For more than 25 years, the New Kensington Community Development Corporation has striven to make the neighborhood a better place.
The Star was able to gather up many of the founding members of the NKCDC — luckily, over the years, few have left the neighborhood they worked so hard to improve — to discuss the humble beginnings of the organization and how the neighborhood has transformed in the past 25 years.
Theirs is a story of a ragtag group of eager, hopeful young adults who wanted to combat neighborhood poverty, racial tensions and blight.
They fought — sometimes literally — to make the neighborhood a better place.
“I firmly believe that if (the) New Kensington (CDC) wasn’t there, the neighborhood wouldn’t be what it is today,” said Chuck Valentine, a NKCDC founder, Fishtown resident and current director of modernization and development for the City of Camden.
“At that time, New Kensington was a no man’s land,” he said, noting that the label “New Kensington” was a city-created term for the neighborhood stretching from north of Girard to Lehigh Avenue and from Kensington Avenue out east to the Delaware River.
“North Philadelphia is fantastic now, compared to what it used to be,” agreed Joe Simon, a Kensington resident and founding board member.
Founders said the group began out of discussions stemming from their work in Neighborhood Advisory Councils — a program started by the city in the 1970s to link residents with services provided by the Office of Housing and Community Development. They said the neighborhood was plagued by blighted homes and vacant properties in the early 1980s.
Something had to be done, but inherent limitations of a NAC needed to be surmounted.
They realized they needed to create a Community Development Corporation and a Credit Union.
The founders also made a concerned effort to keep political interests out of the group in order to have a service organization that wouldn’t be tied to any political leanings.
The Credit Union element, they said, came into play as local bank branches began “rolling up the carpet,” said Simon, and after manufacturing jobs had left the area during those years.
“There was this economic deterioration,” said Simon, who currently works in marketing.
He said the evidence of economic decline might have occurred earlier in Philadelphia, but “the 80s were when we were aware of it.”
“It was economically depressed, that’s the best way to put it,” said Simon.
Seeing so many vacant properties, the group got together in the hopes of working to get new families in the empty housing.
Here, they hit many roadblocks, from deteriorated properties to convoluted issues of ownership to outright racism against potential homeowners.
Frances Clifford, one of the founding board members and a Kensington resident, remembered how one block of residents even filled out a petition to keep a black family from moving into a home the fledgling NKCDC had helped them obtain.
“We went to them and said this was a family and they are trying to make a life for themselves,” she said.
Still, the residents didn’t relent until their petition was found to be illegal.
But, a petition might have been the least violent racist protest the NKCDC would encounter.
Ken Milano, area historian, Fishtown resident and founding board member, recalled a number of properties being firebombed when residents thought black families might move in.
Once, a home was firebombed simply because the men who were hired by a moving company to bring furniture into it were black, Milano recalled.
“I wouldn’t even call it racism. It was engrained resistance to any kind of change,” said Simon. “You didn’t live on their street, so why would they trust you?”
Gaining trust in the community was one thing, but as they worked on housing issues, the founders said, they quickly found themselves involved in other issues — like the plan that originally brought the Aramingo Square shopping center to Aramingo Avenue at York Street.
“We were very proud of that,” said Valentine on the work the group did that brought the Thriftway to that location after the original store, once on Girard Avenue, was shuttered due to a fire.
In the area across from Cione Playground at Aramingo and Lehigh avenues a plant that produced lead oxide products used to exist.
Valentine said that decades ago the NKCDC worked with that company to make it safer for kids to play nearby.
“They said it was harmless, but they wore masks inside the company and they left the windows wide open,” he recalled. “We said, ‘If it’s harmless, why are you wearing masks?’”
After that, the company addressed the NKCDC’s concerns.
One of Valentine’s proudest memories of those early years, he said, was work the group did in bringing millions of dollars of investment, through mortgages, into the community.
When banks weren’t lending and were leaving the community due to the floundering economy, the NKCDC used elements of the federal Community Reinvestment Act — created in 1977 — to help area homeowners.
The project was so successful that NKCDC representatives still attend national conferences to discuss the program.
“We always looked at this as a multipurpose approach, and the first was keeping people in houses,” said Simon. “In a blue collar neighborhood, people live week to week.”
From the outset, the NKCDC helped homeowners afford needed repairs to their homes, and little by little, as homeowners took pride in their property, they took more interest in helping to improve their block and eventually the community as a whole.
