Democracy 101: Callowhill Nid Foes Went Up Against Powerful Forces ... And Won

Maria and John Yuen inside their home. They opposed the Callowhill Reading Viaduct Neighborhood Improvement District, which would require property owners to pay a 7 percent tax for street cleaning and lighting. They started a nonprofit, NOVA, or the North of Vine Association, to oppose tax increases in their neighborhood. ( SARAH J. GLOVER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
Maria and John Yuen inside their home. They opposed the Callowhill Reading Viaduct Neighborhood Improvement District, which would require property owners to pay a 7 percent tax for street cleaning and lighting. They started a nonprofit, NOVA, or the North of Vine Association, to oppose tax increases in their neighborhood. ( SARAH J. GLOVER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
Posted: February 06, 2012

THE ANGRY crowd in City Council chambers in September held up signs blasting "Taxation Without Representation," but Paul Levy wasn't concerned.

The influential head of the Center City District was there to talk up the plan to establish a Neighborhood Improvement District in Callowhill that would add a 7 percent property tax to pay for services like sidewalk cleaning and tree planting.

More than a dozen of the districts have been set up across the city since Levy's organization launched 20 years ago, usually with overwhelming support.

"We've never seen one rejected," Levy said.

But opponents from the Callowhill and Chinatown North communities maintained that politicians weren't prepared for their sheer determination to defeat it.

And they certainly weren't prepared for Maria and John Yuen.

The couple - he's a Chinese-American engineer, she's a Korean-American city cop - are now credited with helping to pull off a major upset after gathering enough signatures to kill the plan.

It's believed to be the first time a Philadelphia community rejected an NID.

The Callowhill NID was for the area roughly between Vine and Spring Garden and 8th and Broad streets.

It was seen as a precursor to converting the abandoned Reading Viaduct train trestle that runs through the neighborhood into a park modeled after New York's successful High Line.

But Maria Yuen said that the additional tax was too big a burden.

"Everybody agrees we all want to live in a beautiful place with clean streets and green parks," Maria Yuen said. "But with this economy, the priority has to be jobs. People need to put food on the table."

New power players

In the realms of politics and power in Philadelphia, unknowns like Maria and John Yuen aren't expected to win a stare-down against longtime former City Councilman Frank DiCicco and Paul Levy.

But what the Yuens lacked in power they more than made up for with passion, observers said.

"They are extremely passionate about the well-being of the neighborhood," said Harry Pollack, owner of a cleaning products-packaging business on 10th Street near Callowhill.

"They care very much about democratic principles, about what's right and what's wrong."

The couple garnered praise for continuing to gather petitions even after their home was one of about 90 carved out of the district in what the Yuens saw as a blatant attempt at "dividing and conquering" the opposition.

John Yuen, 47, spent hours on his computer, combing city records for names of property owners who paid the most taxes.

Maria, 43, walked the neighborhood while off-duty and also got in her car to meet property owners living elsewhere.

"I drove out to Bensalem, Upper Darby, Drexel Hill, the Main Line and West Philly," she said. "None of them were Chinese; some were very wealthy."

The Yuens reached out beyond the Asian-American community - to help break down the perception that "this was about the Chinese against the whites," as Maria describes it - and formed the North of Vine Association, or NOVA, geared toward small-business owners.

At first, John Yuen said that they worked closely with another couple - Philip Browndeis and Lee Quillen - and the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., but started NOVA after concluding that business owners weren't being represented.

So, the Yuens met with Pollack, of National Chemical Labs; Jim Wade, owner of Wade Technology Inc.; and Maria Bekas, of the New Town Diner, to start NOVA. John Yuen was asked to be its first president.

"John and I believe strongly in economics and business, and that's the only thing that will save the city," Maria Yuen said. "If they keep chasing people out of this area, what will stop these businesses from moving out of the city?"

What's right for the neighborhood?

The Callowhill area, known to some as Chinatown North, is located just above Center City and has become trendy as old factories and warehouses get converted into artists' studios and loft apartments or condos.

Supporters of the NID had high hopes for improving the aesthetics of a neighborhood now marked by vacant lots full of trash, and dark, shadowy streets beneath the abandoned elevated Reading railroad trestle.

Sarah McEneaney, president of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, said the group continues to believe that an improvement district "will have significant benefits for the community and the neighborhood."

But opponents questioned whether the new tax would support maintaining the proposed Reading Viaduct park while low-income residents needed affordable housing.

Many newer residents supported the NID, but the majority of property owners came out against it.

"Our real-estate taxes have gone up two or three times in the last two years," said Wade, whose firm electroplates items like door knobs and hinges with nickel or chrome. "We're coasting along, trying to stay open like anyone else. It was just another tax burden to us."

The measure was vetoed by Mayor Nutter after a defiant City Council approved it on Dec. 15. DiCicco questioned the validity of signatures from 51 percent of property owners against the bill, even though they were certified by Council's chief clerk.

New Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district includes the area, said that there's no need to further verify signatures, leaving supporters to devise a new way to get the district approved.

Levy, who had advised proponents of the viaduct to create the NID, said that it is important to improve neighborhood conditions.

"It can't be good for anybody for the neighborhood to look how it does now," Levy said.

Maria Yuen agrees that the neighborhood needs work and said that some NOVA business owners have talked about installing surveillance cameras and floodlights for better lighting and security.

There's also talk of joining with the PCDC and Callowhill Neighborhood Association for neighborhood cleanups.

Fixing what's wrong

Maria Yuen said she believed that the community's fight was about American democratic ideals - that anyone who works together can fight an injustice.

"When people say something is wrong in this country, when they say something is impossible, they should still struggle for what they believe," she said. "We live in a great country, and there's a way to fix what's wrong."

As an immigrant who came here from Korea when she was 10, Maria Yuen said that she could relate to the immigrant business owners in Callowhill.

"We saw our parents working 12- and 16-hour days and holding down two jobs," Yuen said.

Her husband, who came here from Hong Kong at age 7, was born into a family that understands determination.

His mother fled south China before he was born, by swimming to Hong Kong with his two older brothers, Maria Yuen said.

She swam with the younger boy on her back while the older boy held onto a basketball beside her. John was born in Hong Kong.

"I had to believe it was possible [to get enough petitions] and it's not easy when people say no to you," Maria Yuen said. "It's really hard to keep the faith."

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