A look at reality along ‘the avenue’

Jef­frey Stock­bridge pho­to­graphs and in­ter­views the men and wo­men who live life along Kens­ing­ton Av­en­ue for his blog "Kens­ing­ton Blues." While their stor­ies can be ex­amples of the place at its worst, Stock­bridge says the people - and the com­munity - dis­play in­cred­ible strength.

Per­haps the best ex­ample of a typ­ic­al re­ac­tion to the pho­to­graphs on Jef­frey Stock­bridge’s blog “Kens­ing­ton Blues” can be found on the blog it­self.

In one entry titled “Maria’s Block,” Stock­bridge tran­scribed the re­ac­tions of a wo­man named Maria, her fam­ily and her neigh­bors at Kens­ing­ton Av­en­ue and Somer­set Street as they look through a book of his pho­to­graphs in 2009.

“Oh my God, look at her arm,” Maria said.

“I pray and pray and pray for the people like this,” said a man named Robert.

ldquo;You know that I don’t need no cable in my house. I see everything live, live,” Maria said.

On “Kens­ing­ton Blues,” the men and wo­man Stock­bridge pho­to­graphs on Kens­ing­ton Av­en­ue are pic­tured in stark real­ity — you can plainly see the in­jec­tion sores on one wo­man’s arms and the des­pair in the eyes of a wo­man who had been raped minutes be­fore Stock­bridge took her pic­ture.

Stock­bridge has been pho­to­graph­ing men and wo­men on Kens­ing­ton Av­en­ue since 2008. The people he cap­tures with his cam­era have some heavy stor­ies to tell: stor­ies of lives crippled by ad­dic­tion, of days and nights selling sex for money or drugs, or of life spent simply watch­ing the world go by from the front steps of a house.

On the blog, you can hear these stor­ies straight from the source. Stock­bridge em­beds a click­able au­dio file un­der most pho­to­graphs, so a vis­it­or to the blog can listen to the voice of the storyteller while read­ing the tran­scribed in­ter­view.

“It’s a lot harder to write some­body off when you can hear them talk to you,” Stock­bridge said.

Stock­bridge, who runs the print­ing busi­ness Stock­bridge Fine Art Print, had been pho­to­graph­ing aban­doned houses in the city as part of pro­ject that grew out of his seni­or thes­is at Drexel Uni­versity, where he was study­ing pho­to­graphy.

In one house in West Philly, he met a wo­man who was selling sex for drugs. She told him about Kens­ing­ton Av­en­ue.

“I didn’t really know wo­men were out there in such high num­bers,” he said. “I found one story to be really pas­sion­ate and har­row­ing, so I went out in search of more.”

The first time he vis­ited the av­en­ue, he said he was a bit ap­pre­hens­ive about the un­fa­mil­i­ar place. He said he knew, though, that all he had to do was start talk­ing to people.

“That’s how you be­come fa­mil­i­ar with it [a neigh­bor­hood], you talk to its res­id­ents.”

He said people of­ten ask him how he “gets” the men and wo­men on the av­en­ue to talk to him. He in­sists, though, that it’s not about “get­ting” any­thing; a con­ver­sa­tion either hap­pens or it doesn’t.

“It [a con­ver­sa­tion] hap­pens if there is something to talk about, if there’s some sort of com­mon ground,” he said. “It could be something you wit­ness to­geth­er at the same time, something small. You can re­late to any­body in this city if you’re will­ing to be open-minded.”

“One of the things I love about Philly is people talk to people in this city,” he con­tin­ued. “People in this city are very out­spoken.”

He said his work for Kens­ing­ton Blues is primar­ily about the hu­man con­nec­tion, and about com­mu­nic­at­ing the stor­ies of the people on the av­en­ue.

“They be­come hu­man, you real­ize what you have in com­mon with them,” he said of the people in the pho­to­graphs.

“Any­body can end up on Kens­ing­ton Av­en­ue.”

Stock­bridge said he doesn’t know how long he’ll con­tin­ue to pho­to­graph the av­en­ue. He said some­times he thinks he could do it for years, while oth­er times he feels like he doesn’t want his work to be one-note.

In the years he’s been run­ning the blog, he said he’s be­com­ing very con­nec­ted to the av­en­ue, even in what would be con­sidered hor­ri­fy­ing mo­ments.

While work­ing there one day, he heard three gun­shots, turned around and saw someone fall, then watched as one per­son ran past him and the gun­man ran the oth­er way.

“I didn’t feel fear,” he said, “I felt shock, I felt this odd sort of con­nec­tion to the loc­a­tion, to be sub­jec­ted to wit­ness­ing such a scen­ario.”

He said it’s an ex­ample of a real­ity.

“I wanted to be there, be­cause it’s about real­ity, and it’s about wit­ness­ing something that is so hor­rible, but so raw and so real.”

In ad­di­tion to pho­to­graph­ing, in­ter­view­ing and re­cord­ing people on the av­en­ue, Stock­bridge also car­ries a journ­al in which he al­lows people to write mes­sages.

One mes­sage reads: “Kens­ing­ton is not just drugs and pros­ti­tu­tion, there are people here who live and love life, there are those stor­ies of us who are try­ing to do right and live life…I will con­tin­ue to be happy.”

Stock­bridge said such mes­sages make clear that there are people to thank for Kens­ing­ton not be­ing worse than it is.

“There’s something so alive in Kens­ing­ton,” he said. “What’s hap­pen­ing now is fant­ast­ic. There’s a men­tal­ity shift,” he said, ref­er­en­cing the de­vel­op­ment in the neigh­bor­hood, gal­lery open­ings and the move­ment of young people in­to neigh­bor­hood spaces. “It’s a step in the right dir­ec­tion.”

He said that the prob­lems of drug use, pros­ti­tu­tion and crime on the av­en­ue are in­cred­ibly com­plic­ated ones.

“It’s so com­plex,” he said. “That’s why nobody knows how to fix it.”

Stock­bridge has re­cog­nized, though, that while the av­en­ue is known as a one-stop shop for sex and drugs, the people there share a con­nec­tion.

“They’re all in this war to­geth­er,” he said. “They’re kind of like sol­diers…they’re all bat­tling the same demons. There’s this odd sense of com­munity and this bond that ex­ists there.”

He’s found, he said, that the people he meets dis­play an in­cred­ible sense of strength.

“What ini­tially I per­ceived as a lot of people who were suf­fer­ing, and a lot of people who had these hor­rible weak­nesses, it’s really turned in­to me see­ing a lot of in­cred­ibly strong people who are put­ting them­selves through in­cred­ibly tough situ­ations,” he said.

He said that while he doesn’t think the drug use on the av­en­ue is ever go­ing to go away, he is op­tim­ist­ic about the men­tal­ity shift and the people in Kens­ing­ton.

“Kens­ing­ton’s got char­ac­ter,” he said. “You feel the weight of that neigh­bor­hood.”

Star Man­aging Ed­it­or Mi­kala Jam­is­on can be reached at 215-354-3113 or at mjam­is­on@bsmphilly.com.

Vis­it the blog at www.kens­ing­ton­blues.com.

You can reach at mjamison@bsmphilly.com.

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