“It Really Could Be Something”
15 February 2008 |
It’s a bright Tuesday afternoon in late January. At Second and Green, where Abe Rosenberg put a curse on the neighborhood that lasted half a century, the apartments above the old pet food store appear finished. The building gleams as if mocking the old world nonsense of the former proprietor, whose love once was spurned by a girl from Second Street. But then, a city, a neighborhood, even a corner like this one is bigger than a single man.
The Northern Liberties is dusty, some combination of road salt, construction debris, crumbling infrastructure, and tailpipe emissions from the two highways that manage to keep the neighborhood feeling like a place apart. One enters the Northern Liberties (often by cutting across a grassy knoll). Inside, below bare, gray Paulownia trees, the work of making and remaking this city goes on.
On Orianna Street I pass through the heavy metal door of an old auto body shop. This is the house of Scott Erdy and Dave McHenry, architects whose forceful and responsive work connects back to mid-century Modernism and forward to a MySpace urban utopia, and who have peppered the city with exalted steel and black. It is their willingness to push the geometry of building — of process, meaning, form, and function — that has made them so desirable to those trying to solve multiple problems at once.
The three of us are sitting in the glass conference room below the firm’s mezzanine library. Erdy, whose gentle face is covered by a three days’ beard and whose eyes are heavy from marathon days, is scrolling through digital files trying to find the best images to show me. Explaining my interest in Norris Square, the Kensington neighborhood between the Berks and York-Dauphin El stops, and noting the power of the El to connect otherwise disconnected places, I have asked them to tell me about Radian, the apartment-dorm they are building at 40th and Walnut. But Erdy says he has something else instead. “Here’s something you’re going to love,” he says. “Have you seen this?”
Projected on the screen is a stand-alone café with a glass terrace overlooking the Christ Church burial ground and otherwise attached to one of Laurie Olin’s intimate side gardens on the east side of Independence Mall. An installation like this one is just the kind of sensitive, surgical intervention that transforms public space. Aside from the concessions in Franklin Square, the café, which will be run by the caterers Max and Me, may be the first indication that Philadelphia is ready to put aside dowdy notions about the purity of the public park. “Open air, full throttle,” says McHenry in his deep, deadpan voice. Indeed, the large block letter C-A-F-E readily proclaims its pedestrian purpose.
This is a small project for the firm but one which ably demonstrates their desire to make architecture that connects people to each other and to the city. A Drexel dorm they are building emphasizes student interaction and shared space while responding to the constraints of the narrow site itself, a small plot next to the campus tennis courts on 34th Street. The 18-story building is really two half-spheres that rotate toward Center City, maximizing views and the building’s presence.
Radian, the massive floating residence overlooking the western half of Penn’s campus, has like a lot of the firm’s work the quality of a viewing screen — or a wall of TVs, each a different size and tuned to a different channel.
With a model of the building in front of us, McHenry is explaining to me why the building rotates (to create views and allow sunlight to penetrate Sansom Street), but he stops when I mention that this building seems to rise above a familiar plinth (Kling’s Municipal Services Building is one of Erdy’s favorite Philadelphia buildings). “Why do all your questions start with assumptions?” he wonders, betraying a frustration with observers — not just me, I imagine — who wish to pigeonhole the firm into a signature style (or assume their only ambition is to build on vacant lots in Philadelphia).
McHenry’s annoyance may be justified. The Erdy-McHenry approach is painstakingly normative. To not understand that is to miss what is most important about contemporary architecture: the way it attempts to account for a democratic array of desires, users, and functions. Thus, Radian’s plinth is meant to provide space for a street terrace with a green roof and retail stores; to connect the building to the small scale but distinctive block of row houses on Sansom Street behind (they had hoped to do so by having a retail entrance on Sansom but the tenant, a national drug chain, doesn’t want it) and the campus Superblock in front, to maximize sun exposure, street life, and social interaction, all on a mid-block site that’s too small for the project’s ambition and lacks the economies of scale of a large skyscraper.
