It’s 1:30 in the afternoon and, like most Sundays, the four original officers of the East Kensington Neighbors Association (EKNA) have taken over the end of the bar at Atlantis Lost Bar. Robert Fritz, first President of EKNA and manager of Lost Bar, gets to his seat and grumpily pouts at his partner, David Prendergast. Frank Wilson and Patrick McHugh try to sit still while sipping their cocktails or beer. A picture of the four of them together is being attempted.
“Are we all going to fit?” Wilson chuckles.
“She is trying to steal our souls!” Prendergast says as he wiggles his fingers in front of his face, casting an invisible spell. The foursome erupts in laughter, even notoriously stoned-face McHugh.
Fritz, Prendergast, Wilson and McHugh are a loud, take-no-crap and sincere group of Bears (hairy, burly gay men) heavily invested in their neighborhood’s well being. So, in 2003 when the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) was looking for people to run a neighborhood association, the undertaking practically fell into the laps of these already active residents.
“I came in when [EKNA was] faltering. Somebody had to be focused on [the neighborhood] and that was the only reason I did it. They were starting to have these artist festivals and they weren’t getting any of the support they needed,” McHugh said.
McHugh, 52, was the Treasurer from around 2007-2011 and was the pusher of the group. If something wasn’t on schedule, he got everyone back on it quickly. Then there is his partner, Wilson, 45, who was the schmoozer, the youngest and acting Vice President from around 2003-2006. He also worked two seasons for the NKCDC starting in 2005.
As Bears — minus Wilson who “joined the family” later — the fact that they were gay flew largely under the radar. According to Prendergast, most of their Kensington neighbors didn’t have a clue, largely because they weren’t the young, partying, “pink pant wearing” members of the gay community establishing themselves in the Gayborhood. They didn’t don rainbow flags to prove a point, they were and still are regular Philadelphians. Humorously enough, most of the neighbors later told Prendergast and McHugh they thought their respective partner was their brother.
EKNA started off small with street clean ups, tire round ups and tomato pie showdowns at the PBC brewery next to the Lost Bar. It wasn’t officially EKNA back then. It was the original four, Dwayne Wilcox of the NKCDC and a handful of locals. They came together to fix up houses and build the framework of a neighborhood association aimed towards legitimacy and the resulting attention from public institutions.
“I’m not sure what made them special. It may have had something to do with them just showing up for meetings when nobody else did,” Nancy Barton of Philadelphia Brewing Company wrote with a smiley face in an email.
For Wilson, who lived in the neighborhood his whole life, the fact that people started joining in on the cleanups he was already doing was it’s own reward.
“You can’t forget why you started doing it,” Wilson said. “You do it because you are trying to make the neighborhood better.”
Prendergast, 49, who was one of the first officers of the organization with family ties to the neighborhood and worked for the NKCDC from 2002-2007, was instrumental in getting the Trenton Arts Festival started. He was always ready to lend a hand, always there to get his hands dirty at the drop of the hat. Lastly, there is Bob Fritz, 55, the ringleader of the group. As President from around 2006-2009, he corralled everyone. He also pointed out that he was the loudest.
Being told that they couldn’t fix the trash problem was the first “warm” greeting Wilson and the rest of the Bears received after moving from 5th and Cecil B. Moore Ave, where they used to bet on car fires and be woken up by G. Love practices or raves. Change wasn’t very popular, but they knew that to take care of a home, you have to take care of a block.
“I guess it all boiled down to apathy, ‘why would you do that it’s just going to be the same.’ And I’m like, ‘no it’s not. My street is cleaner now. Your street is cleaner because I’m sweeping your street so, that has changed,’” Fritz said.
Fritz grunted his way through the minutiae of EKNA’s beginnings: writing bylaws, establishing a non profit status, infrastructure and most begrudgingly, the mailing list. With the crew, McHugh in particular, the loose crowd of active volunteers became a non-profit organization geared towards making the neighborhood as pleasant and livable as they knew it could be, from keeping everyone on top of the development in Northern Liberties to lighting up dark blocks.
“The biggest challenge was definitely New Kensington’s plan to put 45 rental units in the neighborhood,” Fritz said.
But, like most other neighborhood associations, they had growing pains too, and the neighborhood changed faster than expected. Each member transitioned out of EKNA, but not for lack of pride in the neighborhood they chose to call home. The development of Northern Liberties to Kensington brought in a new crop of people with a strong sense of entitlement. The main focus quickly became about zoning. Because of this, the Bears felt that the other needs of the neighborhood had shifted into the shadows.
They still put their two cents in here and there, but it was time to pass the torch, “It’s like a baby. You’re 18, push them out of the nest,” Fritz said .
Currently, Wilson and McHugh run a tight ship at the warehouse at Huntingdon and Emerald, also known as the home of Glassworks. The factory also houses a multitude of artists, visual, performance, as well as hardshell cases for instruments. Apart from managing the bar, Fritz does private engineering work while Prendergast has more than his hands full managing at Greensgrow Farms, which he joined at it’s conception in 2008. Besides the Lost Bar, the new park at Huntingdon Street and Emerald Street bring them together today. They are still very much a part of East Kensington.
“We weren’t trying to change the world, we just wanted to make the lives of those who lived here better,” Fritz stated.