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Kensington's derby day

Neighborhood is on the move, too.

With pins and pedals, cruising under the El on Front Street during a test run for their entry in the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby are (from left) John Spetrino, Tom Carr, and Erik Silverson. (Eric Mencher / Staff Photographer)
With pins and pedals, cruising under the El on Front Street during a test run for their entry in the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby are (from left) John Spetrino, Tom Carr, and Erik Silverson. (Eric Mencher / Staff Photographer)Read more

It's not easy to top a gigantic, rolling, orange octopus made out of bicycles that will still fit under the El in Kensington, but Erik Silverson and wife Hedy Sirico are determined.

And in this eccentrically gritty neighborhood, where new hipster greets old rowhouse, this is a serious task undertaken in deep secrecy, where on Saturday, in a cobblestone-jarring ride through the streets, they plan to outdo Octavishnu, the celebrated entry from 2008's Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby - the ultimate imprint of the newcomers on the old neighborhood.

If last year is any guide, it will be a giddy, muddy, urban climax near the non-sequiturial Trenton Avenue horse stables from which Kensington - already beating a fibrillating pulse of old and new, Irish and artiste, Bud and Kenzinger, Maxwell House in the pot and four-shot iced cafe Americano from the Rocket Cat Cafe, Ida Mae's Bruncherie and Dan's Fresh Meat - will need days, if not months, to recover.

And, yes, there will be valet parking for your bicycle.

How to break down an event - and a neighborhood - in which an award is given for "best breakdown"? Is the derby, held in coexistence with the Trenton Avenue Arts Festival, defining a new Kensington? Or merely raising the eyebrows of the old?

This new Kensington, in which artists from New York and Northern Liberties have landed, living alongside families - Kenzos, they call themselves - who have owned their rowhouses for decades, finds hipsters building Platinum LEED green-certified houses, constructing clever backyard fences out of windows, creating local breweries and organic farms, installing witty sculpted bike racks on corners.

Locals aren't sure what to make of the newcomers. "Yuppies!" is the cry of derision, but it is a misnomer. The true yuppies are still mired in Fishtown, at least according to the new Kensington denizens.

Mostly, the old guard take their creative new neighbors and the jarring cultural shift in stride. "The only thing they changed is the beer taps and the jukebox," observes Dave Kulb, 48, standing at Cumberland and Amber Streets with a half-dozen neighbors as they polish off their ritual after-work 30-pack of Coors Light.

"I was happy," says Paul Garide, 41. "I like the art museums." He was referring to the galleries on Frankford.

Josh Frank, 19, who lives at Amber and Letterly Streets and has a corresponding A&L Boys tattoo, says he asked to borrow the car of a new neighbor during a snowstorm so he could do doughnuts - hold the emergency brake and spin the car around in the snow - but the neighbor would do it only if Josh and his friends first came inside for tea or accompanied him to the Aramingo Diner for breakfast. It was a standoff. No tea or breakfast, no e-brake doughnuts. That was their last interaction.

"Hipster Greed" is the graffiti on the pink camouflaged tank installed in a vacant lot, retired from a run in the Kinetic Derby, which is modeled after events in Oregon and Baltimore.

The newer folks are confident they are a plus. "It's gone from hookers, prostitutes, and drug dealers to a bunch of young happening kids," says Terry McCall, a derby volunteer technical judge. He's sitting on a stool in the Barbary at Delaware and Frankford Avenues, nursing a Kenzinger draft, for an evening derby meet 'n' greet, a sparsely attended event that presages a surge of interest: 18 entries, including one with a contemporary fiction theme, another exploring how "tines" and "spokes" can result in the Rocky theme, and still another being built right inside the Philadelphia Brewing Co. at York and Martha Streets. ("We're done with functionality and moving on to the form," says Tyson Tarbell, creator of 2008's best breakdown. Octavishnu won best art design.)

"It definitely is gentrified," says McCall, adding: "There's pockets you never see."

At age three, the human-powered moving-sculpture parade, design contest, and absurd-fest, sponsored by the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, is the ultimate mark of the hipsters on the neighborhood.

