Kensington Remembers

New digital scholarship project creates a place for neighborhood memorials to live on

By Colleen Donnelly

a graffiti memorial on a wall in Kensington

The Kensington section of Philadelphia has often made headlines as an epicenter of homelessness, the opioid epidemic and violence. But a new digital scholarship project at Villanova shows a different side of the neighborhood—one that highlights its tight-knit community and how they remember those they’ve lost.

A resident of Kensington for the past six years, Associate Professor of Communication Gordon Coonfield, PhD, stumbled upon a number of unique memorial sites on his way to catch the El to Villanova: a menagerie of stuffed animals; a spray-painted mural on the side of a garage; a minivan with a message written on the rear window; a shrine with pictures, statues, candles and personal memorabilia. A researcher of memory studies, Dr. Coonfield was instantly captivated.

“For many of us, we have a service or a funeral and bury our loved ones and that’s it,” he says. “But something unique has been going on here for a very long time. These residents take the time, the energy, sometimes the expense to create a public memorial expressing these very private emotions, which becomes part of the neighborhood memory.”

As the landscape of Kensington continues to change with gentrification, these unique sites have begun to dwindle. “A number of these memorials have been destroyed, covered up or buffed out,” Dr. Coonfield says. “To me, it was important to document this rich tradition of memorializing before it disappears completely.”

And so, “Kensington Remembers” was born, supported in part by a Summer Research Grant from the Office of the Associate Vice Provost for Research at Villanova. As part of this interdisciplinary project, Dr. Coonfield photographs the memorials, documents each site he finds, collects geo-location data and works with a graduate student-researcher to track down any archival and anecdotal research they can find about each one.

a sidewalk bench painted in memory of Louise
two blue t-shirts and four white stuffed bears hung outside on an iron gate
Photos: Gordon Coonfield, PhD

Making a Digital Connection

Collaborating with Falvey Memorial Library’s Digital Scholarship Librarian Erica Hayes MIS, MLS, MFA, Dr. Coonfield created a website for the project with an interactive digital map that enables visitors to see and read about each memorial connected to a map dot with its precise location.

“My goal is to inspire researchers to find ways they can create more interactive and engaging scholarship and use technology to enhance traditional methods of research,” Hayes says. “Combining interactive maps with narrative and other rich multimedia is just one example of how digital technologies can transform the written word, storytelling and communication.”

Did You Know?

A new Digital Scholarship Lab is opening in Falvey this fall, where students, faculty and staff will have the opportunity to receive training on new technologies that can enhance their research and create more interactive and engaging scholarship.


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