Kensington and Allegheny coming along strong

The days when K & A was a bust­ling shop­ping dis­trict are long gone, but a hand­ful ded­ic­ated en­tre­pren­eurs and a loc­al non­profit see bet­ter times ahead.

Danny Pa­tel poses for a por­trait out­side of his shop in the Kens­ing­ton Av­en­ue Com­mer­cial Cor­ridor, Fri­day Au­gust 5, 2011.

The in­ter­sec­tion of Kens­ing­ton and Al­legheny av­en­ues may be the most ma­ligned loc­ale in the city.

The simple men­tion of a trip to “K and A”  can be met with a raised eye­brow or a chid­ing, “why would you go there?”

It’s a neg­at­ive, pess­im­ist­ic mind­set that many Phil­adelphi­ans seem to have for this area, and it’s not en­tirely without reas­on.

It’s only been a few months since Ant­o­nio Rodrig­uez, the man called the “Kens­ing­ton Stran­gler,” stalked these streets; even without the threat his mur­der­ous ac­tions posed, the area has long kept po­lice busy.

The in­ter­sec­tion and sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods fall in­to the Phil­adelphia Po­lice De­part­ment’s East Di­vi­sion, which has the highest crime rate of any di­vi­sion of the city.

But it’s also a cul­turaly di­verse area full of vi­brant in­di­vidu­als and fam­il­ies.

The in­ter­sec­tion re­cently held its 11th an­nu­al fam­ily-friendly Mar­ket Fest, a day when cel­eb­ra­tion and mu­sic­al per­form­ances take over Kens­ing­ton Av­en­ue.

But that’s not all.

Every­day, loc­als are work­ing to re­vital­ize the area and Im­pact Ser­vices, a loc­al com­munity de­vel­op­ment group, already has a num­ber of pro­grams un­der­way.

Glim­mers of hope such as these counter K&A’s dec­ades-long bad rap as a place solely defined by a crim­in­al un­der­world. 

“That’s ac­tu­ally a mis­con­cep­tion,” Randy Hofer, mar­ket­ing dir­ect­or for Im­pact Ser­vices, an or­gan­iz­a­tion that provides em­ploy­ment, hous­ing and eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment op­por­tun­it­ies to the Kens­ing­ton com­munity, said of the area.

On the av­en­ue, “you have op­por­tun­ists,” he con­tin­ued. “But, we are al­ways get­ting the wrong im­age from a lot of people.”

Ac­know­ledging con­cerns over crime and drug use in the area, Pa­tri­cia Cod­ina, com­mer­cial cor­ridor man­ager for Im­pact Ser­vices, said with the in­stall­a­tion of sur­veil­lance cam­er­as along the Kens­ing­ton Av­en­ue cor­ridor, many prob­lems have im­proved.

“There are is­sues with drugs around that area,” she said, point­ing to a 24-hour con­veni­ence store on Kens­ing­ton Av­en­ue near Or­leans Street. “But, there are sur­veil­lance cam­er­as. The fact is the neigh­bor­hood has changed a lot.”

A steady com­mer­cial cor­ridor in the 1950s, Kens­ing­ton Av­en­ue has seen shuttered store­fronts re­place formerly act­ive busi­nesses as in­dus­tri­al plants, and the jobs they provided, left the com­munity dec­ades ago.

But the area is slowly be­gin­ning to see new life as people re­turn to the city and house hunters flock to de­sir­able homes in nearby Fishtown, East Kens­ing­ton and Kens­ing­ton South.

Rep­res­ent­at­ives from Im­pact Ser­vices said the cor­ridor has be­come more mul­ti­cul­tur­al and di­verse than it was in the past.

An area that had at one time been pre­dom­in­antly white, with many blue-col­lar res­id­ents of Ir­ish and Pol­ish de­cent, has seen an in­flux of His­pan­ic, black, Middle East­ern and Asi­an res­id­ents as well with many minor­ity-owned busi­nesses, said Cod­ina.

