Violence, poverty and drugs have been consistent themes in the media’s coverage of the Kensington section of Philadelphia in recent years. The neighborhood has been in the news for the City’s actions towards its large homeless encampments, its infamy as the epicenter of the opioid crisis and the regular stories about gun violence, all of which led Mayor Jim Kenney to declare Kensington a disaster.
But there’s another story playing out behind these headlines: the ways in which the neighborhood remembers those who have lost their lives. These memorial sites appear throughout the area in the improvised shrines, graffiti, mural art and in a variety of other material forms. These memorials differ from the collective memories often associated with Philadelphia – the national parks, buildings and museums – that offer interpretations of its rich history. They are created by ordinary residents, using the tools, materials and skills they have available.
Gordon Coonfield, PhD, associate professor of Communication at Villanova University, first noticed these memorials walking around his neighborhood. As he explored Kensington, he began seeing more and more and observed the fact that some were disappearing as the neighborhood changed. This led Coonfield to start a project dedicated to documenting and studying these memorials called “Kensington Remembers.” As part of this project, he photographs the memorials, documents each site he finds and collects geo-location data, all which are incorporated into an interactive map. Coonfield, attempting to strike a balance between academia and serving as a resource that the community can read, see and interact with, blogs on the project website to discuss different memorials in the neighborhood and the differences between history and memory.
“For many of us, we have a service or a funeral and bury our loved ones and that’s it,” Coonfield says. “But for these residents, there’s something haunting, something lingering. There’s some need that’s not satisfied by the typical ritual we have when we go through death and loss. And there’s something else driving this.”