Philadelphia’s youth soccer leagues may seem like unlikely barometers to gauge the city’s changing, cultural and socioeconomic demographics. However, after spending some time with the Kensington Soccer Club, telling patterns began to emerge that speak volumes about Philadelphia’s current state of neighborhood gentrification and shifting immigration populations.
Community Outreach at the Goal Post
Walking down Dauphin Street in West Kensington, across the remnants of the industrial landscape, I came to an abrupt dead end at the nearly hidden Nelson Recreation Center. On a nearby athletic field behind a twenty-foot high chain link fence small groups of children, aged 11-18, were kicking soccer balls against the fence while others were in circles practicing dribbling. A select few, all members of Kensington Soccer Club, an after school community soccer organization, were engaged in a much more formal practice perfecting their free kicks on the goal.
I was invited to the all-age soccer meet by the program’s organizers, Jim Hardy and Chris Munden. The two met while playing Ultimate Frisbee in Penn Treaty Park with a group of friends, but they both quickly learned that their mutual passion was soccer. Munden, a native of Northumberland, England and founder of an independent arts website, Phindie.com, grew up playing the sport with his father who was a member of a local football club. English soccer pride endures. Even as an expat, Munden is rigid in his allegiance to Newcastle United. His mother was a teacher who encouraged him to work with youth in an educational and personal enrichment capacity. She also helps out with the club and runs the program’s educational component.
Hardy has been working in the Philadelphia public school system at Kensington Health Sciences Academy (formerly known as Kensington Culinary Arts) since 2007. He first came to the health and dentistry vocational high school at Emerald and E. Hagert Streets in 2006 while in his third year at Temple University. Hardy began attending meetings hosted by the Kensington School and Community Coalition with a desire to land a job that would make an impact on the city’s underserved communities. Hardy is fluent in Spanish and began volunteering with KHSA after the school’s principal offered him an opportunity with the school’s English as a Second Language after school program. This led to a full time job teaching Social Studies at KHSA in 2007. His experience teaching English to immigrant students inspired him to launch the Kensington Soccer Club.
Like his coaching partner Munden, Hardy also grew up playing soccer. In his hometown, Chester, PA, there were no youth soccer clubs, so he had to play in suburban leagues based in Media and and the surrounding boroughs. This was the same dilemma he faced at KHSA. Since there were no clubs in the immediate area of Kensington, Hardy would pack as many students into his car as possible, and drive them around the city looking for opportunities to play. He says that the clubs they did find in the Northeast were too expensive for his low-income students and, unless he was to drive them himself, too far away.
Hardy instead invested his free time and personal income into founding the Kensington Soccer Club. “I had been working to get a few clubs going at the Kensington Health Sciences Academy to engage the students, like a student newspaper or a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance, but nothing seemed to stick,” said Hardy. “But then I thought back to this one Mexican student I had in ESL who was dying to play soccer. Although most of my students are Dominican and Puerto Rican where soccer isn’t that popular, I thought I’d give soccer a try.”
The sports program serves Kensington area children ages 3-19 years old and operates out of Iglesia Pentecostal Church at 3rd and Dauphin. Along with Munden, he has help from a number of soccer enthusiast volunteers in the city. His parents even drive in from the suburbs to help organize practices, drive teams to games in the 20 passenger bus they procured for the program, and help with fundraisers for equipment and travel costs.
Aside from serving African-American youth from North Philly, as well as the predominantly Puerto Rican population of West Kensington, the club also attracts Vietnamese children from the growing community along Kensington Avenue. The club also brings in Middle Eastern students, like Hamza Manassra, who is from Palestine. Many Muslim families have moved to the neighborhood due to the support of cultural outreach organizations like the Al-Aqsa Islamic Academy in South Kensington and other Islamic community programs and mosques that have opened in the area. Hardy and Munden said that a large contingent of Central American and African immigrants are also moving into Kensington. Club member Aymen Lachbab is from Morocco. Wilfredo Herera and Rafael Turcios, step-brothers from Honduras, have also joined.
The Origins of Soccer In the City
Soccer is nothing new in Kensington, according to Ed Farnsworth’s 10-part series on the history of soccer in Philadelphia published on the Philly Soccer Page. British colonists brought soccer to the Lenape, who already had their own version of the game, called Pahsahéman. Farnsworth’s history of soccer in Philadelphia picks up in 1870, less than a decade after the English formally adopted “The Laws of the Game” in 1863. Neighborhood cricket clubs and factory teams introduced the sport to the city. In 1870, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on a match between the Philadelphia Irish Nationalists and another club, unnamed. In 1872, the newspaper recounted a match played during an annual picnic at Oakdale Park, once located between West Lehigh and Cumberland Avenues, between the Irish Nationalists and the New York Boys. By 1873, schools like Princeton, Penn, Yale, and Harvard began forming collegiate teams that would play each other in formal league games.
