kingsessing-article

Kingsessing: Where Washington and Franklin partied before Chris Tucker and Queen Latifah did

It’s all about the neighborhoods here in Philadelphia, and Billy Penn will take a deep dive into many of them with these “postcards” throughout the year. We’ll go over their history, their demographics, entertainment options and their neighborhood legends — and the most Instagrammable spots. Love Kingsessing? Buy the stuff.

Kingsessing existed long before Philly did. The Swedes and Native Americans of the Delaware tribe lived together in Kingsessing as early as 1644. A hundred years later, Kingsessing was known for its beauty and the then-famous resort called Gray’s Gardens that attracted George Washington, Ben Franklin and others. Life in the neighborhood hasn’t been as easy since then, as Kingsessing’s industry hollowed out in the 20th century. It now suffers from some of the worst crime and vacancy rates of anywhere in the city, but pieces of its beauty still remain at Bartram’s Garden and in new efforts to revitalize the area, such as Farm 51.

Boundaries

Kingsessing is in Southwest Philly, with its borders generally considered to be Baltimore Avenue on the northwest, 50th street to the north, the Schuylkill to the east, 60th street to the south and Cobbs Creek to the southwest.

Population

23,959

Population age 20-to-34

5,310

Racial Composition

Rent vs. own

3,729 vs. 4,669, 44 percent vs. 56 percent

Median home values

The median home value for Kingsessing is $56,600, and median rent is $850, according to Zillow.

Name origin

Kingsessing is a Delaware Indian name for “place where there is a meadow.”

Backdrop

Back in the late 1700s, Kingsessing’s Gray’s Garden was the place to be for Philadelphia visitors and its wealthy residents. George Gray, the namesake for Grays Ferry, owned this hotel/bar on the Kingsessing side of the Schuylkill, about where the Gray’s Ferry Bridge is today. It was famous for its resort-like comforts, good enough to attract George Washington and many of the Founding Fathers. In 1775, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and Benjamin Rush honored Washington at a dinner there. The place was particularly popular as a place for delegates to escape the heat in 1787 during the Constitutional Convention that ran from May to September.

Grays Garden

Some of the perks of Gray’s Garden included a porch overlooking the river, as described in a James Madison biography by Ralph Louis Ketcham, and a greenhouse filled with tropical flowers, oranges, pineapples and lemons. Manasseh Butler, a delegate at the Constitutional Convention wrote of Gray’s Garden: “Grottoes wrought out of the sides of ledges of rocks…a curious labyrinth with numerous windings…a spacious summer-house… The roof was in the Chinese form. It was surrounded with rails of open work, and a beautiful winding staircase led up to it. During the whole of this romantic rural scene, I fancied myself on enchanted ground.”

What Used to Be

The Belmont Cricket Club. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Philadelphia actually had four cricket clubs. One of them was right in Kingsessing at about 50th and Chester, as well as a cricket pitch known as the Sherwood Forest at 58th and Baltimore. Philadelphian Bart King played for Belmont, and he was regarded as the best American cricketer and one of the best in the world. When groups of all star Cricketers like King got together in the late 19th century, it wasn’t uncommon for them to beat teams from Britain. According to PhillyHistory.Org, King and the Belmont Cricket Club were known for being laid-back and working class. They didn’t put on any airs like some of the city’s other cricket clubs.

Belmont Cricket Club real

Belmont and most of the other clubs shut down by about the dawn of World War I. People started getting more interested in baseball and didn’t have the time for really long cricket matches, which can last for days.

Bart King

Community Gathering Places

Farm 51: Billing itself as part production site and part neighborhood hangout, Farm 51 provides nearby residents with affordable produce. It’s located next to Kingsessing Park at 51st and Chester.

Francis J. Myers Rec Center: This is one of the top areas to play basketball in Southwest Philly, located at 58th and Kingsessing.

Thing to Check Out

Bartram’s Garden. Back in the early 1700s, the nation’s first botanical garden was started by John Bartram after he purchased 102 acres from Swedish settlers. He was the man. Legend has it Bartram carried a 25-feet-wide Cypress tree from Georgia for his garden, which contained many exotic species of plants. He purchased the plants or seeds for them during his many travels.

John Bartram

His son, William, took over the garden after him and hung out with many of the delegates during the Constitutional Convention, showing them the garden in its earliest stages. Today Bartram’s Garden remains one of the top tourist sites in the city and offers 45 acres worth of plants, wildlife and wetlands.

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History

Kingsessing is the oldest part of Philadelphia. It was the first area settled by the Swedes in 1644, and they lived in Southwest Philadelphia along with Delaware, decades before William Penn even arrived. Residents farmed along the area until the early 20th century when industry took over. The people who lived in Kingsessing were largely lower middle class who worked at factories or plants in or nearby the neighborhood. When many of those places shut down, people and other businesses moved out, leaving Kingsessing a victim of urban decay for the last few decades. While its northern neighbor Cedar Park has seen gentrification and an infusion of different races and ethnicities, Kingsessing for the most part has stayed predominantly black and continues to be one of the most depressed neighborhoods in the city.

Will Smith and other celebrities come to town

Kingsessing has one of the highest rates of crime in the city. In 2006, with Philadelphia’s murder rate continued its steep ascension, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith came to Philadelphia to organize a parade for reclaiming the neighborhood. They marched from 51st Street and Chester to the Francis J. Myers Recreation Center as part of Philly resident Charlie Mack Alston’s Charlie Mack Celebrity Weekend. Mack hosted this celebrity weekend every year for several years, with some of the events taking place in Kingsessing, like in 2006. Other celebrities who have come include homegrown basketball stars like Tim Thomas and Rasual Butler, and entertainers like Chris Tucker and Queen Latifah.

Controversy

Nearly one in five housing structures in Kingsessing is vacant, according to data from the most recent American Community Survey Census data. The problem is getting worse, too. According to a 2002 report by then-Mayor Wilson Goode that studied a large area of the neighborhood, about 17 percent of properties were vacant. Back then, the area was certified as blighted, which opened the door for redevelopment proposals from the city’s Redevelopment Authority. It has evidently had little effect, as Kingsessing’s vacancy rate continues to rate higher and trend opposite of Philadelphia as a whole.

Alumni

Steve Gordon: Gordon is a film producer, writer and entrepreneur. He managed the hip-hop group Philly’s Most Wanted and helped rapper Beanie Sigel get his deal with Def Jam in the 90s. Gordon also owns several barbershops in Kingsessing and according to the Daily News plans to open a juice bar/coffee shop in the neighborhood this spring.

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Mount Moriah Cemetery. This now-closed cemetery was established in 1855 and is noted for its ornate gateways and headstones that still look cool despite falling into disrepair.

Mount Moriah

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