“It’s a mul­ti­cul­tur­al cor­ridor,” she said, not­ing a Muslim pray­er house on the av­en­ue that holds reg­u­lar ser­vices. “We are work­ing to re­vital­ize it, but it will look a lot dif­fer­ent than it may have in the past.”

To re­vital­ize the cor­ridor, Im­pact Ser­vices provides a full­time crew that does reg­u­lar cleanups of the cor­ridor — a tar­geted area of Kens­ing­ton Av­en­ue between Or­leans and West­mo­re­land streets as well as Al­legheny Av­en­ue from Jasper to G streets.

Also, in the com­ing months Im­pact Ser­vices ex­pects to hire three full­time safety am­bas­sad­ors — trained, un­armed se­cur­ity guards like those in Uni­versity City or Cen­ter City — who will ride bikes to patrol the cor­ridor.

Im­pact Ser­vices also se­cured a streets­cape re­design pro­pos­al from In­ter­face Stu­dio and City­Play, which, if im­ple­men­ted, could spruce up the drab areas un­der the El at Kens­ing­ton and Al­legheny av­en­ues.

That’s a real fo­cus for the Kens­ing­ton and Al­legheny Busi­ness As­so­ci­ation — an­oth­er arm of Im­pact Ser­vices — be­cause more than 5,000 people a day use the SEPTA stop at Kens­ing­ton and Al­legheny av­en­ues, which makes the area a busy thor­ough­fare able to sus­tain a vari­ety of busi­nesses.

The busi­ness as­so­ci­ation touts about 75 mem­ber busi­nesses and though someone trav­el­ing the av­en­ue might see va­cant prop­er­ties, the com­mer­cial cor­ridor only has about 43 empty com­mer­cial prop­er­ties out of the 213 on the strip.

However, these are con­cen­trated on some of the blocks, Cod­ina said, where as much as 60 per­cent of the prop­er­ties are va­cant stores.

 Hofer, who’s been work­ing to im­prove this com­munity for 10 years, said mon­it­or­ing these va­cant prop­er­ties is also an ele­ment of Im­pact’s work.

He said the group works closely with the city’s Li­censes and In­spec­tions de­part­ment to seal va­cant build­ings so they can’t be­come har­bors for drug deal­ers or worse, houses with elab­or­ate booby traps.

He said he knows stor­ies of area build­ings — usu­ally blocks of blighted homes — that are booby trapped by drug deal­ers. The scofflaws, he said, place holes in the floor be­hind closed door­ways, and then enter the build­ing through safe pas­sages, wait­ing for an un­sus­pect­ing of­ficer in pur­suit to spring the trap.

Im­pact Ser­vices works closely with the po­lice and City Coun­cil of­fices — the area falls with­in the First and Sev­enth Dis­tricts — to seal va­cant prop­er­ties and, when pos­sible, find ten­ants to fill them.

“It used to be really bad, really dirty, to put it nicely,” he said. “Now, we have put out trash cans, we have per­son­nel out there to clean them.”

In fact, Im­pact Ser­vices re­fur­bished his­tor­ic build­ings in the area, in­clud­ing the nine-story Flo­mar Build­ing near Kens­ing­ton and Al­legheny. That space is now home to the Es­per­anza Health Cen­ter after be­ing aban­doned for nearly a dec­ade.

Now the health cen­ter is plan­ning to ex­pand to take over an­oth­er va­cant build­ing also at the in­ter­sec­tion.

Also, Im­pact Ser­vices is look­ing to con­tin­ue their Heart of Kens­ing­ton ini­ti­at­ive, a five-year pro­gram fun­ded with a grant of about $1 mil­lion that helped busi­nesses get off the ground and al­lowed them to be­gin much of the work they do today.

“Heart of Kens­ing­ton is sort of what all our pro­grams grow from,” she said.

Yet, faced with seem­ingly so much to do throughout the cor­ridor to im­prove busi­nesses and the com­munity, what are the con­di­tions for suc­cess at Im­pact Ser­vices?

