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Last week, two neighborhood events in Philadelphia's Chinatown featured the Neighborhood Exchange Box (社區交換盒) a project of the Reimagining the Civic Commons’ (重新構想公共空間) Innovation Fund*. The box activity queries residents: “If you could send a box to another neighborhood in Philadelphia filled with things that make your neighborhood unique, what would you put in the box?” The project will visit all five sites involved in Reimagining the Civic Commons. Previously it traveled between Mt. Airy and Southwest Philadelphia, and for this phase, was posted up in Chinatown—nearby the future Viaduct Rail Park.
The Rail Park is a long-anticipated project to convert abandoned segments of the Reading Railroad into open space. The “Viaduct” portion of the Rail Park, located in the Callowhill neighborhood immediately north of Chinatown and Center City, is almost fully funded and under construction. The surrounding area is characterized by residential lofts, many converted from historic warehouses, art galleries, ongoing light industrial use, and many still-vacant parcels. Though currently in flux, residential makeup is among the most diverse in the city.
Many Philadelphians are thrilled at the notion of having their own elevated open space, similar to New York’s High Line. Out of service since the mid-1980s, the Viaduct stands as a representation of the industrial past of the city and the community, and though technically off-limits, has become a popular location for urban explorers, photographers, and last summer, a temporary beer garden, operated by PHS (Pennsylvania Horticultural Society), located under the site. Friends of the Rail Park has been leading community involvement and fundraising for over a decade to make the vision a reality.
While the proposed redevelopment of the viaduct is appealing to many, the idea has not been universally supported. Longtime residents, particularly of Chinatown, have not had a strong connection with the proposed design, and have vocalized a desire to demolish the relic to make way for development, especially affordable housing. These sentiments draw from decades of losing battles with Philadelphia development dating back to the 1960s, so issues of further development, largely geared towards new, younger populations, are rightly sensitive. As Callowhill has seen increasing residential development of late, concerns of affordable housing are legitimate, and the site’s frequent comparisons to New York’s High Line raise well-founded concerns, as development around the High Line has resulted in deep equity divides. In response to these concerns, Friends of the Rail Park remains committed to realizing a vision for a park that connects and enlivens the social, historic, and environmental fabric of Philadelphia's communities and to bringing together the diverse communities of future park users in its design and programming in the belief that more people will use, benefit from, and support the Rail Park if they are active participants in its creation. Once completed, the site will be a city-owned park to serve all.
As the Viaduct Rail Park moves forward, neighborhood community partners are simultaneously leading engagement efforts to ensure that Chinatown’s character is maintained and residents’ needs are continually met as the neighborhood undergoes change. The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) kicked off an update to the Chinatown Neighborhood Plan in December of 2016, working with Interface Studio. The neighborhood plan will address needs for housing, connectivity, and open space, and collect citizen input through a series of public forums. Down the street, the Asian Arts Initiative (AAI), just began a cultural planning process entitled: People:Power:Place, which will create a shared cultural vision for Chinatown North.
Designed to build bridges through the appreciation of shared experience and community pride, the Neighborhood Exchange Box provided the perfect accompaniment for these neighborhood conversations. Led by Friends of the Rail Park’s Melissa Kim, the box popped up at the Chinatown Neighborhood Plan forum on Tuesday, February 28th, and again at the cultural plan community event on Friday, March 3rd. Kim was joined by representatives of Bartram’s Garden in Southwest Philadelphia, the site that previously hosted the traveling collection of stories, in addition to PCDC and AAI staff, and PennPraxis.
Participants were eager to fill the box with messages celebrating the sights, sounds, smells, and experiences of the neighborhood. Food, people, culture, history, family, shared experiences, Reading Terminal, and specific food and drink like dim sum and bubble tea were mentioned several times. The united themes of these responses indicate that there is a great deal that the community shares and values, despite differences in background or lifestyle. These common bonds will hopefully inspire community members to forge new and more meaningful relationships with one another as the neighborhood grows and develops with the new Rail Park as a shared asset. The Neighborhood Exchange Box will make one more appearance in the Viaduct Rail Park neighborhood before traveling on. It will be featured at the monthly “First Wednesday” Friends of the Rail Park happy hour at The Trestle Inn (339 N 11th Street) on April 5th from 5pm-8pm.*Reimagining the Civic Commons is a national initiative of the Knight Foundation and the William Penn Foundation, locally managed by the Fairmount Park Conservancy. PennPraxis serves as the local facilitator of the Innovation Fund, which brings partners in the program together to activate the sites prior to the completion of capital improvements, to share skills and assets between site managers, field leaders, and community organizations, and strengthen relationships with surrounding communities.