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 email@example.com