Arts group hopes to transform Pearl Street in Center City

"More eyes, more activity, more life," Gayle Isa, executive director of the Asian Arts Initiative, says of the project to upgrade Pearl Street, a small alley on the edge of Center City.
"More eyes, more activity, more life," Gayle Isa, executive director of the Asian Arts Initiative, says of the project to upgrade Pearl Street, a small alley on the edge of Center City. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 28, 2013

Pearl Street is more alley than street, four blocks long with a school on either end.

And despite its name, it's anything but luminous. It's strewed with rotting wooden boards, plastic wrappers, and broken glass, marked by trash Dumpsters and steel loading doors. In places, homeless people have set up temporary shelters.

Now, the Asian Arts Initiative is leading a project to transform Pearl Street, to install art, color, light, and spirit, to turn dilapidation into destination. A kickoff community block party is set for Saturday.

"More eyes, more activity, more life," said Gayle Isa, executive director of the arts initiative, whose back door opens onto Pearl.

AAI won a $250,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, and has retained noted California landscape architect Walter Hood, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the principal of Hood Design Studio in Oakland.

Pearl Street slides across the northern edge of Center City, a narrow lane of asphalt between Wood and Vine Streets. For the fast-growing neighborhood - called Chinatown North or Callowhill or both or neither, depending on who is talking - the plan represents another step in becoming, a changing of old into new.

"It's ambitious," said Sarah McEneaney, president of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association. "They are very committed to improving the quality of life in the neighborhood, and in that way we have common goals."

Across the country, alleys are being rediscovered and reimagined.

The Alley Network Project in Seattle is converting narrow lanes around Pioneer Square to encourage art installations and bring customers to businesses. San Francisco's Living Alley Project seeks to establish new space for pedestrians, bicyclists, and community events. And in Austin, Texas, the Green Alley Initiative is exploring ways to install rain gardens and energy-efficient lighting to create what it says will be places "where children play, butterflies thrive, and neighbors visit."

Pearl Street lies within the southernmost edge of North Philadelphia, on the northwest tip of Chinatown proper, and smack in the middle of Chinatown North/Callowhill. Some people call the neighborhood the Loft District, or even the Eraserhood, for the inspiration it lent to filmmaker David Lynch, creator of the cult movie Eraserhead.

Pearl Street runs from Broad to 10th, from Roman Catholic High School to Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church and School. On Broad stands the stylish Packard Motor Car Building Apartments. Near 12th rises the Goldtex apartments, where penthouse units will rent for nearly $6,000 a month.

Between those poles is the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, which provides food and shelter to the homeless, and Assessment and Treatment Alternatives, a mental-health clinic for people with severe emotional and behavioral problems who are involved in the legal system.

The Philadelphia Hoyu Chinese American Association, composed of immigrants from Fujian province, has its office on Vine Street. Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., its offices just east on Ninth Street, plans to build a landmark tower and community center at 10th and Vine. Eastern Tower is envisioned as a 23-story residential, retail, and community center.

And of course there's a big push to turn the old Reading Viaduct into a High Line-like elevated park.

"The neighborhood we're in is definitely a contested terrain," Isa said. "A lot of what we're hoping to do is bring those divergent constituencies together. We span so much of Philadelphia in such a finite space."

She doesn't talk about getting homeless people to move so Pearl Street can be prettified, but instead talks of the needs of the "homeless constituency."

Dick McMillen, executive director of the Sunday Breakfast Mission, said he had no fear that a changing Pearl Street could push out the homeless. Like its neighbors, the mission doesn't want hard-core homeless loitering in the alley - it wants them to come inside for help, McMillen said.

He hopes to attend the block party where AAI and other agencies will offer food, live performances, and art displays to celebrate and inaugurate the project.

The neighborhood is mixed in every way: industrial, professional, wealthy, poor, black, white, and Asian. Artists have moved in. A city study, which included large areas north and east of the core, said the neighborhood population grew 92 percent between 2000 and 2012.

The percentage of area residents who lack a high school diploma is higher than the city average - and so is the percentage of college graduates. The area has larger proportions of residents at high and low ends of annual income: Thirty percent earn less than $15,000, and 20 percent earn at least $75,000.

"It's one of the last areas on the edge of Center City, our expanding Center City, with a substantial number of older buildings that are able to be converted to luxury housing, or affordable housing, or to re-create Chinatown," said Domenic Vitiello, who studies neighborhoods as an assistant professor of city planning and urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

It's impossible to say how the neighborhood will eventually develop - as host to expensive housing, as a true Chinatown expansion, or in some other way. Helping determine the future will be the public spaces that arise, and whether those are multicultural and welcoming to seniors and children, two big groups of Asian immigrants, Vitiello said.

Space is a major issue in Chinatown. During the last half century, 40 percent of Chinatown disappeared, the land taken for large public-works projects.

Construction of the Gallery mall and Market East train station took chunks of south and southwest Chinatown during the 1970s. The Vine Street Expressway claimed the northern end in the 1980s. The Convention Center swallowed homes on the west side, and the east side was claimed by the Police Administration Building and what is now the Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine.

Pearl Street moves past the Khmer Art Gallery, the city's first Cambodian gallery, before bumping into Holy Redeemer. Like other alleys, its size forces creativity upon those who would change its purpose.

"A transformation over time," Isa said. That's what she's working toward. "There's a lot of hopefulness and creativity and goodwill. We want a nicer, safer space to be able to interact with our neighbors."


jgammage@phillynews.com215-854-4906 @JeffGammage


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