Growing up in Philly, once a month my parents would pile my brother and me into a car and drive us way outside the city to my grandparents’ house in the country. We would play with cousins, explore the outdoors, and of course stuff ourselves over a large home cooked meal. In a pretty chaotic world these regular routine visits, with people that cared about me and shared so much with me, grounded me and provided me with a sense of community. It was the dinner table above all that was the center of my family’s life and it was my experiences and conversations around that table that shaped who I am. My grandmother was a master of that table. In my Northwest Philly neighborhood, however, my family didn’t do much with our neighbors until it came time to protest or raise a stink about something new happening. I played sports and rode my bike. We shopped and worshipped in the neighborhood but there wasn’t a community.
About On The Table
What then is community? It is more than a house or a neighborhood. It may be cliché at this point, but people are the beating heart. Their daily experiences shape both the physical space and the culture of the neighborhood. It was in recognition of the value of community that this past Thursday (10/17) Al-Bustan and Philadelphia Foundation organized an “On the Table” event in Kensington, a community we have been a part of for more than a decade. We have been providing in/after-school art and music programing to students at Moffet Elementary and have seen the community change over the years. “On the Table” events are designed to bring together various members of the neighborhood around a shared meal, a table where everyone has a seat and can be heard in a true dialogue. From these events, participants are encouraged to apply for activation grants, where they draw upon ideas discussed to continue the conversation, build a stronger community, and a shared future for the neighborhood.
What’s Happening in Kensington?
The deep roots we have in the Kensington community allowed Al-Bustan to facilitate this conversation at Gryphon Coffee, a recent addition to the neighbor. Local businesses like Liberty Choice donated food while residents brought homemade dishes. Multiple generations, languages, and faiths sat at communal tables and shared their thoughts on the changes in the neighborhood. Kensington is home to a tremendously diverse population with both one of the oldest mosques in Philadelphia and many new businesses, shops, and bars. Rapid development has transformed many blocks and left jagged scars across the streets. Construction is everywhere and under aggressive pressure from developers many longtime residents have left Kensington for other Philly neighborhoods. Others continue to struggle to make a life for themselves and their families. Even Moffet has been affected as enrollment decreases due to the changing composition of the population.
To some residents a widening divide exists between the more ethnically and religiously diverse longtime residents of the neighborhood which have called this area their home for years and the newcomers purchasing properties in the “up and coming” (gentrifying) neighborhood either as investment properties or for its proximity to a revived commercial corridor along Frankford and Girard Avenues. For years, longtime residents have supported one another while struggling against the opioid crisis, the construction of the SugarHouse Casino, and rising cost of living (especially rent). Two Kensington’s exist today.
What Al-Bustan is Trying to Do
Out of this meal/conversation Al-Bustan has applied for the activation grant with the goal of bringing these two Kensingtons into conversation with one another. One participant told a story about a feud with a neighbor about parking, that she believed was motivated by racism and Islamophobic bias. It was, however, after extending an invitation to form a connection with her family through the offer of food that they were able to put their differences aside and work together. If Al-Bustan can facilitate such interaction it is possible that a new Kensington made up of new and old residents will take root. Al-Bustan proposes to organize a block party for residents, a community conversation, and community meal in the coming months. With one voice they can discuss their goals and build a future together. With one community they can preserve the vibrant mix that makes Kensington a place to live.
Director of Public Education
Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture