If you’ve ever been on the Market-Frankford line through the heart of Kensington, you’ve certainly been through the curve where the El turns from over Front Street to over Kensington Avenue, just north of the York-Dauphin Station in the Norris Square neighborhood. It’s not only fun, but a great tour of the heart of nineteenth century industrial Philadelphia. You stare directly at some of the oldest factories and rowhomes in the city. And if you’ve been there recently and looked west, you may have been surprised by what you’ve seen. Where there used to be several abandoned buildings and empty lots, there are now several blocks of new townhouses that look like they are in the Caribbean and a big, new modern school.
I used to go through there, years ago on my way to work, and I always thought that that area was the most blighted stretch of the trip. Besides the abandoned buildings and empty lots west of the El, there are two big old factories just to the east, with tall, arched windows. I always thought that they would be great to renovate into apartments or the like, but the neighborhood seemed too blighted and too far from Center City for that to happen any time soon. Since those times, a community group called the Norris Square Civic Association has started a dramatic revitalization effort. The NSCA was started in 1982 by a group of Puerto Rican immigrant women who were tired of drug dealers hanging out in Norris Square Park at Susquehanna Avenue and Howard Street, just a couple short blocks from the El. The women organized a large community organization, over the years, that provides education, job training, and housing for the low-income neighborhood. The NSCA has also become a developer of housing. Which brings me back to why you would be surprised with the view west of the York-Dauphin Station. The 48 new townhouses, which were started in 2008 and recently finished, run for three blocks along Howard Street and are called the Hunter Homes. They are called that because of the modern K-8 elementary school called the William H. Hunter School. That school was built on a site on Howard Street, just west of the turn in the El, that used to be a mix of abandoned rowhomes and pre-Street Administration empty lots, filled with garbage, that were the highlight of the western view as the El was turning.
The new school and homes are intended to create a livable neighborhood in the post-industrial blight of Norris Square. The homes are likely intended to provide quality affordable housing within walking distance of the new school. This creates the elements that are most important to a thriving family neighborhood. Most of the residents of Norris Square are immigrants from the Caribbean, so the homes have a distinctive Caribbean style, with stucco walls and terra-cotta rooves that certainly stand out in North Philadelphia.
The neighborhood has seen other improvements recently. As I already mentioned, the Norris Square Civic Association was started to clean up Norris Square Park, in several ways, and it has. On a trip there in 2009, I happened to pass by it and couldn’t help but notice how clean and attractive it looked. Also, the York-Dauphin and Huntingdon Stations on the El have been rebuilt and the sidewalk underneath the El has been rebuilt, with granite curbs, for several blocks on Front & Kensington. As well, one of the old factories just east of the El had a new zoning notice for conversion to apartments in 2009. When I saw that I figured it had finally happened, although, the renovation hadn’t started by my most recent trip there.
Anyways, the neighborhood certainly has reached the point where private developers would be interested. It’s not far from the Old Kensington and Fishtown neighborhoods, where private development is rampant, and the largely rebuilt Ludlow neighborhood next to Temple University (which I’ll have more to say about soon). It is, also, just north of the new Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, which also replaced a horrendously ugly empty lot by the Berks Station.
You can view info on the links that I’ve provided and see photos from a recent trip I took up there, here.