It is a useful lesson; and indeed walking out onto tiny Orianna Street and winding my way back to the Spring Garden El station I feel chastened. My premise is that the El has the power to make Philadelphia feel big again; that by concentrating development near its stations a more dynamic city would result (one that eschews the stilted dichotomy of “inbound” and “outbound”). Erdy McHenry’s work seems to confirm this theory, for each of the firm’s current city projects — a potential development at 46th and Market (which I once had helped to conceptualize), the Radian, Drexel’s two dorms, the Fifth Street café, Hancock Square (now in its second of three phases) — is located within a couple of blocks of an El stop. So let’s extend the pattern to the next two stops heading north. Norris Square awaits. Or is this, too, an unwelcome assumption?
There is much to say in the El’s disfavor, of course. Both elevated reconstruction projects were poorly managed and have sent more than a few shop owners to the poorhouse; new station architecture is oppressively bland and lacks even basic commercial amenities. Worst of all, the line that once ran 24 hours a day now stops for five hours at midnight.
But in the realm of public transit in Philadelphia, there’s really nothing that compares to the El. The combined underground and elevated line covers nearly 13 miles between Upper Darby and Frankford, providing about 180,000 rides per weekday. That’s about the same number of rides given by the Broad Street Subway and the five subway-surface trolley lines combined. The Patco speedline, in contrast, accounts for 33,000 transit rides a day. The El is fast, efficient, and as transit goes, cost effective. Fares cover 63% of the cost of operating the line, which makes it proportionally the fifth least subsidized route in Philadelphia (the 60 bus, which traverses Allegheny Avenue, is the most cost efficient).
Most impressive, though, is its speed. It takes just 15 minutes to travel from the Radian at 40th Street to Hancock Square at Girard Avenue. That’s about how long it takes on the Seventh Avenue Subway to go from 72nd Street on the Upper West Side to Christopher Street in the Village.
It’s just two more minutes to Norris Square.
On a warm afternoon in early February I sit facing the playground in the center of the square. The air is wet and the sky is dark and there are shouts: a crew of women collecting trash along Howard Street, a handful of boys playing basketball after school, a pair tossing a football, and the blast of a moped gunned at thirty miles an hour and heading this way. The air still seems to vibrate and the moped’s already gone — the wrong way on Dauphin Street.
You can hear the El train too, but not the Latin music that emanates from several Front Street stores below the tracks. It’s rare to find a shopping district below the elevated that survives. But this one, now with its first taqueria — Las Chivas at Jasper Street, which replaces a check cashing joint — is colorful, loud, and stuffed with cheap clothing, toys, and housewares.
“It’s a little, dirty, grungy, pero what’s been interesting about [Front Street] is it’s always been packed with people,” says Pat De Carlo, the executive director of the Norris Square Civic Association. We’re sitting in her office — what was an ornate bedroom — on the third floor of the turn-of-the-century brownstone that had been Fluehr’s funeral parlor. The square is just below.
De Carlo, who is in her sixties, has a full oval face and short white hair and she speaks in long trailing sentences peppered with Spanish. Her voice sounds vaguely like those Chicago sports fans from Saturday Night Live — “Da Bulls” — but it doesn’t hide her seriousness or lack of purpose. When I walk in she is on-line, reading about Bush’s proposed cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services. “I think poor communities are entitled to live in nice neighborhoods,” she continues. “It shouldn’t be when they start fixing things up people with money start calling the shots.” So it is her self-described task to mend a neighborhood by keeping people with means away.
The effort to reclaim Norris Square began in the early-eighties when a bunch of young mothers who had grown up playing in the park grew tired of broken glass, drug dealers, and disarray. They formed a group that eventually became the Civic Association and the Norris Square Neighborhood Project, which has focused its resources on maintaining the square while using urban horticulture to build community. The Neighborhood Project built evocative Puerto Rican gardens out of vacant lots north of the Square and provides after-school activities for children. De Carlo, a lawyer and organizer who served in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica, emerged from the early days of local Latino activism to run the Cívica.
