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Kensington's bright side has its adherents

Looking for a lovely home in Philadelphia? For sale: sun-drenched corner, three-bedroom townhouse with tiled bathrooms, hardwood floors, fireplace, kitchen with granite countertops, master suite with walk-in closet. $329,000.

Executive director Sandy Salzman and Tom Potts, head of the neighborhood advisory committee, relax at offices of the New Kensington Community Development Corp. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
Executive director Sandy Salzman and Tom Potts, head of the neighborhood advisory committee, relax at offices of the New Kensington Community Development Corp. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)Read more

Looking for a lovely home in Philadelphia? For sale: sun-drenched corner, three-bedroom townhouse with tiled bathrooms, hardwood floors, fireplace, kitchen with granite countertops, master suite with walk-in closet. $329,000.

Location? Kensington.

Seeking a high-end venue for your wedding? Try Feast Your Eyes' new digs, Front and Palmer, a 3,000-square-foot loft in a converted barrel factory with 35-foot ceilings, very cool art chandeliers, and free parking.

Location? Kensington.

Want to attend a hip outdoor event? Try the kinetic sculpture derby on Trenton Avenue in May. Human-propelled contraptions powering along before thousands of spectators, including the mayor.

Location? Kensington.

"People come through and they think there's just drugs and crime here," says Tom Potts, "but it's just not that simple of a story."

Potts, 47, is a lifelong resident, and like many of his friends and neighbors, a loyal one. The Kensington they know transcends its image as one of the city's most beleaguered neighborhoods, especially in the last few weeks, since a serial killer began raping and strangling prostitutes in abandoned lots and trashed-out alleys.

There is no denying the community's degenerate side, he says, driving his Hummer past the twitchy denizens of Somerset Street and Kensington Avenue. "That's probably the worst drug corner in the city," he says. "These dealers are marketing geniuses. They offer free-sample day. They stand on the street, giving out cocaine and heroin."

Potts turns into the next street, where a round-shouldered man with a black eye shuffles toward the front door of a house with dirty white iron bars covering the windows. Further along, Potts points out the alley where one of the Kensington strangler's victims was found.

"It's not the worst part of Kensington," he says. "It's just that at 2 a.m., it's dark." The week before, after a good-Samaritan safety walk with 12 volunteers here, he says, he resolved to find the money to replace the broken and missing lights along Kensington Avenue.

"Light it up and you feel safer. You are safer, actually."

He drives east, toward the river. In less than a minute, he is in the area where he grew up - block after block of well-maintained brick rowhouses, with freshly painted trim and porches strung with Christmas lights.

Even as a child, he says, he knew that some streets were edgier than others. And there were far more of those streets in 1996 when he bought a house next door to his parents' near the corner of Sergeant and Sepviva Streets - which insiders pronounce with no irony as Suhvivah.

"There are good working-class people here, just trying to raise their families," Potts said. The crack epidemic in the 1980s hit Kensington hard, and the recession has been brutal. His wife, a legal secretary for 12 years with a Center City firm, was laid off. She's now home with the couple's two young sons, receiving unemployment while she looks for work.

Potts' employment history traces the downward tumble of the city's blue-collar jobs and the consequent economic miasma that wore Kensington down.

After attending school in the Catholic parishes that long defined Kensington, he joined the Navy. He served in Lebanon, then returned home as an electronics technician in the Naval Shipyard until the mid-1990s, when his job, along with thousands of others, was eliminated.

For several years, he found work as a factory supervisor in a series of plants, hopscotching from one to the next as manufacturing businesses left the area. Meanwhile, he became active in community projects, helping build Pop's Skatepark and playground in an abandoned, drug-infested rec center. In 2009, he was hired as the neighborhood advisory committee director of the New Kensington Community Development Corp. (CDC).

In all these years, he says, he has never been tempted to move. "It may not be the prettiest thing around, but it could be worse. For the people who stayed, there's a lot of loyalty."

His boss, Sandy Salzman, has a similar attachment to this place that has always felt like home.

"I was 12 when my mom died," Salzman says. "The nuns at St. Michael's and Holy Name taught me how to do laundry. My friends' mothers taught me how to cook."

