Map it out – the extent of obvious misery

Here I am in the Kensington area of Philadelphia.

The row houses in the Kensington area were originally built for workers in the vicinity of the factories that employed them. They are a monument to industriousness and dignity. The factories were not social institutions, but apparently it was possible for many families to live in their own little house in the neighbourhood. It was a short commute to the workplace. There were many little corner stores selling things of daily needs, and bars for those who had daily or occasional wants. Some avenues were commercial districts with a variety of stores and shops. I have seen a library in a park, schools and a hospital – all in a similar architectural style making use of brickwork, just the way the factories were built. And there were many churches to comfort the ones hit by hardship and to celebrate with the ones who were able to make it.

Industrial Beauty - a restored factory portal in Kensinton
Industrial Beauty – a restored factory portal in Kensington

I spent two days walking the streets of this area of simple splendour:

The factories are gone, the jobs lost; many industrial buildings are still here, boarded up, some ruined, a few converted for other uses.

A former source of wealth and employment - boarded up manufacturing plant in Kensington.
A former source of wealth and employment – boarded up manufacturing plant in Kensington.

And the long rows of houses are telling their own sad story:

Kensington area street impression.
Kensington area street impression.

Minimal upkeep, little hope, and visible misery. According to Simple Way, the neighbourhood has lost 200,000 jobs in the last four decades. 500 factories are abandoned, as well as about 20,000 homes. Little two story homes, each of them 16 feet wide, with a neat bay window on the second floor, three bedrooms, and a tiny yard on the alley side. Real estate – but small estates for a working class home owner.

Some families were affluent enough that they could move elsewhere, following employment opportunities. As the worker’s families moved out or were displaced, other families moved in, following the gradient of desirability and cost. Some of the former workers stayed in their own homes and are now quite elderly. The vast inventory of low-cost housing attracted newly arrived immigrants. Entire communities of Caribbean origin were able to establish themselves in the Kensington area.

But sufficient employment opportunities are lacking. The early morning noise level around the subway station indicates that a fair number of people from Kensington commute into other areas of Philadelphia for work. However, the number of people loitering on every street corner all day also indicates that this neighbourhood has a huge untapped reservoir of potential. Unfortunately, a large percentage of the people encountered in the streets are under the influence of some substance.

The vibe in the streets is fuelled by raw emotion – heightened by a variety of substances. It is unfamiliar and uncomfortable for me to be so close to that anger, anguish, pain, and brokenness; but the vibe is also carried by passion, lust, and the search for love. I witness many expressions of alternate realities, people speaking to themselves, to imaginary conversation partners, maybe to God. There are limited opportunities to engage as a visitor on a meaningful level.

Dark corners and abandoned factories in Kensington - revealing their own unique charm
Dark corners and abandoned factories in Kensington – revealing their own unique charm

The number of abandoned factories is in my impression equaled by the number of religious ministries, charitable organizations, and social services institutions. It reminds me of Kampala, where 20,000 registered charities are operational and every street corner and every second vehicle bears a logo of an aid organization. But I have a hard time discerning the impact of that multitude of good will and intervention.

I am a walking target for many requests for direct help. People that have become dependent on charity beg. The needs and wants to participate in a consumerist society and to satisfy the cravings of addiction are much bigger than the best social safety network will be able to provide. But I know that a couple of quarters here and there will not make a better world: People in Kensington do not need charity, they need social justice.

However, social justice is not easy to create. The market forces are still working in the opposite direction. Simple Way has been present in the neighbourhood for almost fifteen years now. It is a small cell of people with privileges that live among the ones with fewer privileges. The organization also runs a variety of community development programs. Shane Claiborne, one of the founders explained, that he is able to see incremental improvements in the direct vicinity of the Simple Way.

There are no longer burning vehicles in the streets almost every night. The number of shootings has also decreased. Shane attributes some of the progress made to the opening up of public spaces, after the removal of derelict factories and other infrastructure. A process of physical clean up that seems to induce some healing in the community.

Let the sun and the light shine more into the darker corners of Kensington.

The sun illuminating one of the areas improved by a SImple Way initiative
The sun illuminating one of the areas improved by a Simple Way initiative

I am not sure if some of the progress is also attributable to the respectful coexistence across cultural and class barriers – respect towards the other human being who is as much a carrier of the divine spark as the one inspired and called by God or a religious organization to be active in this area of obvious misery.

When is this misery going to end? This is a question that I don’t dare to answer. I agree with Jim Wallis, that it likely is the wrong question to ask. In his book Rediscovering Values – On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street Wallis proposes that the more appropriate question in reaction to the burden of the economic woes is “how will this crisis change us?”

For today, I will leave you with the mapping of the obvious misery. The above map will simply show you the extent of the neighbourhood in Philadelphia that is most affected by the effects of globalization. In a future post, I will write more about the question put forward by Wallis at the 2010 World Economic Forum in Davos. I invite you to share your experiences with obvious misery, and your thoughts on how this crisis will change us.

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