She knows that the growth of the Northern Liberties and Fishtown has brought her neighborhood into wider view. With two El stops, a large square, strong row house blocks, an almost carnivalesque shopping district, and a handful of good looking but abandoned textile mills, Norris Square is the kind of place that excites an imaginative city planner.
De Carlo’s group runs a day care center, an after school and community Beacon program, Head Start, GED and job placement, a violence reduction initiative, and has built affordable housing (construction of the 48-unit Norris Square townhouse development is now underway), and ran El Mercado, the farmer’s market at Front and Palmer that eventually failed. The Civic Association also owns several key parcels, including the monumental abandoned bank at Front and Norris, the land across the way now designated for the Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School, and the St. Boniface church and monastery on the south side of the square.
If land is power, then the Civic Association has it. That, in turn, means De Carlo’s ideas for Norris Square have mattered most. But those ideas “don’t jive with what Philadelphia wants to be — a multi-ethnic city,” says Pedro Rodriguez, the well-studied director of the Action Alliance for Senior Citizens. Rodriguez, who grew up in the Dominican Republic and came to Philadelphia in the 1980s, spent several years on the board of the Civic Association.
I’ve asked De Carlo about her neighborhood’s potential when she tells me it is a unique place because she has fought to preserve it as a Puerto Rican enclave. “Once people have struggled to do all these things they shouldn’t have to move,” she says, imagining busloads of uptight yuppies demanding that neighbors pick up after their dogs or paint their houses in certain pre-approved colors. “Sabes, how do you stem the tide? You like it here, you want to come eat in our restaurants, buy up our stores, go for it. You want to come live here? No.”
“People say, ‘You know Pat, you can’t discriminate,’ but there is no protection for neighborhood. Two people who are a real fear for me are artists and missionaries — artists are the worst people because they are able to make things beautiful out of trash and that attracts these people.”
“What really makes me angry is that kind of mentality,” says Victor Negron, who grew up in Norris Square and recently returned. He was so frustrated by the Civic Association’s lack of responsiveness to residents that nine months ago he started the Friends of Norris Square. “Not to compete” with the Civic Association, he says but because “we want to build community, not look at [people’s] tax records.”
Negron, who is the marketing director for Keystone-Mercy Health System, is particularly puzzled by De Carlo’s attitude about artists. “There’s an artist who just moved in, a Central American artist, middle class. Why isn’t that a good thing?”
Rodriguez, who Negron calls “a great guy, straight-up,” speaks with equal vigor and good humor about Hollywood stars, literature, and Marxism. He tells me “It’s important to understand her ideology. Pat is a right-wing nationalist.” In Rodriguez’s view, De Carlo prefers to keep the neighborhood uneducated and poor, while being clever enough to get liberals to support her. “No one is going to challenge her assertions.”
De Carlo has gone over to the file cabinet to find me some materials about the neighborhood. “I don’t do web sites,” she says, explaining that “most people in Norris Square don’t have computers and wouldn’t go to a webpage to find out information.” (The Norris Square Neighborhood Project, on the other hand, has one.)
Meanwhile, a staff assistant has crept into the room and hands De Carlo the phone. The Nutter administration is talking about cutting Beacon program funding; in Spanish De Carlo provides counsel and the assistant returns with coffee in two Styrofoam cups. “I understand it is hard what I propose,” she says, meaning the attempt to surgically regulate the neighborhood’s development, “that if we can figure out how to protect [the people here, we might] bring in [some, but] not more than 20% [artists and other outsiders].”
“At that rate it will take 300 years,” says Rodriguez, who believes that as the neighborhood becomes more mixed, fewer people will stand for “old world” tactics that amount to exclusion.
“I love that tension,” says the architect Tim McDonald, who with his brothers Johnny and Pat and their partner Howard Steinberg own the design-build-development firm Onion Flats (now PlumbBob, Jig, and Onion Flats II). We’re sitting at a 25-foot conference table made from yellow pine joists in the lower level of the company’s headquarters (and Tim’s home) in an old rug and copper wire factory a block from Norris Square. McDonald, who has taught architecture at Penn, has a round, bright face, a neatly trimmed goatee, and glasses. He curses freely and speaks with joyous conviction, like a man who has seen it all and loved every minute of it, even that which he has hated the most.
