‘Unacceptable’: Kensington residents protest closing of SEPTA’s Somerset Station after one week notice
Residents say it didn’t have to come to this, if only the city had invested in Kensington’s community four years prior.
SEPTA closed the Market-Frankford Line’s Somerset Station in Kensington on Sunday, March 21, to repair two elevators, citing public urination and trash disposal for the damage.
The elevators will take months to repair, and those 800 average riders every weekday — 40% of pre-COVID’s average — are met with several dilemmas in transportation, ranging from inaccessibility, safety, and the solidifying sense that the city isn’t paying attention to the real problems in Kensington, and refuses to meet them with real action.
That was the feeling in the air on the afternoon of March 23, when about 200 community members and organizers chanting, “Safety and solutions now,” led a march from the now-closed Somerset Station, to the Allegheny El stop, to show how the Somerset closure will impact daily commuters who need to walk the extra distance.
The march took place shortly after 5:50pm, in daylight, but for a handful of days now a number of daily commuters have been forced to make the walk in the dark depending on work hours. Residents and protesters held signs reading, “Our living conditions are unsafe” “Betrayed again,” and more.
— Ericka Conant (@ErickaConant) March 23, 2021
The elevators are one issue, but protesters said an influx of homeless people and drug users amid the ongoing opioid crisis who are seeking shelter in the Somerset station have contributed to an increase in crime. Riders have been harrassed, threatened and assaulted. The situation poses a daily safety risk for SEPTA workers in the Kensington area as well.
Councilmember Mark Squilla was present at the end of the march in front of Allegheny station, where he conceded that City Council must be held accountable.
“The plan has been to address these issues and make sure that when Somerset opens up, we do the same thing for Allegheny, the same thing for Huntington, up and down this corridor that we feel safe, and we’re not only walking on our streets but taking our public transportation,” he said.
The issue is there has not been any word from SEPTA on such a reopening, or a concrete timeline for reopening. As of now, Somerset station will be closed indefinitely.
Squilla talked of joint action by surrounding communities, people who reside outside of the Kensington area who joined the protest. It was a show of unity, but also of slight disjunction.
“That’s very often the case here,” community resident and activist Jasmine Velez told AL DÍA. “You know because everyone’s so interested in Kensington. The gentrification that’s happening, so like anytime you hear the word Kensington, of course you’re going to get all this media attention. The question is, is it positive media attention? I hope in this circumstance I think that it is.”
The march, she said, is an effort of holding SEPTA accountable after years of neglect. It’s not by any means a new situation, but it lacks meaningful action.
“Beyond talking about being able to hold people accountable, where’s the actual action, right?” Velez continued.
The displacement of hundreds with little warning was at the heart of the calls to SEPTA and City Council. Community leaders said the situation is particularly dire during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
Well-known community leader Gloria “Smooches” Cartagena is a Health Connector at New Kensington CDC. She gets up at 4:30 every morning and said that along with the short notice, SEPTA offered little assistance to those displaced apart from already-existing services.
On Councilmember Squilla’s speech, she said: “Too much talking. I want some action. Mean what you say.” She told AL DÍA the community has been asking for help for four years, and it took for the station to close to get back to a point of discourse for steps forward.
“We’re already struggling with COVID issues. We’re struggling with encampments, we struggle with opioids. So now you just shut the station. They didn’t give us a warning, signs, or anything. They just said. ‘Forget you.’”
For the surrounding residents of Somerset Station, a zip code that has seen some of the lowest vaccination rates in Philadelphia, it cuts off the only form of transportation for thousands who are trying to get to vaccination sites. After the station indefinitely shut-down, the vaccination rate in the 19134 zip code remains low.
“What did they expect?” Andre Del Valle said, noting that even before this latest upset, the community has been hit hard by an opioid epidemic that has seen a similar response. “This is the only form of transportation for thousands in this area. And in that time what we’re asking our residents to get vaccinated, especially in these Black and Brown communities. You’re cutting off the only form of transportation to that.”
Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez has also been vocal in SEPTA’s involvement in the situation, but was unable to make it to the march. When the closure was first announced, she made a call to action on Twitter.
“It is vital that SEPTA work with public safety stakeholders to reopen the station as soon as possible. I have asked SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards to meet with community members so she can hear first hand about the impact and commit to a swift plan of action.”
I have asked SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards to meet with community members so she can hear first hand about the impact and commit to a swift plan of action.
— Maria Quinones-Sanchez (@MariaQSanchez) March 16, 2021
“Maria Quiñones Sánchez has been totally supportive, said Dr. Bill McKinney, Executive Director of New Kensington CDC. Otherwise, he noted disappointment at a dismal show from other city officials at the protest.
“This is also a district at large. Right? This is also why anyone from the Mayor’s Office should be here supporting these efforts. I mean there’s no question with that. ”
McKinney echoed the words of Cartagena, on the late notice for the station’s closure. He asked the important question: Where else in Philadelphia would this have been allowed to happen?
“Unacceptable. Again, you name another place in the city where that would have happened. Where there would have been a one week notice, to cut people off.”
This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among more than 20 news organizations focused on economic mobility in Philadelphia. Read all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.