Mayor Kenney’s lack of involvement in Somerset El closure isn’t just a transit issue. It’s a leadership failure.
In these dark and difficult times, Philadelphia needs a mayor who will be a visible advocate for Kensington, for transit and for the whole city.
City Councilman Mark Squilla had just delivered a rousing speech to Kensington residents protesting SEPTA’s surprise decision to close the Somerset El station for repairs when a well-dressed young man approached him seeking help for his beleaguered neighborhood.
“Mayor Kenney,” he began …
Kenney, of course, was nowhere near Kensington and Allegheny, where Tuesday’s protest march wound up. Even though more than a week had passed since PlanPhilly broke the news of SEPTA’s plans, the mayor had yet to utter a word publicly about the loss of a busy station on the region’s most-used transit line — in a neighborhood that is home to the health aides, restaurant workers, and janitors who have helped Philadelphia get through the pandemic. Only when a Philadelphia Metro reporter pressed him at Tuesday’s COVID briefing did the mayor offer a few boilerplate phrases about the station’s closure being “the right decision as long as it doesn’t go on forever.”
That’s the thing, mayor. We have no idea how long Somerset will remain out of service while SEPTA repairs the elevators it says were damaged by the opioid users who congregate at the station. Not only did SEPTA spring its unilateral decision on Kensington residents without so much as a community meeting, it has given no timeline for completing the work.
Instead of the mayor taking charge, it has been largely left to Kensington’s two council members — Squilla and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez — and a couple of social service groups, to sort out the mess. They’re the ones who have communicated with residents and leaned on SEPTA to provide bus shuttles. SEPTA just assumes Kensington’s residents can walk the half-mile along Kensington Avenue to the Allegheny Station, a route that requires weaving through a gantlet of drug users occupying the sidewalks.
Big city mayors tend to avoid transit problems like the plague. The fact that most are run by independent agencies gives mayors cover. But the closure of Somerset Station is more than a transit issue and more than a Kensington issue: It’s a city issue. Losing even a single station on the Market-Frankford Line weakens the entire network, which gets 80% of its ridership from Philadelphia. The city will not recover from the pandemic unless people return to riding transit. But they won’t choose trains and buses over cars unless SEPTA offers first-rate service.
Kenney is known for being a grumpy and remote guy. It’s his quirk and his brand, and it can sometimes be endearing. But not now. It’s unbelievable that activist Jamal Johnson had to undertake a hunger strike to force Kenney to hold public briefings on gun violence, a health crisis as bad as the opioid crisis.
On a lesser scale, Kenney came into office professing to be a preservationist. But we heard nothing from him after the block where the great saxophonist John Coltrane lived was threatened with demolition recently, or when a legally protected, but badly neglected, former synagogue was demolished last week.
More and more, community leaders are saying openly that Kenney’s invisibility and unwillingness to speak has become a failure of governance.
Kensington is facing the city’s worst drug crisis in a generation, yet “there is no high level leadership on this issue,” complained Casey O’Donnell, president of the Kensington-based Impact Services. “I think he’s checked out.”
I heard the same thing from Bill McKinney, who runs the New Kensington Community Development Corp. and lives just a few blocks from Somerset Station. McKinney recently wrote a powerful essay for PlanPhilly’s website titled “How Kensington became an Island.” If the neighborhood were an island before, it is even more isolated now with the closure of Somerset Station.
McKinney also told me he has his doubts that elevator and safety problems are the reason SEPTA decided to stop service at the station. He noted that the headhouse entrance on the east side has been closed for months. During Tuesday’s protest, Marnie Aument-Loughrey, who runs the Kensington Independent Civic Association, also complained that the elevators at the Allegheny Station are frequently broken. Some SEPTA stations still have no elevators at all, despite federal accessibility requirements.
What’s scary about the fluid timeline for reopening Somerset is that temporary transit closures have a way of becoming permanent. Jonathan English, a Toronto-based transit historian, noted that dozens of passageways closed in New York during the crack epidemic of the 1980s have never been reopened. A generation of Philadelphians is likely unaware that an underground concourse once connected William H. Gray III 30th Street Station to the Market-Frankford Line. It, too, was closed during the crack years after being declared unsafe, and now people must dodge traffic on 30th Street to reach the El entrance.
The condition of the Somerset Station is also an equity issue, observed Jasmin Velez, a member of Kensington Neighborhood Association. “SEPTA has neglected the Somerset Station for years. The elevators smelled like piss when I was in middle school,” said Velez, now in her mid-20s. “I can’t help feeling it’s that way because we’re a Black and brown community.”
It’s worth noting that SEPTA recently reopened its Chestnut Hill West Regional Rail Line, which was closed early in the pandemic, in response to pressure from the affluent northwest of the city. That entire line had an average weekday ridership of 543 in March, according to a SEPTA spokesman. Meanwhile, 800 people a day were using the Somerset Station in the same period, down from a pre-pandemic total of 1,900.
There is no doubt that the city’s devoted civil servants are working hard to address Kensington’s overwhelming problems. Just before the pandemic started, the managing director’s office established an Opioid Response Unit. Its director, Noelle Foizen, said the group wants to establish more drop-in centers for drug users, to create an alternative to gathering near SEPTA’s stations.
But finding locations has been a challenge, she said. Without such refuges, it’s likely that drug users will simply return to their old spots once SEPTA reopens Somerset Station. Squilla complained that past plans to reduce the concentration of opioid users “have not brought any positive results,” but simply moved that troubled population from one location to another.
SEPTA says it plans to hire 60 security guards to monitor its Market-Frankford stations, which saw 180,000 riders a day before the pandemic. It’s a good first step, but we need more. Philadelphia has always taken a perverse pride in being a city of neighborhoods. In these dark and difficult times, we need a mayor to be an advocate for the whole city, someone who will console us and offer us hope. We need to hear Jim Kenney’s voice.