The walls of the conference room are covered in designs for the firm’s latest projects, which include the city’s first LEED gold house and the first large-scale LEED platinum (the highest rating) multi-family project in the country, Stable Flats. LEED — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — is a project of the US Green Building Council and is now widely applied as the standard for sustainable design. (The Comcast Center is hoping for a LEED silver rating.)
“I’m pissed off at the Norris Square Neighbors Association,” he says, referring to the bank with the classical stone pediments that soars above the El at Front and Norris. Onion Flats headquarters with its dragon scale roof is kitty corner to the bank. It’s visible through the windows of his wife Liz Kinder’s pottery studio. “I’ve always said a single building can transform a corner and that one can,” he says. They [Norris Square Civic Association] own it and they let it die and nothing happens,” he says and then, in form, “But it will.” McDonald smiles. “I love neighborhood associations,” he says, noting his role over the years in the Northern Liberties.
“But Norris Square is its own little world. Gentrification is not what they want — almost to the point of racism. They would deny it,” he tells me. “Pat De Carlo is a bad-ass woman and I love her.”
It’s no surprise McDonald sees beauty in the morass. “I’m cheesy that way,” he says, explaining that what others see as an obstacle, he calls a challenge. He goes on to explain that his firm has figured out how to install a solar energy system — a $2 million item — at Stable Flats for no cost to the project’s bottom line, how to eliminate storm water flow in a flood zone, and how to build green, affordable housing. “Everything we do is a model.”
Onion Flats helped push through Philadelphia City Council the nation’s first electric car ordinance, which guarantees a homeowner a street parking space in front of his house so that he can plug in and power up. It’s an idea they’ve already incorporated into new projects. Philadelphia’s first electric car — a tiny pick-up by Zapworld.com — sits inside the building at Norris and Howard, where they’re considering opening an electric car dealership. Just past the Zapworld car is a large area set aside for artisans and craftspeople, who work in small pods they rent at little cost. “There’s all kinds of crazy stuff down here,” says Tim McDonald, pointing to one of Stephen Horcha’s HaleyTrikes, a hand-built three wheel bicycle that supports a wooden carrying box large enough to transport a drum set. HaleyTrikes was one of the sponsors of last year’s Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby (and Horcha built the trophies).
The Kinetic Sculpture Derby was the brainchild of Kathryn Doherty-Chapman, the twenty-something avid bicyclist who helps run the economic development program at the New Kensington Community Development Corporation. New Kensington covers the area east of Front Street across from Norris Square; the Derby, which coincides with the Trenton Avenue Arts Festival, will take place this year on May 17. The derby is a symbol, perhaps, of Kensington’s mounting energy.
Much of that energy has been focused on a section of Frankford Avenue between the river and Lehigh Avenue, which the organization calls the Frankford Avenue Arts Corridor. I met Doherty-Chapman — with Sandy Salzman, the New Kensington executive director, and Laura Semmelroth, who runs the Coral Street Arts House — at the Rocket Cat café at Frankford and Norris. The café, in a corner building that New Kensington bought and rehabbed, is just two blocks from the Onion Flats headquarters. It’s an easy, decadent-feeling place with rough wooden floors and old furniture. Salzman’s great-grandparents settled in Fishtown, where she — and her children and their children — live today. So she is able to talk about Kensington before the Elevated. The El, she says, changed everything, opening the “city within a city” to the rest of the world. Now, says Doherty-Chapman, “It’s a barrier,” splitting this part of Kensington from Norris Square.
