The Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby rides again

2014 Derby riders meet an enthusiastic crowd at the mud pit. (Photo courtesy of New Kensington CDC.)

On May 20, for the 11th time in as many years, a fleet of bicyclists will wend through the streets of Fishtown and Kensington, doing a rough figure-eight over the course of nearly three hours before finishing where it started on Trenton Avenue. But this is no ordinary group bike ride. It’s the Philadelphia Federal Credit Union Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby and Arts Festival, a singular and growing tradition in this fast-changing corner of the city.

The Derby and the concurrent Trenton Avenue Arts Festival grew out of Philadelphia’s block-party culture, according to Onias T. Dickson, special-events coordinator for the East Kensington Neighborhood Association. His organization is one of several neighborhood groups that collaborate on the festival, and the end product is something to behold: dozens of people riding bikes of all shapes and sizes, from simple two-wheelers to massive tandem contraptions, all decked out with handmade sculptures that give the day a carnivalesque atmosphere.

You might see a group of Vikings pedaling a longboat down Girard Avenue, for instance, or a papier-mâché dinosaur ambling up Frankford. The Derby ends at a mud pit, where many proud sculptures get bogged down as they pass before the judges (who give awards for, among other things, “best breakdown” and “best/worst pun”).

“It’s a performance in the street,” Dickson says. “It’s like what Mardi Gras does to the feel of New Orleans, in the sense of collaboration and being a part of something as that performance passes by your house.”  

Artists, makers, and beer with friends

Seventeen teams will compete in the derby this year, and more than 200 vendors will set up on Trenton Avenue between Norris and Dauphin Streets for the arts festival. The event has resisted corporate influence so far — its big-name sponsor is the Philadelphia Federal Credit Union — though it has grown considerably in the last decade. Dickson attributes its popularity to the area’s art and maker scenes. The neighborhood association does very little marketing for the event, Dickson says, and none of the vendors represents big companies. They’re more likely to be locals with Etsy accounts.

“We’re in the land of makers,” says Akeem Dixon, director of economic development at the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC), which also helps plan the event. “Finding people who want to be creative and want to be artistic, and also want to spend the day drinking and hanging out with their peers hasn’t necessarily been hard.”

Thirteen food trucks will also be on hand, including Kung Fu Hoagies, Mom-Mom’s Polish Food Cart, Little Baby’s, and the Cow and the Curd.

Will the Derby grow with Kensginton?

As more people move to the area and the festival grows — and as NKCDC shifts its focus north of Lehigh Avenue — the derby may have to get bigger. Will we ever see it span the whole of Kensington?

“One of our organizational goals is to tie the community together,” Dixon says. “Moving forward, I would never say never. That’s something I’m sure we want to investigate as we continue to work with other artists from the area who want to take part in this whole process.”

The Philadelphia Federal Credit Union Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby & Arts Festival is coming up on Saturday, May 20, from noon to 6pm. The Derby will start at noon at Trenton and Norris, pedal past Norris and Susquehanna at 12:45, hit the Sculpture Wash at Girard and Frankford Avenues at 1:20pm, and brave the Mudpit Finish back at Trenton and Norris at 2:45pm. The Award Ceremony happens at 4pm on the Festival Stage. Car parking will be limited, but the day is easily accessible via the Berks stop on the Market-Frankford Line, or the 3, 5, or 25 bus routes. 

Above: Youngsters in the 2016 Derby round Frankford Avenue. (Photo by Chris Richman.)