By Vince Bellino
It’s not often that the words “mud pit” and “arts festival” are uttered in the same breath, unless you live in East Kensington. Then it’s an annual tradition.
Every year since 2006, a few dozen teams—ranging in size from solo operations to 15-person school squads—design and parade quirky floats throughout a neighborhood obstacle course.
These “artistic sculptures” are intended to celebrate Kensington’s vibrant artistic and small-business communities, says Bea Rider, director of resource development for New Kensington Community Development Corporation. Awaiting entrants at the Philadelphia Federal Credit Union Kensington Derby and Arts Festival on May 19 will be obstacles ranging from foam scattered on the ground to, yes, a mud pit near the finish line. There contestants will be judged in a variety of categories, including best engineering, best breakdown and best/worst pun.
Surrounding the mud pit is the arts festival element, where 200 local makers and food vendors gather to take in the spectacle and hawk their wares to the crowd, many of whom live within the community.
The festival is a marriage between two events that were held simultaneously: the Trenton Avenue Arts Festival and the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby.
There is a strong emphasis on community throughout the planning and execution of the event, something Rider says NKCDC and the East Kensington Neighbors Association keep in mind throughout the process.
“The festival and the derby itself have always had this quirky, neighborhood, accessible feel, and we want to maintain that,” she explains. “We’re very careful about who we select or invite to be sponsors.” If potential event sponsors don’t have a presence in the community, or the organizers feel they don’t align with the attitude of the derby and festival, they will turn them down.
The event is also an annual opportunity to shift perceptions of the neighborhood.
“There’s been a lot of disinvestment and decay that, over time, has been reversed in East Kensington and Fishtown in particular,” Rider says. “A lot of the Fishtown, East Kensington neighborhood has seen sort of this surge in artists and maker communities where some of those industrial buildings have been transferred into live/work artist space like we did at [formerly abandoned textile factory] Coral Street Arts House.”
The community of artists is not new, however. Rider says it has existed there for a long time, and seeing a human-powered AT-TE sculpture parading down the street alongside a fleet of human Care Bears and an enormous Mickey Mouse sculpture underscores that.
In the past, Rider says that the PFCU Kensington Derby and Arts Festival has typically hosted 20 to 30 participating teams. This year, due to registration sponsorship from Penn Treaty Special Services District, registration is free, which should make the event even more inclusive.
The most significant change to come to the derby this year is an expanded course, which will now run from Norris to Hagert streets. In the past, the course ran from Trenton and Norris to Front and Dauphin before returning to the starting point. The expanded course will allow for more vendors than any year prior, as well as more areas for spectators to gather.
Despite the changes that have shaped the derby over the years, the quirky, lighthearted tone that sets the Kensington Derby and Arts Festival in its own category remains intact. The parade happens rain or shine, and there are few restrictions on the materials entrants can use to build their floats; depending on the resources available to the entrants and their skill level, Rider says she has seen contestants enter sculptures made from cardboard, steel and everything in between. So long as the sculpture can move at a minimum speed of 3 miles per hour and only uses any power physically generated by the team, it’s all fair game.