Philadelphia Metropolis

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My Philadelphia: Kensington

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 By Dalyn Montgomery

I learned a new word; "Kenzo".  This new word is even better when used in my favorite insider's movie title, "The Little Kenzo Who Could."  Everyone else thinks Rocky was from South Philadelphia but now I know he was really from K&A. Lots of people are from Kensington.  From, because they all left.

While sitting on my stoop in Port Richmond my next door neighbor explained to me how she wasn't from here, she was from Kensington.  "Uh, that's only one block away," I retorted.  She sucked on her cigarette, shook her head, and began to explain.

Her husband grew up in the house next door to mine.  His parents live five doors down, two more down is his sister.  The lady at the end of the block used to be a teacher; that was 15 years ago; the old folks at the other end of the block weren't old when they moved in.  This whole place used to be old Italians.  Their kids all moved over the river and when the old ladies died, the kids sold the houses to the Irish from Kensington.  No one here
has ever been to Ireland but they all decorate their windows on St. Patrick's
Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Water Town, Kensington.jpg

My neighbor's husband is in the union, so is the guy down the block who sits on his stoop drinking Miller Lite all day.  He is a Kenzo just like her. Everyone
here works two jobs so their girls can go to Little Flower and the boys can get
in trouble at North Catholic. 
During the day there are no cars on the block, at night there are no
parking spots.  Everyone knows
everyone else's business the same way I know the score of the Eagles game
without turning on the television; I hear it all through the walls.We like it here, but we have reason to wonder.

When we first moved in, I inquired about those wooden storage units a couple blocks from my house.  I called the number on the hand painted sign and the man
told me he would meet me there in a few minutes.  He must have been 90 years old.  He met me at the corner and together we walked over to the lot.

"This is a good neighborhood," he explained.  "We look out for each other over here.  We all want it to stay nice, that's why you will never see a for sale sign, everything is sold by word of mouth.  That's how we keep the niggers out."

I stopped walking.

"Pardon?  What do you mean?" I asked hoping I had misunderstood. 

"Niggers and section 8 is what ruined Kensington.  [It] won't happen to us."

I told him I wouldn't be renting a unit from him and he told me he didn't like me anyways.  As I
walked home past two empty warehouses I wondered what really ruined Kensington.

On hot days we all sit on our stoops.  One time we opened a box of popsicles and kids who usually just walk by began to linger.  My wife offered one to the kid from the top of the block and he happily accepted.  We made easy conversation as he leaned on his bicycle and did his best to eat the treat before it melted.  "Where ya been all day?" my wife inquired.  "Swimming," he answered.  "Really?  Where did you go?  Cohox?"

At this he shook his head and said, "No.  My mom won't let me go there cuz there's too many black people."  My wife kept her cool and simply asked what he thought of his mother's rule.  He shrugged his shoulders and said, "Eh, I don't really care."  I believed
him, after all, I had just watched him accept a popsicle from a black woman.

Then there was the time my wife honked at the guy who was just standing in the middle of the road. He was standing there not doing anything except holding up traffic and
when he was honked at, he began kicking the driver's door shouting, "Get out
the car nigger!"  She didn't.  Instead she drove home and described him as a scrawny white guy with a scraggly beard and tattoos, wearing a white tank top.  I angrily went looking
for him and realized she had just described everyone.

There are those people, but then again there is our neighbor's husband who always manages to shovel the snow from our walk before even wake up.  There is the old man who sits in a folding chair on his doorway and smiles and shouts, "lookin'
sharp, reeel sharp!" every time he sees me in a tie.  I don't have to tell the bank teller my name or my account number because she already knows, my mechanic tells me all the stuff on my car that I don't really need to fix, and I found out my picture was in the local
paper only because my barber told me so.

When I go jogging in the mornings I pass boarded up row homes and shuttered factories.  I
run on blue cobble stones that once made up the walls of buildings in the 1876
World's Fair.  I go by Rocky's house from the original film, the one they picked to display how this guy was down on his luck, and it looks even worse today.  I catch my breath by the world famous Tacconelli's pizza place and a man drinking from a brown paper bag tells me to keep up the good work.  And then, just as I get to like it here, we go out of town and upon our return find the windshield of our car smashed out. 

Everyone on our block, the ones who have lived here their whole lives and know everything about everybody, don't know a thing about how it happened, and I have to wonder why. I wonder why we, the newcomer outsiders stay here.

The answer is easy.  We stay the same reason all the old timers stay, the same reason the
newcomers infiltrate, the same reason most people stay anywhere. 

We can afford it.

It's what makes all of us here the same.  I have three bedrooms, two kids, and a place to park.  My paycheck covers the rent, the roof covers my family, and at some level that is all I, or any of my neighbors, care about.

Earlier essays Dalyn Montgomery has written for Metropolis include: Philadelphia 4, Our Car 0Shoes on a Wire and Never Thrown a Punch.


To accompany the My Philadelphia series, we will also run a series of photo essays and videos about the city.  The first, by photographer Alan Barr, is titled Philly Faces

Alan Barr
Photographer Alan Barr chronicles the lives of everyday Philadelphians by patrolling the streets of the city, camera in hand, ready to capture just the right moments.  This slideshow represents a small sample of his large collection of photos.  You can see more on his
photostream on Flickr.  All photos copyrighted by Alan Barr.

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