Chinatown North/Callowhill: Naming the Neighborhood Proves To Be Longtime Challenge

There’s a battle of sorts being waged near the Vine Street Expressway.

Development throughout the entire city has been picking up over the past few years in Philadelphia, and the area north of Chinatown is no exception. But it’s not just arguments over development that are sparking debate between community leaders in the neighborhood north of the Expressway and south of Spring Garden.

Since the 17th century, no name for this part of the city has quite stuck.

The question of what to name the neighborhood carries political, historical and social heat; and community leaders, so far, haven’t come up with a way to resolve it.

So, what’s the neighborhood called? Different people will give you different answers: The Eraserhood, Trestleville, Tenderloin, The Loft District, Callowhill East. But the two most widely recognized are Chinatown North and Callowhill.

Both are historically significant—the first obviously labeled as a continuation of Chinatown proper, a clue to what it might have been if the Expressway hadn’t divided it. The latter holds history that spans more than 400 years. Callowhill Street, also known as “New Street” because it was the first street to be built outside of the city’s northern limit, was named after Hannah Callowhill, William Penn’s second wife.

Today the area is a mishmash of business, industry, residential buildings, arts, food and grassroots organizations.

With the influx of new businesses (such as nightclub NOTO that just recently moved in) and loft-style housing popping up, naming the neighborhood has seemed important to give it some sort of identity for long-time residents or even new residents looking for affordable rent and neighborhood culture.

According to the city Planning Commission, the Central District (which includes Chinatown and Chinatown North/Callowhill) has grown by approximately 17,000 residents since 2000.

Neighborhood Project Manager Dave Kyu stands with People:Power:Place’s cultural asset map with observations about the neighborhood and opportunities for development in Asian Art Initiative’s Pearl Street Gallery.

Dave Kyu, Neighborhood Project Manager for the Asian Arts Initiative which sits on Vine Street, said the “naming battle” is a result of the differing cultures and identities of each block trying to coexist. Kyu is currently working on a project with Asian Arts called People:Power:Place that is culturally mapping the neighborhood in an effort to challenge residents and business owners to participate in what might happen to their block.

As far as coming up with what the neighborhood should be called, Kyu said, it’s been tricky.

“I think each of these neighborhood names emerged from some group trying to affirm their stake in the neighborhood and make sure they’re included in the future plan of what’s going on in the neighborhood,” Kyu said.

The cultural asset map project began in January in an effort to document what the neighborhood looks like today, and how residents want to see it change.

The struggle for representation for Asian Americans in minority issues and political movements is also part of the conversation in Chinatown North. Making sure that name is still included is intentional for the Chinatown residents, Kyu said.

“Asian Arts Initiative tries to keep the name ‘Chinatown North’ alive because this is a neighborhood where there are a lot of Asian individuals, Asian-American individuals living and working here that tend to be invisible to a lot of the other residents,” Kyu said.

“It’s a political move to continue to call it Chinatown North,” he added.

Carol Wang, board member of the long-time neighborhood leader Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. and president of the Chinatown Learning Center, has seen plans and development move in and out of the neighborhood with little regard for the community at large, she said.

At the beginnings of Philly’s Chinatown, immigrants moved into the community initially because they had nowhere else to go, she said.

“Now it’s high end,” Wang said, “and everyone wants a piece.”

A replica of Chinatown and Chinatown North/Callowhill accompanies the cultural asset map as a part of People:Power:Place so residents can brainstorm new ways the neighborhood can grow.

Center City has seen more than $300 million in hotel development since 2008, and more than $500 million in recently completed cultural projects, according to the Planning Commission.

Only this month did the PCDC lose out to another developer on a large piece of land at 8th and Vine streets.

The PCDC had backed a project that would have opened residential and affordable housing for seniors, a supermarket and an urban farm on what’s now a parking lot. 

However, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority instead chose a project that features a 14-story hotel, office space and an Equal Justice Center that will house 300 attorneys providing legal services for local residents.

“People are trying to say it’s for Chinatown, and it’s not,” Wang said.

PCDC Executive Director John Chin said he’s “very disappointed” with the decision. Moving forward, he said the group is going to try to understand how the chosen plan will directly impact the community positively.

PCDC has historically always been focused on providing low-income housing, specifically to seniors. Kate Wilson, Georgia State University professor and author of “Ethnic Renewal in Philadelphia’s Chinatown,” said the group is a legacy organization that has always fought off unwanted developers.

“[PCDC] is focused on building affordable housing for the community, which is incredibly difficult to do because of market forces,” Wilson said. ” And there’s very little support for mixed-income, affordable housing in general, let alone in the middle of downtown.”

Wang added that the parcel of land on the 800 block of Vine Street was the last large chunk of land up for grabs in their effort to grow Chinatown, save for the upcoming development of the Eastern Tower Community Center, which will mainly focus on providing a community center for residents. Wang said she wants to see more Asian American-run businesses move north, and for more financial support from city government to fund projects for affordable housing, youth programming and community centers. Chin agreed. And the way to relieve some of the density in Chinatown is to expand where there’s space.

Chin said neighborhood leaders in Chinatown have been planning the northern expansion of Chinatown for the past 20 years.

“The way forward is to … create this commercial quarter for retail and retail shopping and more restaurants,” he said. “It’s just trying to replicate what’s happening in Chinatown. Chinatown is a really important economic engine for Philadelphia.”

Callowhill Neighborhood Association President Sarah McEneaney (below) is an artist who has lived in the area since 1979, in the very same apartment. She’s seen the neighborhood change on the north side of the Expressway first hand.

Callowhill Neighborhood Association President Sarah McEneaney talks with fellow People:Power:Place participant Ben Horwitz.

“When I first got here, the neighborhood was busy during the day with industry, but totally desolate and empty at night. Scary,” she said. “And slowly over the years, it took a while, it really didn’t start happening until the late ’90s when more residents came in … And since then, the residential change has been a much bigger thing.”

It’s still very much a diverse place in terms of people, businesses and organizations, she said. The way she sees it, the naming debate is a challenge and oftentimes confusing—but it isn’t something that divides the neighborhood.

The looming issue of gentrification behind every development story isn’t new in the urban landscape. Kyu said the language behind gentrification has to be nuanced for this neighborhood.

And the question of whether or not gentrification is happening or has already happened in this nameless neighborhood is yet to be seen for some.

Chinatown has always been a mixed-income neighborhood, and mixed-income neighborhoods are necessary for them to be successful, Chin said. So development is a good thing—including low-income housing.

“Theres a concern about gentrification in the sense that low-income people that have lived in Chinatown, there should be a way for them to live there if they choose to,” he said.

Asian Art’s People:Power:Place is trying to engage business owners, developers and local residents in observing what they see right now existing in the community, and what opportunities they see for development as residents or potential developers. 

“If there is no desire to organize, if there is no activism, that result is inherently what is going to happen,” Kyu said. “But inevitably you can’t fight change in a neighborhood. Change will always kind of happen on some level. And you’re mistaken to say, ‘This is our neighborhood, it’s never going to change.’”

– Text, images and video by Emily Rolen

1 Comment

  1. I liked the part where PCDC ignored and downplayed Parkway’s own 120 market-rate condos in their plan, the fact that Pennrose proposed the same number of affordable units as Parkway, and their lynchpin of a big-business supermarket, which would only serve to take away business from the existing markets on 10th St. That “urban farm” was also such a frivolous, low-effort component to their plan that doesn’t address real community concerns that it may as well have not existed. Pennrose’s plan was so much better in terms of both architecture and use, but PCDC would rather politicize the whole thing than be impartial, constructive, and receptive mediators in this whole process.

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