While the Kensington Storefront has been defunct since 2020, the crowd gathered last Thursday at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is proof that many not only remember it but hold it dear.
About 260 people came to watch the premiere of “Art of Survival,” a short film that documents life at the Kensington Storefront. Originally an empty retail space at 2774 Kensington Ave., the storefront was a partnership between Mural Arts Philadelphia and the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services. It opened in 2017 and became known as a haven for arts programming and community healing until its closure in early 2020.
Co-directors Tony Heriza, Val Keller, and Jim Wasserman of Hidden River Films were initially drawn to the idea of telling a story of hope in a Philadelphia neighborhood infamous for its drug usage.
“We spent some time at the Kensington Storefront and were really affected by what was going on there, and it was the opposite of what was being told,” Heriza said. “And so we thought maybe we could tell that story, of people being active and hopeful, and investing in change.”
Tony Heriza, Jim Wasserman, and Val Keller of Hidden River Films introduced the film and their inspiration for creating it. “If the film could have a similar kind of impact on people that being in the Storefront had on us… it really had an impact, and we tried to create that sense of humanity, and love, and energy that was in the storefront. We hope it changes people.” (Gina E. Kim/WHYY)
The team filmed at the storefront a few times a month over the course of two years. They were careful to gain permission of those filmed, and say that this approach in addition to the frequency of filming allowed them to gain trust with the residents who visited.
“We had to build some trust, and it wasn’t always easy,” Heriza said. “Cameras are not generally very warmly greeted in Kensington because they’re seen as kind of exploitative.”
Scenes from within the Kensington Storefront show residents coming for coffee, creating art, and hanging out in the space. The walls are covered with artwork created by Kensington residents. (Gina E. Kim/WHYY)
The premiere Thursday night gathered artists, community leaders, and Kensington residents who were involved with the Kensington Storefront. Kathryn Pannepacker and Lisa Kelley are artists who led art programs at the Kensington Storefront for most of its duration and currently work with Prevention Point, a nonprofit specializing in harm reduction services. Kelley, who grew up in Kensington, says the storefront carried a stigma for those who never experienced it, especially politicians.
“A lot of people who complained about us never stepped foot in that space, so they didn’t know what it was like,” Kelley said. “They didn’t know how we created a community and a family there of people who had no one, oftentimes.”