She is well aware that some of the streets where she played with friends and went to school are considered Fishtown, not Kensington. And as the area has started to gentrify, real estate agents and businesses have tried to expand its borders.

"Boundaries are difficult," Salzman says. "Everybody wants a place to call their own."

Her CDC, she says, works with all three neighborhoods - Kensington, Fishtown, and Port Richmond. Some residents, tired of the quibbling, have taken to calling the whole area Port Fishington.

But it's not hard to understand why Kensington, with its greater share of poverty and attendant problems, is the least favored child.

"I think it is a lot like love: You fall in love with someone, and you don't see what others see - you see all the good and how that person makes you feel. I think for some people, a neighborhood is a lot like that. We see all the wonderful things about our community."

Some of the old families have decamped to the suburbs, but Salzman's friends and family are all still here. Her two sisters both live in the neighborhood. "The great thing about it is that even though people struggle, we have each other's backs."

Since she took the job as the CDC's executive director in 1998, Salzman has watched with pride as the group's efforts have yielded tangible results.

The CDC's office on the 2500 block of Frankford Avenue is in the heart of a growing arts district. Next door, the Walking Fish Theater stages performances starring local schoolchildren and written by homegrown playwrights.

The CDC also deserves much of the credit for the Coral Arts House, a $7.5 million project providing low-income housing and work space for 27 artists. The current residents include writers, musicians, painters, graphic artists, and several adjunct professors - one who teaches at Princeton University, says Laura Semmelroth, a 41-year-old artist with an office on the ground floor, where she does economic development work for the New Kensington CDC.

The neighborhood is so vast and complicated, says Semmelroth, that it's hard to accurately characterize. "There's great housing stock. Great architecture. Great people," she says. "But there is also extreme poverty, extreme desperation, and illiteracy."

The Kensington strangler, she says, "is a blip on the screen. But it's a blip that illuminates a problem that's been here for a long time."

When the CDC bought the former cotton and wool textile mill in 1990, it was a wreck. Fifteen years later, after restoration, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2006, it received the Grand Jury Award from the Preservation Alliance.

Some community activists say they're frustrated that as they work to improve the area, Fishtown is increasingly trying to distance itself, creating a secessionist identity.

"If you want to start a debate in any taproom around here, just ask what the borders of Fishtown are," says Kenneth Milano, a local historian. "People like to fight about boundaries. It's like a parlor game."

Like it or not, Milano says, Fishtown is a subsection of Kensington. "It's just a community within a community." In the 1960s, he says, the tables were turned. "You didn't want to be associated with Fishtown. That was the rougher side."

Milano, author of Hidden Histories of Kensington and Fishtown, says that although he still values the cohesiveness in his neighborhood, the ties are looser these days. "It used to be multigeneration homes, cousins and uncles up and down the block and a million kids."

He and his friends used to play tag along the Market-Frankford El and catch tadpoles in the puddles near the railroad tracks. They'd sneak into the ribbon factory at night and tie bows around the workers' stations. "We weren't delinquents," he said.

Now, Milano says, "most of the new folks hang out with each other. The school system stinks. It used to be that kids went to school together and would hang out together. I don't know if that's going to happen anymore. It used to be a great place to rent or own cheaply, but that's getting away from folks, too."

The average listing price for homes for sale in Kensington was $155,569 earlier this month.

"I like the eclectic mix of people," says Jim Duffy, who has owned Primo Pizza on Trenton Avenue for 17 years and lives two doors down in a rowhouse he bought in 2002 for $42,000. He kicks himself, he says, for not investing 10 years earlier, when comparable properties on the street were selling for $17,000.

The pizza shop overlooks Pop's Skatepark, which is empty until 3:10 p.m., when suddenly, he can see teenage boys crisscrossing madly, flying off the concrete ramps.

Potts orders a slice of pizza, thin-crusted and hot, the sauce seeping into the white paper plate.

"This place used to be bustling with factory workers," he says. But he believes that one day, not so long from now, Kensington will be reborn.

"Once we get out of this economic distress, people will take ownership of homes, they'll rehab housing, start families and stabilize the neighborhood."

Does he ever feel he's engaged in a Sisyphean battle?

"Slightly," he says. "But we're going to win. I have faith in us."