If Kensington had a front entrance, it might be the rail underpass at Kensington and Lehigh Avenues. But until recently, the vacant lot beside the underpass, at 2713-19 Kensington Avenue, just attracted litter and illegal dumping. It was a burden to the small, close-knit block of neighbors on nearby Tusculum Street.
Starting last winter, NKCDC worked in partnership with Shift Capital, Hinge Collective, PennDesign, PennPraxis, and Tusculum Street neighbors to bring new life to that space.
Our work began in a typical way, supporting Penn students as they began to talk to neighbors and partners about the potential of the site. But as the semester continued, and the lot became more of an extension of a homeless encampment in the underpass, we saw we would need a new approach to help that space welcome the whole Kensington community.
With a variety of ideas from the students, NKCDC received a grant from the Knight Foundation to pilot a healing-centered approach to this gateway project. We intentionally slowed down our implementation schedule. We tried out some new event formats. We worked with neighbors to identify positive and negative ways the lot has been used in the past, giving people the opportunity to see the site in a different light.
Over the summer, the City of Philadelphia cleared the homeless encampment, and a Kensington Wish Gallery became the first major addition to the space. During Rock Ministries’ Rock the Block party on Kensington Avenue in August, residents were asked to name wishes for their neighborhood. Chris Baker Evens took portraits that were mounted on were mounted on clothes lines along the freight rail wall. The Gallery is a diverse portrait of Kensington, with each person photographed holding their handwritten wish.
Most people were eager to share their wishes, and there was a lot of shared vision for Kensington, whether people lived down the block or had lived in a homeless encampment. “I dream of a safe, healthy, affordable and beautiful Kensington,” one participant wrote.
Later in the year, team members met with Tusculum neighbors to make sure that all their ideas were heard and represented in the next improvements of the space. We worked to co-create the improvements with neighbors, and do it in a way that gave the space and the block time to heal. Over several meetings, neighbors also gave the space a name – Tusculum Square – and created a sign that welcomes the community and reminds people to be respectful of those who live next door.
Finally, at the end of 2018, NKCDC staff, Hinge Collective staff, and about forty volunteers worked to level the lot, add new lighting, install seven large planter boxes, plant five trees, lay new sod and paint the sidewalk.
NKCDC hopes Tusculum Square will be a space of healing and joy for Kensington neighbors. Already we have noticed less litter accumulating on the lot, and the planter boxes seem to have stopped the illegal dumping as well. Step by step, with the support of residents and community organizations, we are working to create the “safe, healthy, affordable and beautiful Kensington” we all wish for.