Abandoned lots, sidewalks, and side yards that span between F and H streets on Westmoreland Street have seen some changes in recent years thanks to a project founded and run by Kensington resident and block captain Jeremy Chen called Klean Kensington.
In Philadelphia’s most recent Litter Index Report in 2019, Kensington was classified as one of the 10 most-littered neighborhoods in the city for 2017 and 2018. The report determined that cleaning up the Kensington area would require “a large cleanup effort and/or heavy machinery to remove debris.”
Between the 700 to 900 blocks of Westmoreland Street, the index classified the area as needing anywhere from a single person to a team of people to see change.
Still, residents find that cleaning the neighborhood isn’t as straightforward as it may seem due to factors outside of their control. Chen explained that adults in the area find cleaning their neighborhood involves barriers like public safety and increased stress associated with being outside.
“Planting trees, having community garden space, the lower stress, all the kinds of things, [neighbors are] like, ‘Yeah, I get it, but I don’t wanna be out there. Just being out here makes me stressed’,” Chen said. “We can create workdays where teens come out and then they feel camaraderie in the midst of it. It’s not to the point where people are regularly gonna use that space outside of the time when we’re doing it,”
Because some residents choose not to engage in cleaning efforts, Chen’s main contributors became teenagers who felt compelled to make a change.
‘I want it to be that easy to do the positive things, grab the equipment, get your gloves, and start working’
Klean Kensington started in 2021 on G Street near Westmoreland Street. A group of volunteers organized a block cleanup to avoid the stagnant feelings in the community associated with the Covid-19 lockdown.
The goal of Klean Kensington is not only beautification but to give teens the opportunity to make money. Through a grant from the Kensington Resilience Fund, Chen pays teens in the neighborhood $15 an hour for 15 hours a week. The organization employs about 15 teenagers throughout the year to clean their respective blocks.
“The way I see it is [we’re] paying them to maintain their neighborhood,” Chen said. “In a wealthy suburb, it’s like paying the teens to mow the lawns, right? The idea is to get them to be present in those spaces where there’s the temptation but also to give them opportunity to have some work.”
Another reason for centering the program around employing teens was to divert them from drug dealing, Chen added.
“It’s that easy to sell drugs.” Chen said. “All you have to do is go to the corner and talk to your guy. Oh, now you’re selling drugs right there. So I want it to be that easy to do the positive things, grab the equipment, get your gloves, and start working.”
The teenagers log their hours, and Chen manages the payroll. In collaboration with the Everence Federal Credit Union inside the Esperanza Health Center located on H Street near Allegheny Avenue, the teens employed by Klean Kensington opened a bank account to receive their paychecks in full and avoid fees associated with Cash App or paper checks.
Simply put, it’s their neighborhood, their streets, and they earn money cleaning them.
Reclaiming tools, land, and a collective community
Cleaning blocks in Kensington differ from cleaning operations in North Philadelphia or other neighborhoods surrounding Kensington. While others may deal with issues like contractors dumping on their blocks, Chen finds that the litter in Kensington is associated closely with drug use.
“It’s multifaceted seeing it be right next to the drugs, within eyesight of the drug corners, or right on the drug corners,” Chen said. “The youth that are right next to those, it’s tough because it all coincides. It’s like the toughest spots also tend to be where, if you had more money, you’d probably move away from it.”
José Rios is one of the few adults who volunteer with the project. Rios said that while volunteering, he’s witnessed the changes they’ve made to the community firsthand.
“They’re happier because they got the opportunity to work, to help out, and that’s been cool,” Rios added.
Klean Kensington chose to plant some of the trees in a cleaned lot that was previously a dumping ground and sits parallel to a drug dealing corner.
Soon after, all of the trees were stolen.
“We all planted a tree, and we gave them names,” said 16-year-old Javier Batista, who has worked with Chen on the Klean Kensington project for nearly two years.
TreePhilly’s Wilson encourages having “love” for your neighborhood.
“Having a vision for where you want things to go but also understanding that it might take a while and your vision might need to change based on the situation,” Wilson said. “Having that care and consideration for your community is really important.”
“The goal of the Tree Plan is to talk to Kensington residents, talk to residents in each Philadelphian community, and learn what they would like to see in their own communities and how tree programs can support that,” Wilson added.
Cleaning blocks and lots in Kensington
The empty plot of land adjacent to the Esperanza Health Center’s new CORE wellness facility is maintained by the Klean Kensington teens throughout the year. The health center also hosts different events at the lot for residents throughout the year.
“One of my favorite spots to clean is H and Westmoreland,” Batista said. “I want people to know that this is my lot.”
Batista often cleans with his friend Terrence Giles whom he introduced to Chen. Klean Kensington finds most of its workers through referrals from friends and neighbors.
“I’m cleaning up, helping our environment,” Giles said. “Making sure we got better space to live in, making sure the kids got a brighter future ahead of them.”
Through reclaimed materials from their cleanups, Klean Kensington has been able to build planter boxes and fences around the lots they’ve greened to help ensure that they remain that way.
“We’re really grateful to Jeremy for all of the work that he’s been doing,” Wilson said. “And to all of the folks in Kensington, all of the youth, who have been working with him to keep things clean.”
While a small operation, Klean Kensington is looking to grow through more adult participation, community support, and funding. But for now, they are proud of the progress so far.
“I want to inspire more people to start cleaning all around the world,” Giles said.
To get involved with Klean Kensington, email Jeremy Chen at JeremyTChen@gmail.com.
Editors: Jillian Bauer-Reese, Siani Colón, Zari Tarazona Designer: Zari Tarazona