I prefer to ignore outdated borders, I say and the three of them nod politely. But they do agree that Front Street under the El between Berks and York-Dauphin is a fascinating, and — especially between Dauphin and York Street — vibrant place. The Elevated structure creates a din and cold — for the dim light and the music, it’s like a Mexican arcade, only there aren’t indíginas under foot selling fabric and jewelry — from which the colors of neon and Fluorescent and molded plastic contrast so vividly. In a city so often bereft of street music, the sound — from several sources all at once — is jarring, lascivious, and exciting. Until 6PM, that is. Then, according to Semmelroth, the street is dead — poorly lit with yellow sulfur light. “I still use it,” she says, “a lot of people come and go on the El, but it feels kind of scary.”
This part of Kensington is an empty place; it is filthy, quiet, and sprinkled with murals and memorials to the dead. Outside of Frankford and Trenton Avenues and under the El itself there are few signs of private investment and the place lacks a discernable identity. Residents, says Salzman, are afraid the neighborhood’s gains of the past few years will be lost, especially if they agree to more affordable housing (New Kensington had secured funding for 44 affordable scattered site units, which neighbors rejected). Perhaps this is why the organization has been able to so openly embrace artists and craftspeople as a revitalization strategy. There’s nothing to protect. When I relate Pat De Carlo’s ideas about artists, Salzman nods. “No, it isn’t tongue-in-cheek. She means it. And we love her, she’s smart, and we support what she’s doing. But for us, we love artists. They’re willing to take risks and they have energy. You can embrace [the movement of artist-driven gentrification] or not embrace it. We decided we wanted to embrace it.”
“Don’t tell her,” says Semmelroth of De Carlo, “but there’s a huge number of artists living there already.”
The Arts Corridor plan for Frankford Avenue calls for a black box theatre, galleries, and a business improvement district. Already the effort has yielded seven new businesses, including galleries and a bookstore, façade improvements, and a streetscape plan, for which $3.3 million has been allocated, mostly for curbs and sidewalks in a first phase between Columbia and York (a second phase connects York to Lehigh and a third Columbia to Girard). New bus shelters and trash cans will also be installed. They’ve already erected artist-designed bike racks and benches. But the installation of pedestrian lighting has been a harder task. “Why the city won’t allow us to [install lamps] is crazy,” says Doherty-Chapman. “They make it impossible.” To compensate, the organization has purchased and installed lamps on the sides of buildings, all they could afford.
Semmelroth, who has a degree from Drexel in interior design, runs the Coral Street Arts House, the conversion of the former Beatty mill into 27 affordable live-work spaces for artists. There she provides a wide-array of services for the musicians, writers, actors, and other artists in residence. The Arts House is only one of a half a dozen old mills — that extend on an “L” (formed by the intersection of Jasper and Hagert) from the York-Dauphin station, and which define the streetscape just east of Norris Square. (The former Yards Brewery — now Philadelphia Brewing Company — is just beyond the Arts House at the top of the Hagert Street line of the “L.”) The mills — Bromley, Glazer, Pearson Steam Packing, Provident Dye, Acorn Paper, Bedford Fast Black Dye — are the ruins of Kensington. And like the ruins of an ancient civilization these are evocative — and overwhelming in scale.
Before and after rendering by Mike Burlando, comparing the present state of the “L” and the possible city.
Inside of the “L” is a large vacant lot, a part of which is used by the Comly auction house. Comly occupies the Pearson box plant. It’s one of the nation’s oldest auctioneers and their on-site auctions are open to the public. The day I visit there is a wide range of hardware, restaurant equipment, cabinetry, windows, and flooring all being auctioned off to a mottled crowd of sixty year old hardware men and builders. The auctioneer, Steve, in Comly sweatshirt and burgundy turtleneck (the colors of St. Joes, whose win over Villanova the night before was celebrated before the auction began), has the voice and speech pattern of a classic auctioneer. I don’t know if what he is saying is words, gibberish, nonsense, or speaking in tongues, but the crowd of buyers is eager for the space heaters, fans, and flashlights, $15 or so per lot.
But there is no uncertainty that the “L” and the large lot inside it is the key to this part of Kensington. “It’s one of our favorite topics,” says Semmelroth, who laughs.
