A proposed Business Improvement District (BID) in a section of the city some Philadelphians call Callowhill and some call Chinatown North has raised tensions over who ought to determine the future of this neighborhood and the nearby heart of Chinatown. The two have complicated histories and more in common than just the Vine Street Expressway that divides them.
Friday is the deadline for property owners to authorize or reject the Callowhill Neighborhood Association’s BID proposal to levy fees in order to fund neighborhood improvements. As the Inquirer’s Inga Saffron pointed out, there is resistance; the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation wants to create a BID of its own and include Callowhill, which the corporation considers part of Chinatown.
Friction between the two organizations has grown amid charges of bad faith on all sides. If this conflict seems familiar, it’s because it’s an illustration of the sort of flashpoints defining Philly of late: Fears that gentrification will lead to a loss of community identity, and concerns that affordable housing be developed as neighborhoods evolve. At heart is the larger question of exactly who gets to determine the shape and future of a community. That’s why the outcome could have implications far beyond Callowhill and Chinatown.
The announcement in 2000 of a plan to build a ballpark for the Phillies at 13th and Vine in Callowhill galvanized citizens there and in Chinatown to push back, and helped to scuttle the idea of shoehorning a professional sports stadium into the area.
More recently, what was initially feared as yet another threat to Chinatown — the repurposing of Callowhill’s former Reading viaduct into the popular Rail Park — has evolved into what community members view as a potential connector for both neighborhoods. There have been other joint efforts about shared concerns, including proposed improvements along the expressway’s street-level portions.
BIDs sometimes work but are on a continuum with the problematic privatization of public spaces in Philadelphia and other American cities in recent decades, as cash-strapped municipal governments are unable or unwilling to provide the street cleaning and other services many urban neighborhoods seek. Creating a BID lets city halls off the hook; in any case, it is no panacea, while the creation process, as well as the implementation and operation, can be divisive.
The encouraging signs at the Rail Park and other past collaborations between the neighborhoods suggest the ill will and suspicions the BID rivalry has generated may ultimately take a back seat to other pressing concerns. Should the Callowhill BID be approved, the neighborhood association is willing to provide a seat on the governing board to Chinatown, and Chinatown seems willing to accept. We hope the same collegiality would prevail were Chinatown to establish its own BID.
“I’m going to continue to work to get them together,” said city Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district includes the two neighborhoods. “The goal is to have the whole community lifted up.”