“You have to build credibility like anything else,” said Simon.
Then, in the early 1990s, as the NKCDC became a larger group with a number of employees, the founders recalled a time when Teamsters came knocking in hopes of persuading NKCDC employees to unionize.
“That was very hostile,” remembered Valentine. “They wanted to get a foothold in us and grow.”
The founding members said that the Teamsters slashed board members’ tires, broke windows and brought a truck to the front of the NKCDC, blaring music all day long.
It made working with residents difficult because the prospective homeowners needed to cross lines of hostile protesters in order to receive housing counseling.
“I still have a tape from when the union called and threatened me,” said Valentine.
John Carpenter, deputy executive director of the city’s Redevelopment Authority and the first director of the NKCDC, remembered incidents with the union well, especially the time the group took the Teamsters to court over unfair labor practices.
“They just browbeat us horrendously … It did an enormous amount of reputational damage to our organization,” he said, recalling a time when he was walking on a neighborhood sidewalk and a Teamster pinned Carpenter against a wall with his car.
Carpenter, who moved here from Chicago to work for the NKCDC and is now a resident of Manayunk, had a tape recorder on him at the time and the audio from the incident was played before a judge.
“They lied openly in court, which surprised me,” he said. “You could hear the tires screeching in the background.”
Employees at the NKCDC were unionized for a little more than a year, and after that, they voted out of the union.
But, it seemed the real turning point for the NKCDC came after all of this, when in the mid 1990s, the group widened its focus.
While the group worked to support new and prospective homeowners and get vacant properties rehabbed or demolished for years, the organization now aimed its attention to cleaning and greening vacant lots.
“We didn’t know who owned the land, we were going to take care of it,” recalled Carpenter. “Housing had a big impact on the person in the home, but working on the lots had an impact on the neighborhood at large.”
In fact, he said, neighborhood greening had such an impact on entire blocks, it essentially “reknit the fabric of the community.”
At the time, short dumping — illegal trash dumping — was a huge problem. They found that many vacant lots were surrounded by concrete barriers or locked fences in an effort to keep people from dumping trash there.
But the barriers did little to stop dumping. Illegal dumpers simply piled trash against the barriers, and weeds would flourish in areas locked behind fences, where there was little residents could do to maintain the lots.
So the NKCDC instead focused on removing the barriers and planted tree lines that would keep out trucks and beautify the area.
“This was the turning point for the neighborhood,” said Carpenter. “The reduction of blight was just enormous.”
Property values quickly rose 10 to 30 percent in some areas, and residents soon found they were able to reinvest in their homes as land value increased. Developers even began looking for ways to bring new projects to the community.
“I spent my first few months in the neighborhood just walking around, and what struck me at first were all these abandoned properties,” remembered Carpenter. “When we talked about trees, people told me ‘trees make trash’.”
But, over the years that has changed. Today, the NKCDC has fully embraced the concept of sustainable development and community greening initiatives, with a number of programs geared toward that end.
“Now, trees are clearly an amenity,” he said. “The attitude is a lot more energized.”
Sandy Salzman, the current director — she actually started as an assistant to Carpenter — said that the entire neighborhood changed through the work of the NKCDC. What began as a housing oriented group has grown to support the community and provide new greening initiatives, like the Sustainable 19125 program.
That effort does everything from train environmentally knowledgeable block captains to encouraging people to ride bikes rather than drive.
But it all started with trying to keep trash out of vacant lots.
“If we could make an impact on the vacant land in our community, we figured we could help take care of the whole neighborhood,” she said.
Cleaning and greening, she said, not only helped the area look better and got residents to care more for their community, but it also helped people from outside the area see Kensington in a new light.
“When you’re talking about tipping points in the neighborhoods, this is what allowed people to see our neighborhood better,” she said. “We want that. We want to allow people to see this as a better place.”
With so much done in 25 years, the founders of the NKCDC made it a point to note that they couldn’t have done the work alone.
They had a great staff at the NKCDC for more than two decades, they said, and residents were always ready to volunteer to help make the neighborhood better.
“The staff worked like dogs,” said Simon. “It was really always about the staff.”
“The one thing Kensington has never been short of, it’s people willing to do hard work,” noted Carpenter.
“I’m really proud of the work these guys did,” said Clifford. “Everybody just really wanted to do something good.”
Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org