It finishes in the fabled mud pit at the Trenton Avenue Arts Festival, a four-year-old music, food, and arts fair run in wary coexistence with the NKCDC by the East Kensington Neighborhood Association (EKNA).

Kathryn Doherty-Chapman, a 27-year-old native of Portland who is business-resource coordinator for the NKCDC, says the derby reinforces the neighborhood's new identity. "We're trying to promote sustainability, walking and hiking, human-scale design. We're just keeping tabs on what's already happening."

The area basically comprises the 19125 zip code of eastern Kensington, Fishtown, and southern Port Richmond, where the median home-sale price rose 37 percent between 2006 and 2007, to $117,000. The area is given hipster cred by music hall Johnny Brenda's at Frankford and Girard Avenues; Philadelphia Brewing, a spin-off from Yards; and the espresso and laptop culture of Rocket Cat Cafe.

Sculptor Roger Wing, a festival exhibitor, says: "When we were buying [in 2002], the Realtor said, 'I looked at my folder for people willing to buy north of Girard, and you were the only ones.' "

Now, Wing works out of a studio-with-a-loading-dock in the rehabbed Arts and Industry Building on North American Street, where, as the setting sun streams into a wall of industrial windows, he can carve 7-foot Eastern-influenced sculptures out of tree trunks while, a floor above, local indie musicians Dr. Dog rehearse - an impressive river-ward hipster convergence.

The influx of newer residents in favor of planting trees and against casinos "gives the old guard something to talk about," he says. "It's going through growing pains, like higher taxes. But people are seeing the benefits of having more trees."

Dave Nelson, who converted into condos a Trenton Avenue building where copper windings were once made, says, "People told me, first get rid of the horses. . . . No one wants to move next to horses."

Nelson has been vindicated. The stables are a potent symbol that the neighborhood is not homogenized, along with rowhouses across the street where second-generation residents like Ron Sinick, 52, watched the festival last year with coolers of beer on their porches and bemused looks on their faces.

EKNA's Katie VanVliet, who has helped lure 120 arts vendors this year, says: "I feel like there are secrets in East Kensington. One thing that will keep East Kensington kind of rugged is its proximity to Front Street and being under the El. El culture is incredibly strong in East Kensington. Guys coming out wheeling and dealing, as much as drugs and prostitution. It will remain a mix."

One block hidden from the newbies is Coral at Boston, two blocks from Coral Street Arts House, refurbished work-live spaces for artists. There, you'll find Denny Hilton, block captain, a lifelong resident more likely to ask about the ubiquitous used washing machines for sale in the neighborhood than what's up at Walking Fish Theatre.

But here's the thing. Denny's got a sculpture garden in his vacant lot as well. "This is the artiste of the 'hood," says a neighbor named Enrico about Hilton, 59, who has transformed the lot into a community memorial wall and artscape, with signs adorned with sayings like "Don't let your neighborhood go down the toilet" above a green painted toilet.

Go ahead, try not to see parallels between Hilton and the downtown architects dressed in arty black who the other day were installing an abstract accordionlike theater space in a similarly vacant lot a few blocks away.

And so it goes in this neighborhood that so far has resisted outright gentrification or outright hostility, though some have chafed, or been forced to leave, as rents and taxes have started to rise.

Doherty-Chapman says residents of all stripes have embraced the derby, certainly a warmer reception than they gave another NKCDC idea: 50 units of scattered-site affordable housing. "How can you not like a giant alien spaceship or a giant octopus going down your street?"

If You Go

The Trenton Avenue Arts Festival will be held Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. on Trenton Avenue near Frankford. The Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby will start at 12:30 p.m. from the Arts Festival and finish back on Trenton Avenue about 1:30 p.m. For more information, go to


In any case, late last week, kinetic sculptors Silverson and Sirico took this year's model - minus its defining sculptural overlay - out for a trial run under the El, bowling pins comically spinning on a gigantic ship's wheel. Even the greyhound on the bus hurtling by looked perplexed. Silverson predicts an impression more lasting than even Octavishnu's. "Let's just say it's going to be a multimedia event,"