A version of this essay was originally published by Billy Penn.
The gun violence on one tiny block — the one where Rocky cared for his turtle — tells a startling story.
I started my job as executive director of New Kensington Community Development Corporation on the second day of November 2020. The offices of our nonprofit serving Philadelphia’s Kensington, Port Richmond, and Fishtown neighborhoods are located on Ruth Street, a block from the Somerset El stop.
Just three days after I started, there was a grim reminder of the emotional and physical battle I would face in this work: a triple shooting on the nearby corner of Kensington and Tusculum.
Tusculum is only one short block on our side of Kensington Avenue. Ironically, you may already know it: Rocky lived there as he courted Adrian and took care of his turtle in the legendary 1976 movie.
The Inquirer reported last year that 57 blocks in Philadelphia saw 10 or more shootings over the past decade. Twenty-five of those were in Kensington. That Rocky block of Tusculum had 15 shootings last year alone. Six ended in death.
About 350 feet long and 150 feet wide, the block is essentially the size of a football field. You can imagine that if the Eagles were playing that field in 2021, every player on the offense or defense — plus four officials — would have been shot. Almost half would die, and everyone would no doubt act with urgency.
My neighbors shouldn’t have to be Philadelphia sports icons for their lives to matter. The violence I describe impacts residents, people who are unsheltered, people suffering from substance use disorder, people selling drugs — and the city, state and nonprofit employees doing everything they can to make things better. The underpaid social service workers and neighbors who end up taking care of those family members are traumatized every day by the continued cycle of violence.
Instead of receiving proper support, my neighbors are vilified for wanting this to end. When we try to advocate, we risk getting frozen out by the city, state, or whoever, simply for saying what’s obvious to everyone who lives here: Current strategies are not working.
Like others, I am also aware that doing my job could lead to a bullet in my head.
Gun violence is personal
Last August, a colleague and I were giving a tour of the area to an employee of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. On the corner of Tusculum and Kensington we came upon a man with a severed artery in his calf. We used our clothing to make a tourniquet to stabilize the bleeding while waiting on an ambulance. During that time, we were threatened by the dealers who ran the corner because our aid was disrupting business.
In September, a colleague and I drove back to the office after a staff retreat. About two blocks from the office we were almost hit by another car at an intersection. I looked into the other car and could see three men, nervous and jumpy. When we pulled away they followed behind us, almost against our bumper. We pulled over at the office, they pulled around us and drove to the end of Ruth Street, turned onto Tusculum, and shots rang out. They had killed the block captain.
In December, colleagues and I were on a walking tour of the area with representatives from Philadelphia’s Department of Commerce. Arriving at the corner of Kensington and Tusculum, we were approached by a man who was part of the crew selling drugs on the corner, who told us that “people get shot here.” We understood it was not a statement of concern for our safety, but a warning from him to us. A few hours later at that exact spot, two people were shot.
Philadelphia last year recorded 562 homicides, more than ever before. The area most impacted was Kensington. The police district here saw 75 homicides, the highest in the city — and the highest total any district in Philadelphia has ever seen.
Equity, not equality
To illustrate the reality and magnitude of this gun violence, I chose that block of Tusculum because it’s 200 feet from the building I work in, which also provides critical affordable housing.
But I could easily pick F and Clearfield, which is across from my home, by a park with a public library. I could pick Kensington and Allegheny, a major transportation hub. I could pick A and Indiana, the location of veterans’ housing and one of the most important development projects in the region
We cannot wait to address these complex problems. I have summarized my thoughts on this topic before. I will highlight a couple of necessary moves now.
- Plan for equity, not equality. Because of race and class, Kensington’s epidemic of gun violence is being lumped into an overall crisis of violence in Philadelphia. But what is happening in Kensington is not happening everywhere. Rather than pretending all neighborhoods are in this together or are equal, Philadelphia needs to address each neighborhood’s strengths and challenges so that every neighborhood can be healthy and safe. The city needs an equity-based response that acknowledges the historical racism and classism that lead to these numbers, and the unique community trauma they leave behind.
- Work collaboratively to advance the community’s solutions. Philadelphia’s violence is the result of turf battles. But not just battles between rival drug crews. The violence also continues because of battles between the district attorney and the police, between harm reduction advocates and residents, between nonprofits fighting over scarce resources while outside funders dictate strategies to a weary community. The violence continues because people who get to go to safe homes continue their turf battles while we continue to die.
Our heroes are here
I began writing this piece on Martin Luther King Day, a day celebrating a leader who championed non-violence, and who insisted that we can’t wait patiently to address grave injustice.
Kensington cannot accept this level of terror, pain and bloodshed. But we don’t need to wait for heroes, or for leadership.
Our heroes and leaders are already here. While others theorize, wring their hands, or feel moral superiority for their small actions, Kensington residents continue to serve the community 24/7, continue to care for each other’s families and for yours.
Churches continue to heal and nourish, civics continue to serve and organize, and non-profits continue to co-create and provide. What Kensington needs is for those with power and resources to end their turf battles and support community self-determination.
It is local leadership that recognizes the immediacy of Kensington’s situation and is capable and ready to lead. Let us.
My tally of the gun violence that happened last year on a single block of Tusculum
- 1/12/21 – White male, 40, shot
- 1/21/21 – Black male, 60, shot
- 6/3/21 – Black male, 56, shot
- 6/27/21 – White males, 24, 25 and 26, shot
- 9/3/21 – Black males, 18 and 23, shot and killed
- 9/22/21 – White female, 47, shot and killed
- 10/3/21 – Black male, 38, shot and killed; white female 34, shot
- 10/30/21 – White male, 47, shot and killed
- 12/17/21 – Black female, 31, and Black male, 26, both shot
- 12/30/21 – Black male, 22, shot and killed