I grew up in a neighborhood of Philadelphia called Kensington. Kensington was built as a factory town, and the row houses that we lived in were built for the factory workers. In the early years growing up, Kensington was largely an Irish-Catholic base of folks who all knew each other and looked out for each other. If you were white, Roman Catholic, and especially if you were Irish, you did okay here. Life revolved around the mini-cathedral-like Roman Catholic Church, Ascension of Our Lord. This is where I began being a musician, learning to play the beautiful pipe organ and singing in the choir that performed ambitious repertoire driven by a very talented music director that mentored me. I had no idea then how lucky I was.
By the time I was in high school, drugs, poverty and despair took their hold on Kensington, as it did with many neighborhood through the country during the 1980’s. It was no longer a safe place to be. I admire the people who stuck it out and tried to make it a better place, and although I’ve never roamed outside of the Philly area, I haven’t called Kensington home in quite a while.
Years later, I stumbled upon the work of Jeffrey Stockbridge, who has done a photojournalistic project entitled “Kensington Blues”, which is an artistic depiction through photos and stories about the residents who live along Kensington Avenue. These stories are not emotionally easy to read, and upon reading them, the phrase that kept running through my head was “there but for the grace of God go I.”
Let’s talk about Sarah (click to read Sarah’s story) and how much she grew up like me. Kensington native? Check. Catholic school girl? Check. Nice family that cares about you? Check. Where did my story and hers part ways? What circumstances leads one person with a similar upbringing in one direction or another?
The part that struck me as the most disturbing, which I tried to capture in the song, is the way Sarah goes back and forth between portraying herself as gutsy for being able to live the way she does, and yet not having the nerve to take her own life. In some ways, this is one tough cookie. She is battling the streets every day, dealing with all types people who take advantage of her in every way you can imagine. On the other hand, she is fragile. She knows she has a daughter that’s been left behind, a family that cares about her, a different life that was supposed to be the hope of her parents that brought her into the world.
She also goes back and forth between seeming to understand that hers is a life that she chose, yet not having enough love for herself to “fix it”. Not loving yourself enough – how can you possibly “fix” that living on the streets???
The other piece that struck me is the street code. Even as a child, I discovered that there is a moral code in all levels of society, even a lifestyle that some would deem to be without morals. You wouldn’t understand it completely unless you grew up in it, or maybe watched The Sopranos. For instance, although some of her lifestyle includes illegal activity, she has a moral standard by which she lives. This means she has hope. She may have hit rock bottom more than once, but she still clings to hope and a better life.
This song, long after it was written, continues to haunt me. I am unsettled by the suffering of this woman. I know in some ways she has chosen this path, yet I also know that we all make mistakes or wrong turns, and aren’t we all wanting redemption? I pray for this woman’s redemption. I want to grab her, hold her and tell her, “You didn’t ask for this. You are worthy of love. You are forgiven. Your heart is worth the effort.” By the grace of God, I pray for Sarah.
10% of all sales of the song Kensington Blues go to Prevention Point Philadelphia, a private nonprofit organization providing harm reduction services to Philadelphia and the surrounding area.
Photo: Courtesy of Jeffrey Stockbridge