“Suc­cess is work­ing with busi­nesses through zon­ing and L&I and work­ing with them through their is­sues to help the busi­ness flour­ish,” he said. “A safe, clean neigh­bor­hood, that’s suc­cess for us.”

And, through this work busi­ness own­ers have seen a dif­fer­ence.

In K&A Smoke shop at Kens­ing­ton and Al­legheny, own­er Danny Pa­tel said that in his sev­en years in busi­ness in the area, he’s seen a real im­prove­ment.

A loc­al res­id­ent, Pa­tel said that by be­ing a mem­ber of the busi­ness as­so­ci­ation and talk­ing with oth­ers in the neigh­bor­hood, he’s seen a sense of com­munity that he didn’t no­tice three years ago, be­fore he moved his shop and joined the as­so­ci­ation.

“It’s much bet­ter than it was be­fore,” he said from his shop, a small store where all items for sale are en­cased be­hind bul­let-proof Plexiglas. “I’m liv­ing in this neigh­bor­hood and if I had troubles, I would move out.”

Pa­tel com­men­ded the po­lice and the mem­bers of the Port Rich­mond Town Watch who reg­u­larly patrol the area for help­ing to cut down on con­cerns with un­ruly cus­tom­ers he’s had in the past.

“People will not do the bad things out on the street if you just come out and talk about it,” he said.

Long­time busi­ness own­er Arnold Snyder, whose fath­er opened Snyder Fur­niture Com­pany, at 3327 Kens­ing­ton Ave. in 1919, said that in the 50 years he’s worked at the store, he’s seen Kens­ing­ton Av­en­ue at its best and its worst.

But, he’d nev­er leave.

“I don’t feel I’d ever want to leave the area that has provided for my fam­ily for 91 years,” he said.

Echo­ing Pa­tel’s sen­ti­ment, Snyder said the area needs a sense of com­munity, which is par­tially why he has kept his busi­ness on the com­mer­cial cor­ridor for so many years.

“I think the neigh­bor­hood needs us,” he said. “This area needs stores like my­self.”

As a stable busi­ness with a small staff of loc­al em­ploy­ees, Snyder said his busi­ness has been something of an an­chor for the cor­ridor over the dec­ades and lately, he has seen re­sur­gence in area busi­ness.

In fact, he re­cently sold a ware­house he owned — also in Kens­ing­ton — to an­oth­er de­veloper and as a ca­ter­ing hall, it’s see­ing a new life.

“He’s really do­ing very well there,” Snyder said. “This is a good area, if people are will­ing to work.”

On the oth­er end of Kens­ing­ton Av­en­ue, newly opened SKA (a meet­ing place and cof­fee shop that stands for Serving Kens­ing­ton Av­en­ue), hopes to provide that hard work that Snyder talked about.

“We are really in­ter­ested in com­munity build­ing,” said own­er Dan Roth, pas­tor of Fishtown’s Sum­mer­field Church.

Roth said the newly opened shop at 2416 Kens­ing­ton Ave. is in­ten­ded to be a “hangout place” where any­one can come for cof­fee, but the church also provides so­cial ser­vices to ad­dress things like ad­dic­tion and un­em­ploy­ment.

The shop, which just opened on Monday last week, plans to host karaoke nights and Al­co­hol­ics An­onym­ous meet­ings.

In fact, already Roth said he’s helped a re­cov­er­ing ad­dict re­con­nect with his spon­sor.

It seems throughout the av­en­ue a new­found sense of com­munity is grow­ing, which could cre­ate a bet­ter com­mer­cial cor­ridor and a safer, health­i­er neigh­bor­hood for every­one in Kens­ing­ton.

When asked about the grow­ing sense of com­munity on the av­en­ue, Roth said that was what he hoped to en­gender with the new cof­fee shop.

“It’s still a little slow, but today we helped twice as many people as we did yes­ter­day,” he said. “That’s pre­cisely why we are sup­posed to be here.”••

Re­port­er Hay­den Mit­man can be reached at 215-354-3124 or hmit­

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