Philadelphia is known as a city of neighborhoods. But it may be even more accurate to call it a city of neighborhood organizations. Block associations. Civic groups. Friends groups. Ward committees. Special services districts. Community Development Corporations. Their numbers have exploded in recent years for the simple reason that City Hall is unable to deliver all the services that neighborhoods want and deserve. When we talk about local government in Philadelphia, we really, really mean local.
It’s annoying. It’s inefficient. It frequently leads to stark inequalities and gives license to Philadelphia’s famous provincialism. In a perfect world, Philadelphia’s government would be a well-run, well-funded machine, and every neighborhood would get its due. Everybody’s streets would be swept regularly. Parks would be meticulously manicured and graffiti scrubbed away the moment it appeared. The city would make sure that vacant properties were sealed, and every building site was safe.
Needless to say, things are far from perfect in Philadelphia. Just imagine what life would be like if these groups weren’t there to sweat the small stuff.
Which brings us to a proposal by the Callowhill neighborhood to start a special services district, sometimes called a business improvement district, or BID. Its backers say the district would focus on street cleaning, especially the trash-strewn lots around the new Rail Park. They want to install pedestrian-scaled streetlights and battle nuisances like dumping and prostitution. That hardly sounds like an objectionable agenda, yet it has sparked an ugly turf war with Callowhill’s immediate neighbor, Chinatown.
Actually, Chinatown doesn’t consider Callowhill its neighbor at all. In the view of Chinatown’s dominant group, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, Callowhill — a collection of factory buildings that grew up around a long-gone rail depot at Broad and Callowhill — is merely a section of Chinatown, what it refers to as Chinatown North. The nonprofit development corporation is aggressively fighting Callowhill’s quest for a special services district covering the area between 10th and 13th, Vine and Spring Garden.
Philadelphia has seen controversial BID proposals before. An effort to establish a special services district for South Philadelphia’s Ninth Street market failed in 2016, partly because of the cost and partly because Italian and Mexican merchants had different visions. Since then, the historic market has continued its slow-motion decline, and now another BID proposal is aimed at rescuing what’s left.
The proposed Callowhill Improvement District is also in danger of being defeated. (Aug. 9 is the deadline for property owners to vote.) In 2012, the Chinatown development corporation blocked the formation of a Neighborhood Improvement District, a less powerful version of a BID. That proposal had its problems, but it would be a shame if Chinatown succeeded in playing the spoiler again.
John Chin, who runs Chinatown’s development corporation, told me that he has two main objections to the new proposal: He says the BID’s backers have not behaved “inclusively” toward Callowhill’s Asian residents and businesses. He also claims that the BID will fuel gentrification.
Ironically, Chin admits that his development corporation wants to create its own BID, one that would encompass all of Chinatown in Center City, Chinatown North and Callowhill — a vast territory from Arch to Spring Garden. That suggests that the development corporation is really worried about turf, not gentrification. The bigger the area covered by a BID, the larger the pool of property owners — and the more revenue that can be collected.
It’s hard to evaluate the charge that Callowhill’s BID has not been inclusive, except to note that a quarter of its steering committee is of Asian descent and its website now includes a Mandarin translation.
The gentrification charge, however, is particularly disheartening, and one we hear with increasing frequency in Philadelphia. Does anyone really think that stopping improvements is a reasonable strategy to prevent displacement and keep neighborhoods affordable? Certainly, dirt and blight haven’t been effective so far at deterring developers from converting Callowhill’s old factories into market-rate apartments.
“If the BID fails, that dynamic isn’t going to change,” observed Kevin Dow, the staff director for the Friends of the Rail Park and a member of the BID’s steering committee.
There are also problems with the Chinatown development corporation’s Balkanized view of the world. First, it’s not a zero-sum game. Creating a Callowhill BID doesn’t diminish Chinatown. And it doesn’t mean Chinatown can’t set up its own district next door.
In fact, Callowhill’s effort frees up Chinatown to concentrate on its core business district, the area south of Vine. Unlike most Chinatowns in America, it is still a living neighborhood, with a large Asian population that lives, works, and shops in a few square blocks. But it has too much trash and a growing number of unoccupied buildings. One of Philadelphia’s great cultural treasures, this part of Chinatown deserves an organization devoted exclusively to its care.
Callowhill is no less special. Once a hive of printing companies, foundries, and coal yards, it has come back to life over the last half-century, first as a home for artists, and more recently as a mix of maker spaces, condos, restaurants, and brewpubs. There are still a few small manufacturers and warehouses within the BID boundaries, many of them Asian-owned. Callowhill’s BID will need to make an extra effort to include and protect them.
Because of its industrial past, Callowhill lacks the cohesiveness of a typical neighborhood. It is dotted with overgrown surface lots, many of them owned by the corporate descendant of the Reading Railroad. Peco has taken advantage of the organizational vacuum to expand its unsightly transformer station. There is no one to stand up to the server farms that run noisy exhaust fans 24 hours a day. Had the BID been in existence, the neighborhood might have been able to preempt a proposal to locate a self-storage facility on Spring Garden Street, the closest thing Callowhill has to a retail corridor.
I took a walk around the neighborhood with two of the BID organizers: Sarah McEneaney, an artist who has lived in Callowhill for 40 years, and Kelly Edwards, who works for Arts+Crafts Holdings, a developer that has been active in redeveloping the area’s factory buildings. For a neighborhood just a few blocks north of City Hall, the number of dump sites was astonishing.
At the same time, it was possible to glimpse what the neighborhood might become with a little TLC. The new Rail Park has already given Callowhill its first public amenity space (a project the Chinatown development corporation also opposed). Walk down the cobblestone stretch of Hamilton Street between Ridge Avenue and 10th Street, where Love City Brewing has set up shop and the Trestle Inn runs a pop-up space, and you’re swept back into Philadelphia’s industrial heyday.
One of the big objections to the Callowhill BID, and to virtually all BID proposals, is that property owners must pay a surcharge on top of their regular property taxes. The proposed Callowhill BID assessments are relatively modest, roughly $200 a year for a rowhouse. All but 24 properties in the neighborhood are commercial buildings or condos.
The other complaint about BIDs is that they institutionalize inequality by dividing the city into neighborhoods with street cleaning and those without. But when high-income neighborhoods pay directly for their amenities, that makes more city money available for less affluent ones. City Council recently added $2 million to the city’s street-sweeping fund. The money will be spent on commercial corridors in areas without BIDs, like 52nd Street in West Philadelphia.
One thing is certain, Philadelphia will never have enough money to make the city as clean and livable as we would like. We’re all going to have to pick up a broom and pitch in.