AS SANDY SALZMAN sees it, Kensington is a neighborhood poised to rise.

That's why Salzman, executive director of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, is so distressed by the recent attention the neighborhood is getting.

"There's so much going on around here for the community to get excited about," she said. "To have this happen now, when we're at a tipping point, is kind of devastating."

Kensington, some civic leaders say, is following the path of Northern Liberties and Fishtown toward a positive transformation led by artists and entrepreneurs.

But two recent murders in the area linked to an unknown person known as the "Kensington Strangler" have cast a renewed pall on the neighborhood. It's a reminder of the many struggles here, including problems with drugs and prostitution. It's a reminder that Kensington still has a long way to go.

"There are a lot of promising green shoots there," said Harris Steinberg, a University of Pennsylvania professor of city planning. "Who knows how this is going to play out. But I think it's a resilient community. They've gone through a lot worse."

Kensington's factories flourished in the early 1900s, and so did the neighborhood around them as its residents toiled in textiles, and tool-and-die manufacturing.

While it wasn't necessarily an easy place to live - Steinberg called it a "rough-and-tumble dock town" - it was rich with family ties.

"Within my lifetime, I've seen it evolve from being the classic industrial village, a working-class community," said David Bartelt, a professor of geography and urban studies at Temple University. "That has, in the last 20 years, disappeared in some respects."

After World War II, some factories closed and returning soldiers moved their families to the rapidly growing suburbs. The change picked up steam in the 1960s, when East Kensington lost half its population, Salzman said.

As people moved out, businesses failed and, it seems, trouble moved in. Kensington now is known for open-air drug markets and the proliferation of prostitutes.

Bartelt recalled taking a bus tour with other academics through a drug market. People scattered as the bus passed.

"It's not hidden from view," he said. "You can see it along many streets. Several times, I've driven through and seen pretty clear evidence of transactions taking place."

When the New Kensington Community Development Corporation started in 1985, Salzman recalled, it wasn't uncommon to hear stories of people rehabbing a home, installing a new kitchen - and it being stolen the next day.

"The whole kitchen," she said.

Change has come slowly and unevenly. New, positive additions to the neighborhood include the Coral Street Arts House and the Kensington Culinary Arts High School.

"It made people have hope," Salzman said.

Entrepreneurs are also taking advantage of lower property values to experiment with things like green, self-sufficient homes.

But for every promising new development, there are multiple empty or dilapidated properties. For every new resident, there are old ones struggling to get by.

The area where the two women were found murdered is rife with empty buildings and overgrown lots.

Bartelt thinks it's too simplistic to paint the entire Kensington area with one brush.

"It's too large and too complex to be turned around any time in the foreseeable future," he said. "It's going to continue to be a mix."