“But we’ve met some bumps in the road,” adds New Kensington’s executive director Salzman, referring to neighbors’ uncertain desires for the space. The mills themselves — four to five stories with smaller but no less characteristic outbuildings — are in generally poor, and quickly deteriorating, condition. Each one partly is used. The Bromley, for example, houses Las Chivas, the taqueria; Acorn Paper is a Koi fish farm, parts of Providence are being developed by its owner David Hirsch for artist workspace and sound studios (Patriot Fiber, which cuts horsehair for brushes, occupies a section of the building now).
The best of all may be the old John Glazer Mill, which became Thomas Buck hosiery, and later M.L. Snyder, who made fire equipment. The building was used into the 1990s for textile manufacturing. Now, just at the point of collapse, it has been saved by Dan Rhodes, who lives loft-style on the first floor. Rhodes is a lanky man with an angular face and a Liverpudlian countenance who traces his Philadelphia roots to 1682, the year William Penn arrived from England. He is a descendant, too, of craftsmen — his father restores cars from the 1940s and fabricates metal for guns and canons — so he finds it perfectly natural to rebuild a 100,000 square foot mill bit by bit, all the while collecting old cars and radios. (The basement and courtyard contain old Saabs, a 1959 Fiat 500, a Simca, a VW bus, a 1969 Citroën, and a Volvo 2-stroke, among others, most of which run.)
His idea is to make the place “period correct,” a Sisyphean task, surely. There are 350 windows, a roof that has been braced but that still doesn’t drain properly, a boiler room that collapsed, a busted sprinkler system, and rooms full of junk and industrial equipment, including rows of Jaquards, the first French programmable sewing machines (still holding spools of thread). “I could go broke just cleaning the place out,” he says indifferently, but “I figure what the heck, I don’t have that kind of money.” So he pushes forward, a little at a time. Clear a space, heat it, frame it out. His plan is to create workspaces for wood and metal workers — the first will be occupied by a sculptor friend. For a building that once housed 500 workers, most of them children, the scale of operations will be small, but not the vision.
We’re standing in the building’s suggestive cobblestone courtyard, between the soaring mill and the machine house. It’s gray, chilly, and Rhodes is telling me why he loves Philadelphia. “You can’t find this anywhere else,” he says, and “you can get anywhere on the El you want.” On the other hand, it’s an eerie, empty spot, filled only by music and the wail of the El turning onto Kensington Avenue. Rhodes is patient, appreciative of the nether-land, but also hopeful.
We’re looking out across Jasper Street at the giant lot. “Bad things happen here,” he says, “trash breeds trash and kids and packs of animals.” He pauses. “I’d love to see Tim [McDonald] come in here and do what they do,” he muses. “It really could be something.”
Indeed, there really isn’t anything quite like the work that Onion Flats is doing. Their projects, primarily in Fishtown and the Northern Liberties, are a literal reinvention of the form and function of residential architecture. So it is a marvelous conceit to imagine an Onion Flats project responding to and integrating with the “L” of mills. Let’s call it “Woven Flats.”
B Love and I are standing on the green roof of the just completed Berks-Hewson house in Fishtown with Pat McDonald, Tim’s older brother and the person responsible at the firm for green building systems and green roofs. Pat McDonald is a forty-something snowboarder with a reddish soul patch, who when offering me a glass of water exclaims, “Hydrate or die!” He’s explaining to us his strategy: “You just do it.” That’s how his boring airplane ride spent reading a magazine about green construction has overturned centuries of convention.
“Why wouldn’t you design like that?” he asks emphatically. “Why wouldn’t you use power that doesn’t cost anything to generate? Why wouldn’t you use a green roof to overcome the heat island effect? Why wouldn’t you install a gray water system to save water? What makes you not think of these things?” McDonald laughs; like his brother he takes great pleasure in solving a puzzle.
“It’s a blast,” says Tim McDonald, “because we have to rethink everything.”
“There are 29 churches in view from up here. I counted,” says Pat McDonald. B Love aims his camera at the undulating skyline of the remnants of the Workshop of the World.
