wee hours of Sunday. But the damage to about 10 stores on the avenue felt especially terrible for a community already battered by official neglect, commercial disinvestment, years at the epicenter of drug deaths, and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, those who serve the most vulnerable residents in this fragile place are trying to figure out how to be there for their clients at the most uncertain of times.
The day after the destruction, the city shuttered food distribution programs for a day. Those who run them, like Kensington resident Roz Pichardo, had to turn hungry people away. She also works with the public health center and needle exchange, Prevention Point, which shut down for a day to sort out how to operate safely amid more potential looting or destruction.
“What else could happen?” said Jose Benitez, who runs Prevention Point. In the last year, he said, his clients have weathered another spike in fatal overdoses, a hepatitis A outbreak, and then, losing services they rely on as COVID-19 threw operations into lockdown.
Pichardo, who lives just off the avenue, said neighbors who normally don’t rely on social services were hurting too.
“It’s painful, it’s painful, it’s painful,” she said on Monday. Food stores weren’t plentiful before the looting; after, she didn’t know where she’d be able to find groceries.
Farther south, in the Hartranft neighborhood, local leaders spoke of supporting protests against police brutality, while helping a community that long has borne the brunt of heavy policing tactics in Philadelphia.
“We have been looking at ways to make sure we are standing in the gap for our community,” said Elder Melanie DuBouse, the director of Children’s Mission and the pastor of Evangel Chapel on Germantown Avenue, southwest of Kensington Avenue’s main business corridor. She’s also a co-chair of the board of POWER, the interfaith activist organization that has long been protesting for police reform.
She had a surge of new clients at the church’s regular food distribution on Tuesday, she said. But the church, which serves a mostly black and Latino population, has been fighting food insecurity, addiction, poor education opportunities, and police harassment for years.
“These are real people, with real concerns, and real problems, and the disproportionate, negative attention that we get from the police only exacerbates the issues,” she said.
For people in addiction on Kensington Avenue, the last week — and the last several months — has been even more precarious than usual, advocates said. Services like the drop-in center at Prevention Point, where homeless people in addiction could find a few hours’ respite, have had to close because of social distancing rules during the pandemic.
“People feel so defeated and so isolated. This is their community, this is where they are. Is anyone going to fix it for them?” said Carol Rostucher, the founder of Angels in Motion, an outreach group on the avenue.
At Prevention Point’s shelter, staff has been focused on keeping its residents safe during the pandemic and “making sure that people have as much support as they possibly can and space to be heard,” said Kate Perch, the organization’s housing coordinator.
Rachel Freeman, who’s lived at the shelter since July after being evicted from her home in Kensington, said hearing the looting and fires from inside the shelter had been terrifying. Trying to find food in a neighborhood of shuttered bodegas and convenience stores had been daunting.
David M. Lewis, 41, in recovery from a heroin addiction, said he supported the protests due to Floyd’s killing but also shared Freeman’s fears.
As a black man, he said he has suffered police harassment based on his race and his addiction. “Enough is enough, and it got to a point where this man’s death was the tipping of the cup," he said.
Amid the unrest last Sunday, he felt safe at the shelter.
“We came together, we made it through, and we made each other feel safe,” he said.
At Saturday’s march, protecting and encouraging the people of Kensington was a clear theme.
“I came out, one, because I’m an African American woman who has experienced racism. The earliest was at 8 years old,” said Francine Tucker, the dean of students at Deep Roots Charter School.