Left, exhibition designer Jordan Klein, right, Erin Bernard
Standing on the grassy vacant lot where his great-uncle’s house once stood in East Kensington, Frank Wilson says there aren’t many people who can tell the story of what was here. “I’m the youngest of seven, and my mom and dad were born in the ’30s — they’re gone now,” he says. “So, if I don’t remember, it’s pretty much lost stories.”
In fast-changing neighborhoods like this one, it’s easy for houses, memories, whole swathes of history to vanish with barely a trace. That’s why the Philadelphia Public History Truck pulled up onto the lot on York Street earlier this month: To capture those memories, organize them — and eventually share them with the community.
The truck will appear again at a storytelling block party on the 1800 block of Huntingdon Street on Oct. 19; the price of admission is a story or neighborhood artifact. And, it will stop by the soup kitchen at St. Francis Inn to collect oral histories from clients.
At its first public outing in East Kensington on Oct. 4, its mastermind, Temple graduate student Erin Bernard, was dishing out free pie and gathering recollections on a memory map. She plans to curate an exhibition of neighborhood history at Little Berlin in April, and later downsize the exhibit to a mobile format. “We’re going to be serving history like we’re a food truck,” she says. “We’ll go to different locations in the city, tweet where we are, show up in front of random Philly schools — so that arts and humanities will be accessible in a different way.”
Bernard isn’t from the neighborhood, but she wanted to focus on an underserved part of the city. When she got in touch with East Kensington Neighbors Association president Jeff Carpineta, he offered to lend her his truck — a decommissioned postal vehicle — on the spot.
So far, many visitors have spoken about the theater and nightlife that used to exist on Kensington Avenue. Most people mention the factory fires that ravaged the neighborhood. As for Wilson, he got interested in local history when he began restoring an 1875 textile mill — just like the ones his family used to work in before that industry left Kensington.
Bernard hopes her East Kensington experiment will serve as a model that can be replicated in other neighborhoods. “Everybody who lives somewhere has a story.”
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