“There’s St. Bonnies on Norris Square,” I point to the gothic brownstone St. Boniface, whose spires and muscular trusses make it the most visible local landmark in Norris Square.
Pat De Carlo, whose group purchased the epic 1885 church last year, has plans to tear it down. “Too bad they built it out of brownstone. It just doesn’t last,” she tells me matter-of-factly. “Pieces are flaking off, there’s nothing we can do.”
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” says Victor Negron, the soft-spoken founder of Friends of Norris Square, “now that they’ve got the power.”
Rodriguez isn’t sure about demolishing the church. “It’s unclear what’s going to happen. Pat De Carlo has some work to do.” Part of Rodriguez’s critique is about the way the Civic Association operates. They profit by selling land they’ve been given by the city. Case in point is the site for the new Kensington CAPA, which the Civic Association will sell to a developer who is using taxpayer funds. It appears to him like double-dipping. In contrast, New Kensington gave away the land used for the Kensington Culinary High School, a strategy Norris Square could adopt to develop the massive vacant bank at Front and Norris.
Newly elected City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, who lives on Hancock Street by the Square, says that the Civic Association controls too much land that they don’t have the resources to develop. “We’re not going to do that anymore,” she assures me.
But the tension here is between Philadelphia’s penchant for defensive parochialism and the open nature of a city; community control versus cosmopolitanism. But whose community is it? It’s an impossible question to answer. Negron says, “You’re allowed to not want gentrification. I’m Puerto Rican and I wish the neighborhood was more Latino. But you can’t control the market.”
When De Carlo tells me about her stint as a farmer in Puerto Rico, her eyes widen. “It was a grand ole time,” she says of the farm where they had no electricity or running water. Her beliefs in agrarian self-sufficiency, the village model, stem from this experience. But villages aren’t open places.
Searching for a local example, she is struck by the success Chinatown has had maintaining its identity. “How many times have the powers that be tried to move those people out?” But her analogy is faulty. Far from a one-note village, Chinatown is the center of a richly diverse Asian community — it isn’t just for Chinese-Americans — and in that role it is the kind of commercial center that De Carlo distrusts. (When I tell her there are plenty of expensive condos in Chinatown, she seems surprised.)
The Tunisian Ambassador, Mohamed Nejib Hachana, in Philadelphia this week to speak to high school and university students, described his country’s DNA. “We’re trading people, you know, go all the way back through history. That means we’ve adapted — you have to — to other people’s ways. It has made us uniquely moderate, very moderate, and open.” While listening to the Ambassador I found myself thinking about Norris Square and Chinatown. Tunisia protects its heritage while still being open, an apt description of Chinatown. Cecelia Moy Yep, the illustrious former head of the Chinatown Community Development Corporation, found ways to ensure that poor Chinese-Americans could remain in Chinatown. It was a strategy that protected culture and neighborhood cohesion. But it wasn’t done to the exclusion of others — and commerce has allowed people from Viet Nam, Laos, Malaysia and other parts of the Far East to mix together.
That isn’t De Carlo’s philosophy. As I am leaving her office she says, “Do me a favor — don’t call attention to us. That would be the worst thing you can do.” She stops for a moment and then continues, “Sometimes I think, ‘If only we didn’t have a square’.” But pan-Latino immigration, now at its highest level in Philadelphia’s history, may not offer her the chance to hide.
Quiñones-Sanchez, who is inquisitive and easy to talk to, has been an organizer in Philadelphia’s Latino community since she was an aide, at age 18, for Councilwoman Marian Tasco. She says she is glad to now be on Council, particularly as a district councilperson, because “I can help people in different ways — not begging for dollars.”
She and her husband Tomas Sanchez moved to Hancock Street 11 years ago, before what she calls, “the full renaissance.” She is part of the group of newcomers who, like Victor Negron, are open to change. But, “My whole thing,” she tells me as we drive down Second Street in the Northern Liberties on the way to City Hall, “is to find ways to protect people who stayed when it was bad. They should enjoy it.” It’s a challenge worthy of the boys from Onion Flats. If only they were being embraced and not pushed aside.