When Sergeant Kyle Melnick-Hoffman joined the Pennsylvania National Guard in 2009, he never thought he’d be stationed in Kensington — down the street from his childhood home, where his mother still lives.
But starting last week, Melnick-Hoffman was one of nearly 50 National Guard soldiers stationed in full combat gear along Kensington Avenue. They were deployed from June 3 to June 9 in response to a wave of theft and property damage that followed the demonstrations over the death of George Floyd. Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, in Minneapolis on May 25.
“It was ironic being back because, in the beginning, I joined as a way to escape the neighborhood and not become just another guy stuck here,” Melnick-Hoffman said.
For 24 years, Melnick-Hoffman lived at Arbor Street and Indiana Avenue near Hissey Playground. He learned how to read at McPherson Square Library and got haircuts on Kensington Avenue at Vin’s Beauty Salon and Kim’s. Every month, he comes back to the neighborhood to visit his mom and get a haircut from Vin’s.
Melnick-Hoffman’s mom, Anne Hoffman, worked for 15 years as a disciplinarian and teacher’s aid at Lewis Elkin Elementary, where he went to school. But despite raising him and still living in the neighborhood, she was concerned about his assignment in Kensington.
“She was more nervous about me standing on K&A all day than when I went to the Middle East in 2012,” Melnick-Hoffman said.
While Melnick-Hoffman has some positive memories of growing up in the neighborhood, he remembers it getting violent at times, too.
“Growing up, my mom was a single mom who raised five kids on a hot drug corner,” Melnick-Hoffman said. “I knew I didn’t want to be here — I had to get out.”
The desire to get out of the neighborhood motivated Melnick-Hoffman to take a different approach. College wasn’t working for him, so he joined the National Guard.
Unlike the military, the National Guard is a part-time service in which many of the soldiers are from certain areas in the state. For Melnick-Hoffman, being able to serve part-time also allows him to have a civilian career. Since joining, he’s been able to buy his own home and become a union carpenter, he said.
‘We are a part of these communities as well’
While Sergeant Eric Torres wasn’t raised in Kensington where he was stationed with Melnick-Hoffman, he didn’t grow up too far away. Torres, 21, was raised near 5th Street and Hunting Park Avenue.
“My grandfather was in the National Guard in Puerto Rico,” said Torres. “He was an E-4 specialist, and I always told myself that I wanted to reach that or even higher.”
Since joining, Torres said he’s learned new trades and has gone back to school. He’s also gained a new sense of responsibility and a sense of community, he said.
For West Philly native Sergeant Mataio Nuualiitia, who was stationed with Torres and Melnick-Hoffman in Kensington, the community is one of the best benefits of joining.
“This is the biggest brotherhood and family I’ve ever known, the uniform bonds every single one of us,” Nuualiitia said.
Nuualiittia said that he knows how it looks — coming into the neighborhood in full combat gear with loaded weapons — so it was important that the soldiers projected the right image and mentality. Everyone he was stationed with at Kensington grew up in the city, he said.
“We’re not here to bring any further harm or conflict to these communities because we are a part of these communities as well,” Nuualiitia said. “We’re here to help in any way that we can.”
Some Kensington residents saw the National Guard presence as positive, while others didn’t want them there or felt that it wasn’t necessary anymore.
However, several soldiers said they received mostly positive feedback from the community. Kids brought them water and hand-drawn pictures, and businesses brought them pizzas and snacks, they said.
According to Melnick-Hoffman, he thinks that the National Guard’s presence in Kensington allowed residents to feel more comfortable interacting with the police, who some people in the neighborhood are afraid of, he said. Also, residents told him it was the first time they felt safe walking outside with their kids.
Two identities: ‘the Kenzo’ and the National Guard sergeant
As the end of his second and final contract in the National Guard approaches, Melnick-Hoffman didn’t expect one of his last major assignments to be stationed in Kensington. When they were given their mission, some of the soldiers were initially concerned about going to the neighborhood and the community’s response.
“Everybody in my unit knows me as the ‘Kenzo,’ but then this happens and everyone is on edge asking me what we’re going to do,” Melnick-Hoffman said. “I’m like nah, you guys are going to learn. You want to make fun of me for the past 10 years for being a Kenzo? Here you go — you’re going to experience it today.”
Nuualiitia said that growing up he often heard that Kensington and Allegheny Avenue was a rougher part of town that people referred to as “the Badlands.” But, Nuualiitia said, the reality of the neighborhood is people are just trying to survive and are doing the best with what they have.
“It’s odd being back in this capacity, but it’s interesting watching people who aren’t from the same area and their reaction to being down here,” Melnick-Hoffman said. “It’s great because the community is giving back such a positive reaction to us being here and it has swayed a lot of guys’ opinions of the place.”
Although the soldiers were in Kensington to provide support, the mission seems to have also been a learning experience for Melnick-Hoffman’s fellow soldiers.
“Kensington isn’t a bad place — it’s not filled with bad people,” Melnick-Hoffman said. “They’re good people that have fallen on bad times.”
“Hopefully, [the government] will take the epidemic seriously, — not just coronavirus — but the opioid epidemic, too,” he added.
Kensington Voice is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly.
Editors: Zari Tarazona, Jillian Bauer-Reese / Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Traductora: N/A