Taking back the block

To com­bat crime and ad­dress loc­al is­sues, res­id­ents form the or­gan­iz­a­tion Somer­set Neigh­bors for Bet­ter Liv­ing.

In Kens­ing­ton, a com­munity plagued by drugs and pros­ti­tu­tion, neigh­bors are fight­ing back.

And if all goes ac­cord­ing to plan, Kens­ing­ton’s streets will be­come safer for chil­dren to play on. Va­cant lots, which

can be urb­an hide­aways for crim­in­al activ­ity, will be parks. 

And in­stead of aban­doned build­ings, there will be re­cre­ation cen­ters.

But it isn’t an overnight plan or a pipe dream of one in­di­vidu­al.  These are the goals of the city’s new­est civic as­so­ci­ation, Somer­set Neigh­bors for Bet­ter Liv­ing, com­posed of res­id­ents who aim to be of ser­vice to the Kens­ing­ton com­munity, mostly in areas near the Mar­ket-Frank­ford El­ev­ated Line at Kens­ing­ton Av­en­ue and Somer­set Street.

Dur­ing a March 5 meet­ing at the Com­munity Wo­men’s Edu­ca­tion Pro­ject, at Frank­ford Av­en­ue and Somer­set Street, neigh­bors said the com­munity ef­fort is over­due.

“Even­tu­ally what we want is a com­munity-led or­gan­iz­a­tion that is fa­cil­it­ated and run by neigh­bors,” said Kev­in Mus­sel­man, the Kens­ing­ton-area neigh­bor­hood ad­vis­ory com­mit­tee co­ordin­at­or for the New Kens­ing­ton Com­munity De­vel­op­ment Corp. “Right now we’re just help­ing them get there.”

The com­munity ef­fort began as a joint pro­ject between the NK­CDC and the Com­munity Design Col­lab­or­at­ive to pro­duce a neigh­bor­hood plan­ning study for the next 15 to 20 years.

“We’re just try­ing to make this neigh­bor­hood a bet­ter place for neigh­bors to live in,” said Mus­sel­man. “I think there is a lot in this neigh­bor­hood to be proud of. It has a bad repu­ta­tion and there are bad things that hap­pen, but there are great people who live here.”

The new group’s ex­act reach has yet to be voted on, but the bound­ar­ies are tent­at­ively set to in­clude Kens­ing­ton and Frank­ford av­en­ues between Le­high Av­en­ue and Somer­set Street. The pro­gram aims to change the lack of pub­lic space around the Somer­set El stop and re­vital­ize the neigh­bor­hood.

The SN­BL is a spe­cial­ized group, in­ten­ded to serve a small area, bring­ing to­geth­er those at the heart of the neigh­bor­hood.

“The great people who live here are sick of the bad pub­li­city and repu­ta­tion that come with liv­ing in this area,” Mus­sel­man ad­ded.  “A lot of this is about com­munity pride and act­iv­ism.”

With com­ple­tion of that neigh­bor­hood plan last Septem­ber, the SN­BL has had monthly meet­ings since Novem­ber. From 30 to 100 com­munity mem­bers have turned out for the ses­sions, with vis­its from mem­bers of the 24th Po­lice Dis­trict and the area’s city coun­cil­man, Mark Squilla (D-1st dist.), to show their sup­port of the com­munity ef­forts.

In ad­di­tion, the SN­BL has four com­mit­tees that fo­cus on spe­cif­ic is­sues in the com­munity, each run by ap­poin­ted and pas­sion­ate mem­bers.

The com­mit­tees en­com­pass a clean-and-green com­mit­tee, which in­tends to spruce up area parks and lots; youth en­gage­ment, which wants to in­volve young people in com­munity activ­it­ies; li­censes and in­spec­tions, which fo­cuses on tar­get­ing and fix­ing aban­doned build­ings; and a wel­come com­mit­tee, which will host potlucks and oth­er events to make new neigh­bors feel con­nec­ted in the com­munity. 

At the most re­cent meet­ing, mem­ber Car­los Mitti presen­ted a list of sev­er­al va­cant lots that he hopes to even­tu­ally see turned in­to com­munity cen­ters for chil­dren.

In ad­di­tion, youth-en­gage­ment com­mit­tee lead­er Ren­ee Mas­sey said her goal is to make the com­munity safer by hav­ing more play­grounds for chil­dren to en­joy.

“Par­ents will be a ma­jor source of the pro­ject,” she said. “They need to make com­mit­ments. If the par­ents aren’t go­ing to make them­selves avail­able and know where these activ­it­ies are, then it is not go­ing to be suc­cess­ful.”

Dur­ing the ses­sion, Coun­cil­man Squilla also ex­pressed his de­vo­tion to the area, but said the re­viv­al pro­ject would not be easy.

ldquo;I can’t do this by my­self, you can’t do this by your­self,” Squilla told the roughly 40 people in at­tend­ance. “We need to do it to­geth­er. You need to be our eyes and ears and in­form us. Without your help, wheth­er it’s graf­fiti re­mov­al or clean­ing the neigh­bor­hood, if you don’t tell any­body, it stays there. But if you call and get on it, someone will do it.”

Mem­bers of the group seemed op­tim­ist­ic for the fu­ture, re­gard­less of the obstacles ahead. The next steps in­clude a com­munity walk-through with city in­spect­ors, week­end cleanups, and spring plant­ings at Kens­ing­ton Farms, Frank­ford Av­en­ue and Cam­bria Street.

“It’s about chan­ging the per­cep­tion of this neigh­bor­hood,” Mus­sel­man said. “That’s why we came up with the name ‘Bet­ter Liv­ing.’ It’s something pos­it­ive.”

“I think the area around the El stop has been known as be­ing about heroin and pros­ti­tutes for the longest time,” Mus­sel­man ad­ded. “Wouldn’t it be great if the people who live in this area were hav­ing potlucks and movies night for kids, and do­ing all these great things, and that was in the news?” ••

The next Somer­set Neigh­bors for Bet­ter Liv­ing meet­ing will be 6:30 p.m. Monday, April 2, at the Com­munity Wo­men’s Edu­ca­tion Pro­ject at Frank­ford Av­en­ue and Somer­set Street.  

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