When he’s not running his fine-art inkjet printing business in the Vox Building on Wood Street, Jeffrey Stockbridge spends most of his free time beneath the El along Kensington Avenue, or, as it’s more commonly referred to, “the Ave.” The 30-year-old isn’t a part of the drug trade, which is what most Philly residents think of when Kensington comes up in conversation. He’s just there to take pictures and ask questions. A lot of them. He organizes his material and ideas on his blog, Kensington Blues, a documentary project that formed in 2008 to spotlight “how people survive along the Avenue, how they survive the drug use, and how they survive themselves.”
Stockbridge, a professional photographer and 2005 Drexel grad, started Kensington Blues as a citywide project, but quickly realized where his attention needed to be. “I was taking photographs around Philadelphia of the interiors of abandoned houses and the people I would meet,” he says. “I met a woman who was selling sex for drugs in an abandoned house, and she told me about Kensington, the avenue specifically, where there were large numbers of women who were doing the same thing.” And so he took to the streets of the neighborhood. Soon, Kensington Blues became a powerful collection of photographs, journal entries and Q&As with the people who find cold comfort in these nooks under the El. Through first-person storytelling, Stockbridge attempts to show the lives of many Philadelphians only a few train stops away. He says the blog should serve as a portal for “encouraging compassion for one another despite the vast differences between us.”
And they are vast. But it’s clear that those living beneath the El have created a community of their own—one that’s surrounded by hard drug use, violence and prostitution, but a community nonetheless. “One person I photographed said it doesn’t matter how fucked up I am, if I walk down the avenue I know I’ll see somebody who is more fucked up than me,” Stockbridge says. “There’s an odd sort of companionship that comes along with that ideology, but it’s there … it’s a family in a way.”
Matt, a homeless drug abuser, first took the El to Kensington 10 years ago. He has never left. Like many people who live along the Ave, Matt opens up to Stockbridge about his hardships. (Stockbridge says most people want to share their stories after they hear about his project.) “Under the train tracks, the shit that goes on in the woods, the shit that goes on while this train is driving by above our heads, the things that go on these streets at night when the lights go off, are the kind of things that ... people can only dream about.”
Then there’s Janette, who tells Stockbridge about her troubles through a hand-written journal entry. “He asked me to smoke crack with him then wigged out,” she writes in purple marker, “and handcuffed me to his steering wheel, pistol whipped me, and knocked out my front teeth and cracked my head open—26 stitches.”
Stockbridge says his ultimate goal with Kensington Blues is not yet determined. This past summer, he worked with a documentary filmmaker on a short that will be released in near future. Many of his photographs have appeared in galleries worldwide, and his work is set to appear in an upcoming group show at Bucks County Community College. But until then, he’s content to spend his time along the Ave. “It keeps calling me back, I can’t leave. I’m constantly intrigued by the neighborhood, I just can’t quit it.”
See more of Jeffrey Stockbridge’s work on kensingtonblues.com.