Among his assortment of advocacies, Kyle Shenandoah campaigned a few years ago to revise the name of a Grays Ferry region called the Forgotten Bottom. Situated in a discreet corner of South Philly skirting the Schuylkill River, the neighborhood often lives up to its name.
Eventually, though, the Grays Ferry native, who is vice president of the Grays Ferry Civic Association and a member of the Democratic State Committee, came to an unforeseen realization.
Longtime residents of the community were opposed to altering the name, as the motion conceivably suggested comprising the region’s cultural identity – an indication, Shenandoah says, of gentrification.
“That was a really humbling moment for me, because I realized – me trying to change the name of a neighborhood was actually what a gentrifier does…Forgotten Bottom – there’s a history,” he said. “There’s a legacy. Even though I’m a longtime resident, for those two weeks I did that project, I wasn’t acting as a resident, and that’s a very alarming revelation.”
That revelation fostered Shenandoah’s platform, which is wedged in the balance between addressing a community’s needs while concurrently retaining its character.
The revelation also serves as the premise of Shenandoah’s upcoming speech at TEDxPhiladelphia, an independently organized event under the national TED Talks organization, which is scheduled for Wednesday, May 15, at Temple Performing Arts Center, 1837 N. Broad St.
Selected among a dozen other Philadelphia speakers, Shenandoah, an office manager and senior tax specialist at H & R Block, is focusing his TED discussion on the idea of reinvestment versus gentrification, specifically surrounding three concepts to differentiate the two, including how a project benefits a community, how well the community is informed on it, and if a conversation exists after it’s completed.
“We can have some renewal without displacement,” he said. “We can have revitalization without gentrification. We can have those things. It’s just a matter of knowing how to frame a narrative, getting the right kind of responsible development coming to the community and really making sure the residents come first before we think about the people coming in…My talk is really trying to re-embrace optimism in this age of rapid development.”
In shifting the conversation, Shenandoah hopes his audience walk away with an action plan that isn’t reactive but proactive.
In his own proactive strides, Shenandoah, who is on the board of multiple organizations, such as the SEPTA Citizen Advisory, NExT Philadelphia of The Urban League of Philadelphia and DVRPC Public Participation Taskforce, has engaged in several community service efforts over the last couple of years, particularly addressing transit and employment accessibility in South Philadelphia.
Notably, he championed for the recent installation of SEPTA Route 49, which connects Grays Ferry to Strawberry Mansion, traveling through University City, Center City West and Brewerytown — some of the city’s largest employment hubs.
Shenandoah also helped to establish an annual job fair in South Philadelphia. Returning for a third consecutive time, this year’s fair is scheduled for Saturday, June 1, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Pennovation Center, 3400 Grays Ferry Ave.
“When you think about job fairs, the last place you think of is Grays Ferry,” he said. “So the fact that we have a big event here in a really small corner of South Philly…it’s exciting for a lot of people.”
For Shenandoah, it’s crucial to have consistency whenever establishing a community event, especially for job opportunities, as he attributes unemployment as a factor into violence, drug use and other activities plaguing communities.
Last month, Shenandoah was given a 2019 Community Leader Award from The Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, specifically recognizing the South Philly resident for his advocacy with the SEPTA 49 Route as well as his efforts to help local residents find employment, which started even before the annual fair, when he posted more than 3,000 job openings on social media a couple of years ago.
“Job security and having a job is a part of wealth building,” he said. “And when you think about the demographics of this neighborhood, it’s slowly gentrifying. It’s not there yet. It’s not quite Point Breeze but slowly transforming. So, it’s important for residents to start building wealth at this time, especially in Grays Ferry, which is going through that transitional kind of phase right now.”
From infrastructure to services, Shenandoah says, despite the boom in development seen in neighboring communities, such as Point Breeze and Graduate Hospital, Grays Ferry still requires revitalization.
Compiling a list of such gaps he recognizes, Shenandoah, along with the Grays Ferry Civic Association, are establishing a community action plan called plan called Grays
Ferry 2022, which aims to bridge gaps existing in infrastructure, transportation and recreation, to name a few.
Like the themes of his TED talk, Shenandoah stresses, though, this will be possible onlu through “responsible urban renewal.”
“Obviously, Grays Ferry needs reinvestment. I’ve been here my entire life, and I’ve seen a lot of vacant properties,” he said. “If you go back 30 years ago, people were worried about property values going down. Now it’s the opposite. Now, it’s all this reinvestment and all of this money coming in, but at the cost of possibly gentrifying a neighborhood. There’s an acknowledgment that we need these resources. That we need this money. We need something to bring life back into our community, but we also don’t want to lose what we are – our traditions, who we are and the people who have stayed here the longest. So, how do you find a balance between that?”