The Harvard example is interesting because the school’s team preferred the “Boston Game,” which was much more like soccer as we know it today, as opposed to other teams that preferred Rugby rules that allowed the use of hands. This split would continue to divide collegiate sports until 1876 when university clubs began using Rugby rules predominantly. Over time, advancements like the adoption of the forward pass would differentiate American style Rugby from the European counterpart, ultimately leading to the game of American Football.
In Philadelphia, purely “hands free” soccer continued to be the rule of choice amongst the city’s clubs, which spanned social and economic classes, from upper class cricket clubs to working class teams sponsored by factories in neighborhoods like Tacony, Frankford, Port Richmond, and of course, Kensington. The textile mills attracted a huge influx of immigrants from Northern England that would bring their love of the game to these neighborhoods. The clubs turned one-off games into city wide leagues that would come to define modern day soccer and write the rule books used by youth programs in Philadelphia today.
Farnsworth’s only mention of youth soccer leagues in the early 20th century is in an article about Ray Lynch, the oldest living team member from the Lighthouse Boys Club league, a center for educational, economic, and recreational youth outreach that has been providing services in a former settlement house at 152 W. Lehigh Avenue since 1893. The organization had an expansive soccer program at their home field at Front Street and Erie Avenue. Still owned by the Lighthouse, today, the corner is home to the organization’s urban farm run by Teens 4 Good.
The Lighthouse’s vibrant soccer program began to disband as factories shut down in the River Wards in the 1960s and 1970s and residents left. Hardy said that it is not uncommon for him to meet soccer parents who once lived in Frankford, but now live in Mayfair, or middle-aged referees that he encounters in the high school leagues that wax nostalgic over their younger years spent playing club soccer in Kensington. Hardy and Munden pointed out that neighborhoods in the Northeast have traveling youth soccer clubs that are more akin to suburban style programs. They often leave the city for inter-club games, but don’t play many city clubs outside of the Northeast.
Cultural Shifts and Teams In Transition
The Northeast leagues are comprised predominantly of youth of European, particularly Irish, decent, but the makeup of players is shifting, following demographic change. Immigrants are transforming North Philadelphia, Kensington, the Northeast, and South Philly. They are leaving a mark on soccer, especially at the high school level. For years, at Furness High School in South Philly, say Hardy and Munden, the soccer team languished in the C division. After students from Southeast Asia and Central America joined the team, they dominated their way through the divisions, ending up as a top-seeded team in the A division (the highest) in only three years.
At Ben Franklin High School, Hardy credited an ESL class with opening the doors for immigrant players who contributed to a rapid rise to the school’s soccer program. The Newcomer Learning Academy serves students ages 14-20 years old with intensive ESL instruction as well as a host of other services. Much like Hardy, the instructors at Ben Franklin knew that these particular students were in need of inclusive, extracurricular activities. Since many of the students once played on the soccer fields of Central America or Northern Africa, they created a high school team that, much like Furness, became a powerhouse that pushed up from the C to A divisions.
Frankford High was a dominant force in the 1980s and 1990s with kids who grew up playing in traveling clubs. As the neighborhood’s white population declined, the program suffered. But now, with the contributions of African and Central American-born students, they are atop the B division. While Northeast teams like George Washington continue to be good, Hardy pointed out a Haitian student at Frankford High who is becoming one of the school’s soccer team star players and a standout in the league.
Hardy has witnessed demographic shifts at Kensington Health Science Academy as well in the last seven years, as Central and South American born kids have joined the team. He also says that magnet schools and areas like Northern Liberties and Fairmount are attracting more upper middle class families that would otherwise end up in the suburbs. Wealthy parents tend to invest in activities like soccer at these schools, to the benefit of soccer culture in Philadelphia.
Back at Kensington Soccer Club’s home base at Iglesia Pentecostal, I began to ask Hardy about the challenges he faces trying to coach soccer in a neighborhood with such disparate socioeconomic conditions and ethnicities. Before I could vocalize the thought a young man entered the small room. He was accompanied by a woman who stood at the doorway. The young man told Hardy that the woman had a son who played for another club, but didn’t like the coach. He treated the players badly. The young man explained that the mother wanted information on Kensington Youth Soccer, but didn’t speak English. Hardy thanked him and, in fluent Spanish, told the mother how to sign her son up for the club. The mother was elated by Hardy’s welcoming demeanor. Hardy turned back to continue our discussion. He was interrupted again by three more players who came in looking for soccer balls. One had a message from Hardy’s mother who was there that day to help organize a trip to a game. Time to board the bus, the player said. Duty called. Hardy, Munden, and their thriving community of Kensington soccer players had to leave headquarters to hit the field.