Kensington, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation

Kensington, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Target Area: New Kensington

BCJI Awardee: New Kensington Community Development Corporation

Research Partner: Center for Urban Research and Education at Rutgers University

Focus Areas: Abatement, Open Air Drug Markets, Housing

BCJI Funding Year: FY2018

Neighborhood Characteristics

The Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation (BCJI) project in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, overlaps both the Fairhill and Kensington neighborhoods, but the area is known broadly as Kensington. It has a robust transit system that connects residents to Center City Philadelphia, the state's largest employment center. Kensington has an unusually diverse and continually growing population. The neighborhood residents are young, increasingly Spanish-speaking, and low-income. Kensington is the home of community festivals, block parties, several parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, and a very active library. Unfortunately, the project area is also the epicenter of Philadelphia's opioid epidemic. 

The decline of Philadelphia's textile industry in the 1950s took a toll on the neighborhood in the decades that followed. As residents and jobs left Kensington, the physical and social makeup of the neighborhood was disrupted. The decrease in job opportunities led to a decline in residents, as well as the businesses and institutions they supported. This pattern replicated itself across cities nationwide, but the extremes are particularly acute in Kensington. Vacant buildings and lots, a reminder of Kensington's industrial past, take up a combined 13 percent of the neighborhood area, and provide ideal cover for the drug trade.

Historically a White working-class community, Kensington is currently considerably more diverse: 63 percent of residents consider themselves ethnically Hispanic, overlapping with racial identities that are 40 percent White, 22 percent Black, and 4 percent biracial. Kensington and Fairhill are the center of the Latino and Hispanic community citywide. In addition to the area's established Hispanic population, the neighborhood received an influx of Puerto Rican residents displaced by the hurricanes in 2018. 

The median household income in the target area is barely half of Philadelphia's collective median income. Almost 60 percent of Kensington households live in poverty, which is two-and-a-half times that of Philadelphia, and four-and-a-half times the poverty rate for the state of Pennsylvania. The lowest income levels are clustered near Hope Park with an average annual household income low of $9,597 in one census tract.

Job loss, vacancies, blight, and significant demographic shifts would pose a challenge for any community in the best of circumstances, but these problems have been compounded over the last 10 years as Kensington, part of the Philadelphia/Camden High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), became the epicenter of the opioid epidemic on the East Coast. Kensington's location within Philadelphia and its proximity to the interstate make it an "ideal" distribution point; this, combined with a dense walkable street grid, the prevalence of vacant land and buildings, decades of economic distress, and the increase of opioid use and addiction, have allowed the development of the largest open-air drug trade on the East Coast. The open-air drug market brought with it a sharp growth in the unsheltered population, and Kensington currently holds half of the city's homeless population.

Decades of disruption and disinvestment within Kensington have taken their toll on the community and the association residents feel towards it. High housing turnover, particularly in a neighborhood where over 60 percent of the households are renters, makes it a challenge to build lasting bonds with neighbors. The drastic demographic changes in the past 20 years, along with the language and cultural barriers, have contributed to a loss of connectivity between neighbors throughout the neighborhood.

Over the last three years, the rate of narcotics violations has increased by nearly 36 percent and is 25 times greater than the City of Philadelphia. Since 2015, the rate of violent crime decreased in Kensington. However, that positive change is diminished by the fact that the rate of violent crime remains three times greater than the city as a whole.

As with many urban areas throughout the U.S., gentrification and displacement are quickly becoming a challenge to Kensington's residents. As development of luxury residences pushes north, Kensington will soon be touched by the real estate boom. Prioritizing resident safety, addressing blight and quality-of-life concerns, and bolstering neighbors' ability to organize and come together become crucial in helping residents overcome the opioid crisis and fight displacement.

Kensington Collective Efficacy Project: We CAN Collaborative

We CAN (Change and Action Now) is a collaboration between three organizations entrenched in and committed to Kensington, each with decades of community development experience: New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC), HACE CDC, and Impact Services Corporation. In the absence of a singular anchor institution in the neighborhood, the We CAN collaboration provides an opportunity to bring together the collective resources and capacity of its partner organizations. We CAN has been championed by residents and stakeholders for being innovative in its agency collaboration, resident engagement, support of existing efforts, and the amplification of community assets. Their vision is a safe and unified neighborhood where residents work together to build trust, eliminate crime, and advocate for their community.

The project's success and sustainability relies on each partner's relationships with residents, institutions, civic groups, faith-based organizations, and other local stakeholders forged over many years of work in the neighborhood. Additionally, each partner has the ability to leverage assets based on their trajectory and comprehensive neighborhood plans. Finally, each partner organization brings with it specific areas of expertise, such as housing counseling, commercial corridor management, real estate, and workforce development, that will help inform and expand the reach of the BCJI work.

Planning Phase

The We CAN Planning Phase took place over a nine-month engagement period. During this time, the goals were to collect data, spread the word about the project, reach as many residents as possible, and forge relationships with key partners for implementation. It was also a time to establish We CAN's initiative and vision.

We CAN engaged over 1,400 residents at 67 events, which included:

  • A community dinner, which was the public launch of the collaborative;
  • Four monthly community meetings open to residents, stakeholders, and partner agencies;
  • Five Chat-and-Chew dinners that brought together small peer groups to forge closer relationships;
  • Six seasonal activities;
  • Two cohorts of the Livability Academy;
  • Seventeen community events, clean-ups, and resource fairs;
  • Three monthly safety clinics;
  • Two Police Buddy field trips facilitated by the Philadelphia Police Department; and
  • Twenty-five creative place-making activities geared at using art to bring people together.

We CAN collected crime data to verify 10 crime hot spots and gathered 157 baseline survey responses to measure social cohesion, collective efficacy, perceptions of safety, and attitudes towards the police. The project team also created an asset map and identified key blocks to work on during the Implementation Phase. These blocks were selected by their proximity to the hot spots, as well as existing relationships with residents.

During the Planning Phase, We CAN also worked on strengthening their collaborative initiative, setting joint goals, and establishing better ways of working together. All the information and feedback received during the Planning Phase helped the BCJI team refine their strategies to implement the following goals:

  1. Increasing collective efficacy,
  2. Strengthening collaboration between the community and the police, and
  3. Reducing physical disorder.

This project is supported by Cooperative Agreement No. 2018-BJ-BX-K035 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions contained herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. References to specific agencies, companies, products, or services should not be considered an endorsement by the author(s) or the U.S. Department of Justice. Rather, the references are illustrations to supplement discussion of the issues.

Other Key Partners

Philadelphia Police Department 24th District, 24th District Police District Advisory Council, Art LifeStyle, Barnes Foundation, Community Life Improvement Program, Congreso, Edison High School, Esperanza, Friends of Hope Park, Friends of Hissey Park, Friends of McPherson Library, Harrowgate Civic Association, Iglesia del Barrio, Kensington, Health and Sciences Charter School, Kensington Neighborhood Association, Kensington Soccer Club, Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Mill Creek Community Partnership, Mural Arts, Philadelphia Office Anti-Violence, Philadelphia Horticultural society, Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation, Office of Emergency Management, Philadelphia Office of Managing Director, Philadelphia Police Office of Community Relations, Philadelphia Zoo, Porchlight, Resilience Project City of Philadelphia, Rock Ministries, Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School, Honorable Maria D. Quinones-Sanchez, Somerset Neighbors for a Better Living, Theater of Witness, Town Watch, Willard Elementary School

Scroll to preview content. Please sign in to read and get access to more member only content.

IACP - Loader Animation IACP - Loader Animation IACP - Loader Animation