Northeast Times

25 Years and Counting for the NKCDC

A look back at the humble be­gin­nings of the New Kens­ing­ton Com­munity De­vel­op­ment Cor­por­a­tion.

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 hmit­man@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at hmitman@bsmphilly.com.

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