Just returned from a 3 day visit to Philadelphia by way of a program sponsored by NeighborWorks America. It’s a peer to peer site visit to learn more about how other organizations operate. Some organizations function more like construction companies or property managers providing affordable housing to urban and rural populations that are otherwise underserved primarily because of their location or their per capita income. I chose the New Kensington Community Development Corporation(NKCDC) in Philadelphia because of the neighborhoods they represent and their emphasis on community organizing.
The Kensington Neighborhoods and the adjacent FishTown neighborhoods were once growing prosperous neighborhoods benefiting from a large industrial base built along the banks of the Delaware River. Over the last 40 years those industrial businesses have moved on, disappeared or evolved into something else leaving behind vacant properties, parking lots, walled compounds and quickly deteriorating infrastructure-some are even environmental nightmares and brownfield experiments left for someone else to deal with.
As you might expect property valves dropped, people moved out, crime increased, blight started growing like a disease in these once middle class neighborhoods. Ethnically divided neighborhoods of Puerto Ricans, Anglos and African Americans all met in one large High School that was filled with misbehavior, violence and a graduation rate of 10%. This was not a place where most people would want to live, work or raise a family. Drugs, crime and prostitution were on the raise and something had to be done. NKCDC started organizing, working block by block to energize residents around greening their neighborhoods.
NKCDC partnered with businesses and government to try new things like adopting vacant lots, clearing them of trash and debris. Some remain as simple green spaces with a few trees or a bench. Others are more developed with beautiful landscaping, ornate gates and sculptures created by local artist. Turning these once blighted spaces into neighborhood assets. Improving ‘Curb Appeal’, providing community gathering spaces for distribution of NKCDC services like the Farm to Home program providing fresh fruit and vegetables to residents at an affordable price. These spaces have become a catalyst for an Urban Farm complete with produce, flowers, plants, chickens, goats and bees.
These efforts have spurred resident buy in and help create a new interest of investors in replacing aging housing structures, adding new restaurants, and businesses. The Sustainability 19125 project, has had a major impact on these neighborhoods with an emphasis on Art, Greening, Community Mobility and Engagement, Healthy Lifestyles and just a general attitude change of getting things done. This kind of effort and the visual results that follow are because of someone making the first move to make a change in an dying neighborhood. Today these neighborhoods still have much work to be done or shall we say many opportunities to be explored but because of NKCDC and the partnerships they have formed with the City, the State and the support they have received from private investors and the residents that live in these neighborhoods – New Kensington/ FishTown are making a comeback-not to what they were in the past rather to what they will be in the future. A place to live, work and raise a family in!