Devastated by job loss, Kensington now hammered by cutbacks
Most big private employers pulled out many years ago. Schools, a potential base for neighborhood recovery, are seeing their budgets sliced dramatically.
by Paul Jablow
From her fifth-floor office window at the headquarters of Congreso, Cynthia Figueroa can look down at Kensington's past and see what she hopes is its future.
A block to the east, at American and Cambria Streets, an abandoned textile factory has been razed, and her Kensington-based human service organization is building an education center and charter school campus in its place.
The center will also house a branch of Harcum College, where local residents will study leadership and management, juvenile justice, human resources, and child care. It's a far cry from the factory jobs once available to anyone with a high school diploma – or perhaps with just a strong back.
Figueroa, president and CEO of Congreso, is confident that with adequate resources, Kensington's youth can be trained for the 21st century job market.
But she worries about whether those resources, including dollars for the public school system, will be there, particularly for students who have dropped out. She's alarmed about the effect of continuing budget cuts and how they might make it difficult to maintain both regular programs and the alternative education programs dealing with students at risk of dropping out or seeking a way back to finish school.
"What's going to be left after [they teach] the kids already in the schools?" she asked. "I'm afraid it's going to get worse before it gets better."
While schools have faced reductions across the board, the Philadelphia School District's budget for alternative education programs has been cut by more than half this school year.
And many of those students affected live in the Kensington area, already hard hit by the shortage of entry-level jobs that pay a living wage.
Memories of industry
Times were not always quite so hard in this neighborhood.
"When I was younger," says lifelong Kensington resident Ken Milano, 52, "you could quit a job in the morning and have another in the afternoon." Milano, a genealogist and author of the book Hidden History of Kensington and Fishtown, says that of 15 close friends, perhaps four went to college.
"The shipbuilding industry went, and then the textile industry followed it," Milano said. In the mid-1920s, he said, Philadelphia had some 70,000 jobs in textiles, and about half were in Kensington.
The grave markers are well known. Stetson Hats and Bromley carpet mills closed their local operations in the 1970s. The Cramp shipyard, which straddled the waterfront of Kensington and Port Richmond, employed some 15,000 people during World War II, enjoyed a brief resurgence in the Korean War, and then was gone permanently. Frankford Arsenal, another major employer of Kensington residents, shut down in 1987.
"We were the nexus of labor, transportation, and raw materials," says Henry Pyatt, commercial corridor manager at the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC).
No more. Manufacturing employment in Philadelphia plummeted from more than 250,000 jobs to 52,500 between 1969 and 2001 alone, according to an analysis of federal labor statistics by Michelle Schmitt of the Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators project at Temple University. By 2010, that number had shrunk below 25,000, according to a Pew Foundation report. In all, over a period of four decades, nine out of ten manufacturing jobs went away.
And Kensington and the surrounding neighborhoods were the most devastated by this decline, with retail replacing only a fraction of the old manufacturing jobs.
"When I got here [in 1986], the businesses were gone, the banks were gone," says Patricia DeCarlo, executive director of the Norris Square Civic Association. "But the people were still here."
The departure of industry "has really whacked those communities," says Bob Collazo, senior manager of business services for the city Department of Commerce. "The $40-$50 an hour [manufacturing] job has been supplanted by the service industry wage scale. There's been the predictable economic and social dislocation, crime, drug use, and broken families. It's a long, hard slog back."
Pyatt and NKCDC's executive director, Sandy Saltzman, see signs that the "slog" may be underway: an old industrial building housing a mental health clinic; an abandoned textile mill carved into artisans' suites; a working farm on the cleaned-up site of a galvanizing plant.
But "many of them haven't got to the point of hiring people," Pyatt says. "Eventually they may, but not yet."
Downsizing hits education
In a neighborhood like this, public institutions like schools can serve as anchors of the community. Both traditional schools and alternative programs that rescue dropouts give students skills and prepare them in other ways for the more demanding economic reality.