It’s not too far-fetched to liken it to the Berlin Wall. When the Vine Street Expressway was built 50 years ago, the buzzing, heartless highway sliced right through Chinatown, effectively dividing one side of the community from the other.
On the south side of the thoroughfare—the one more easily accessed from Center City—the vibrancy of the neighborhood continued. Businesses flourished, tourists rushed in for Sunday dim sum and, most importantly, the personality of this vital cultural enclave remained intact.
The north side, however, didn’t fare so well. No one likes to cross over a dull, grey highway. So over time, that sliver of Chinatown and adjoining Callowhill lost its luster.
Now there’s a chance the area may get its groove back. In June, Philadelphia became one of four cities to win the Every Place Counts Design Challenge sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). The initiative encourages citizens and policy makers to dream up ways to reverse the effects alienating urban highway projects like I-676 have had on communities.
As a winner, Philadelphia receives a two-day planning session hosted by DOT to allow folks the chance to offer up ideas about how to right the Vine Street Expressway wrongs. The first of those meetings happens this Thursday, July 14.
There, officials will gauge public interest in a project that would cap the Vine Street Expressway in Chinatown and Callowhill. The more people who show up, the more likely it’ll be that the project moves on to advanced planning stages and earns federal funding.
That shouldn’t be a difficult task. In June, Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation Executive Director John Chin told PlanPhilly that the Vine Street Expressway Cap is definitely something the neighborhood wants.
He compared the cap to a similar project in Boston, which covered a portion of Beantown’s version of the Vine Street Expressway, the Big Dig. The project transformed the Central Artery of the highway into the lush Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. The new verdant space plays home to public art, food trucks, farmers markets and even a fountain and carousel, making the hulking Big Dig a mere afterthought.
That’s essentially what would happen with the Vine Street Expressway Cap. Seven blocks from 7th Street to Broad Street would become a space that not only links back one side of Chinatown with the other, but a lively gathering spot for the whole city to enjoy. Imagine, instead of a sunken tunnel of zooming cars and concrete, Vine Street as a destination for pop-up beer gardens, outdoor movies and all the other things Philadelphians love. It could make the city greener, excite its citizens and stimulate and expand an all but forgotten neighborhood.
The project has garnered thumbs ups from Mayor Kenney and Chinatown City Council representative Mark Squilla. But nothing will move forward without a show of public support. Show up tomorrow night to tell developers you’d like to see the project advance, and learn more about what the cap would bring to Philly.
The public session takes place Thursday, June 14, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Chinese Christian Church and Center. That’s located at 1101 Vine Street.Photo header: The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greeway that replaced a portion of Boston's Big Dig. Photo courtesy of Andrew Nash via Flickr.