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Kinetic Sculpture Derby not yet set to get wet

Why can't we have a water entry in our hometown Kinetic Sculpture event (coming up this weekend)? Baltimore has one! Aw, come on, Philly!

As part of Earth to Philly's Dumpster Diver Dispatch series, I have in the past kept you updated on the progress of the Dumpster Divers team in Baltimore's AVAM Kinetic Sculpture Race. For those coming in late, these are human-powered vehicles tricked out as works of art that must surmount pavement, sand, mud and water. Its a bona fide movement mixing love for art and sustainable transportation, involving thousands of people, started back in 1969 by Hobart Brown after he souped up his son's tricycle with a couple extra wheels. I've also alerted  you to the ensuing annual Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby held here in Philadelphia, and this year is no exception.

What's exceptional is that the "Dumpster Divers" team (the only team in Baltimore that's done every race) now consists solely of myself -- no longer an official Dumpster Diver -- and my son Skyler, who never was inducted into that group of trash-picking artists.

What's also exceptional was Skyler's determined mastery of the course in his self-designed "Cat-a-maran." And when I put it that way, I'm not just being a doting dad - he brought home an award for the Dumpster Divers, for his performance in exiting the water.

Now, you may recall The Golden Flipper as the award he and I won in 2009 when we entered the water and our vehicle immediately flipped over. However, the award is not for flipping per se, but for "the craft with the most interesting water entry." Often this does involve either flipping, or falling apart, or otherwise engaging in comical catastrophe (don't worry, everybody has a life jacket).

At this year's awards ceremony, the emcee specified that breaking with tradition, even though there were plenty of spectacular failures among vehicles entering the water, they were going to award it to the "most interesting water exit:" Skyler, going for an "Ace" award (no help getting through any obstacles, no pushing or walking the vehicle) had the waterfront park crowd on the edge of their seat as he contrived to pull himself up the ramp by rotating his front wheel with his feet. What the crowd didn't know was that his chain had gotten stuck in the highest gear at the outset of the race, so even once he could use the pedals it was still a gritty, heart-stopping, crowd-pleasing feat, to the point that the race judges decided -- exceptionally -- to award the Golden Flipper this year "not for failure, but for success."

Now, you doubtless will assume I'm going on about this one epic moment last weekend because of my personal connection to the pilot. Maybe so. But I'm also trying to illustrate a larger point: I want Philly to have the kind of event that can generate such moments of glorious athleticism -- mixed as it is with the fun spirit embodied in the fact that Skyler was doing this while made up as a cat, with Gorilla-tape ears on his helmet.

Kensington's Kinetic Sculpture Derby, which is next Saturday, May 19, has certainly got the latter part down. And make no mistake: It's an event everyone in town should support and should do themselves a favor by attending. It does have a (somewhat scaled-down) mud obstacle. But it is what it is, and what it is is a parade. The KKSD site states as much.

Hey, I love a parade. But even more, I love seeing what people can come up with when they have to surmount even bigger obstacles creatively and  -- and then seeing them surmount them physically. Or not!

I had a talk recently with Henry Pyatt, who's now in charge of running the Derby for the New Kensington Community Development Corporation. Although I wanted to get some facts straight - derby founder Katherine Doherty had indicated to me, back in 2007, that after a couple years getting established, Kensington planned to incorporate a water entry - our dialogue wound up being more of an attempt on my part to convince Pyatt that going this route was feasible, desirable, and even imperative. In addition to the human drama element, I stressed that the level of engineering necessary to make a vehicle seaworthy in addition to its other attributes really brings out the "sustainable" aspect of human-powered transportation.

As Pyatt pointed out, though, there are big-picture considerations to look at: The two events have very different genes.

Baltimore's was established in 1999 with the help of Hobart Brown himself and a contingent from California (where the 3-day Kinetic Grand Championship makes Baltimore's one-day event look like, well, Kensington's). By contrast, the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby was launched "as an Economic Development Initiative of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation to compliment the East Kensington Neighbors Association's Trenton Avenue Arts Festival."

Whereas Baltimore's race is sponsored by the American Visionary Art Museum, which increases its citywide visibility by having the wacky racers range over 13 miles through multiple neighborhoods (including its most tourist-clogged "downtown" area, the Inner Harbor), Kensington's Derby is an event to draw Philadelphians to Kensington itself, to increase awareness of its "positives" (in the face of its blighted stereotype) and generate buzz and cash for Kensington-area businesses.

To that end, the question of where to do a water entry becomes more problematic. Although there is talk of adding a ramp to access the water at Penn Treaty park, which has previously been included in the race route, the closest existing boat ramp is all the way down at Race Street. And while I cajoled Pyatt to extend the mileage and visibility of the event by taking it outside 19125, there's not a business model in place that would make that pay off for the Trenton Avenue Arts Festival or the Kensington businesses that help sponsor the Derby.

Baby steps: Pyatt says that although it won't be ready this year, a sand obstacle is very likely by 2013, inching our town's event closer to the specs of an official Kinetic Sculpture Race. In the meantime, check it out this year and maybe come up with your own craft for next year. And if you ask why you should bother, I will give you the same reason that Philadelphia should work harder to step up its Kinetic game:

For the Glory!