Meet the New Northeast Philadelphia
How a staid, frayed, forgotten stretch of Philly has become the most interesting (hopeful, complicated, delicious) place in the city.
One recent Saturday morning, on a well-trafficked strip of Castor Avenue in Oxford Circle, a Chinese Buddhist, a Hindu of Guyanese descent, a Muslim from Morocco, and a Filipino Christian opened a new thrift store. Each offered her own blessing on the place, and then, voilà: The building that had been home for 69 years to Jewish-owned Singers Appliances was now officially the Exchange, offering a collection of gently used goods and, also, English classes for immigrants.
About an hour into the store’s new life, State Representative Jared Solomon (Jewish, grew up in the neighborhood, above his grandfather’s butcher shop) popped in, as did two Spanish-speaking Latino families, an English-speaking black family, a Mandarin-speaking Chinese woman, and one white American-born reporter who sometimes can recall a little high-school French.
What seemed to me to be an absolutely astounding mesh of humanity browsing table lamps and baby clothes is, it turns out, actually not so remarkable for this Lower Northeast neighborhood (population roughly 60,000), which is sandwiched by Mayfair, Lawncrest and Rhawnhurst and which has, in just a couple decades, morphed into one of the most ethnically (and religiously and linguistically) diverse spots in the city. This is a place where nearly half the residents over the age of five speak a language other than English at home, and where it’s not unusual to see, for instance, a group of Muslim men in thobes passing a Brazilian steakhouse and an Indian Pentecostal church on the way to the Islamic Center.
It’s also one of the best spots in the city to be hungry: Within a few blocks, you can find, yes, authentic Brazilian fare as well as Portuguese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Jamaican, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Italian. Also, cheesesteaks.
This is a relatively new development — so many ethnic groups living (and eating) cheek-to-jowl amongst the tidy rowhomes, twins, and suburban-style single-family houses with their green strips of front yard. For the second half of the 20th century, the neighborhood was comprised of Irish Catholic and Jewish middle-class families. That the place now reminds you of the opening ceremonies at the Olympics is mostly thanks to the dual-thrust forces of the Old Guard’s aging out and moving on and a robust surge of immigration in Philadelphia. How robust? A report from Pew Charitable Trusts told us this past June that the number of immigrants in our city has skyrocketed 69 percent since 2000. Fifteen percent of us are immigrants right now; in Oxford Circle, where the housing stock is decent and affordable, that number is closer to 30 percent. And unlike in some other Northeast neighborhoods that have high concentrations of people from one or two places, here, the newcomers hail from a whole catalog of countries, from every continent but Australia and Antarctica.
Not surprisingly, this seismic shift has brought with it a slew of challenges — the sorts you’re thinking of, like xenophobia, and also ones you’re not, like how to organize a trash pickup on your block when your block speaks six different languages. (Of course, that’s nothing compared to the 31 languages spoken at Spruance, the local K-8 school.) One hears stories of old-timers grumbling about new neighbors and missing the good old days when everything looked fresher and richer here — about the plethora of, say, nail-salon start-ups. There’s friction between the recent-immigrant groups, too: One young Palestinian-American I spoke to wasn’t so wild about the Chinese or some Syrian refugees, who he felt expected handouts; some Chinese business owners, meantime, have felt targeted by complaints about store hours from neighbors. And so on.
But in and amidst these issues and other struggles, there’s a new energy, too — the type of energy that comes with the rare chance to reimagine a place and, maybe, an opportunity to rebrand this neighborhood as the most accessible, most culturally dynamic borough in the city. You know, offers Chuong Le, a Vietnamese immigrant who owns the neighborhood’s year-old Pho Saigon restaurant — “something like Queens.”
“We knew this moment was coming,” says Andréa Hodge. She’s the economic development associate for Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Association (OCCCDA), the nonprofit that runs the Exchange (among myriad other educational and business-development programs), and the moment she’s talking about is a sudden sense of forward motion — new bursts of interest coalescing among the neighbors, the businesses, the civic boosters and even the media, which has written lately about the area’s food scene (this magazine and the Inquirer), as well as the experiences of its immigrants and refugees and the tenuous economic stability here (Next City). Maybe you also saw the New York Times story last summer highlighting this area — and Philly itself — as a place where the American dream actually feels attainable.
That’s not all: Last spring, the city chose Oxford Circle as the site for “Passport PHL,” an initiative spotlighting ethnic restaurants. (Each was owned by an immigrant, including Le’s Pho Saigon.) The city has, in fact, ramped up efforts in the economic corridors, bolstering businesses with grants for cameras and facade improvements — and, the mayor’s office would like me to add, working to improve the hellish, Frogger-like stretch of Roosevelt Boulevard that’s the main thoroughfare through the Northeast. In September, the OCCCDA hosted the Oxford Circle Flavor Festival, a weeklong lineup of restaurant specials, salsa dancing and sidewalk sales — all part of an effort to create unity and community among people who still tend to live in a sort of separate togetherness, which is another major challenge for the neighborhood.
“I’d love to see a stronger sense of community in the people here,” Chuong Le says. This isn’t kumbaya schmaltz talking: Community, he says, is what creates memories; memories are what make a place home; and home is what creates investment. Of course, he adds, building community is hard when everyone is busy working. “Immigrants don’t work nine-to-five jobs,” he says. “They work more like seven to 10.”
This makes me think of Representative Solomon’s chief of staff, Andrew Dalzell, who mentioned how hard it was to find modest office space on Castor Avenue: “We don’t have many vacancies in our commercial corridor, because one of the things immigrants do when they come here is start businesses.” By the way, Hodge tells me, when those business owners are surveyed, they identify one particular “neighborhood asset” time and again: “The diversity! It wasn’t even a multiple-choice question.”
And that, Solomon is convinced, is the key to his neighborhood’s future: “I think the more people who see positive change that comes when we’re embracing the diversity, the more people we’re going to have move over to the camp of looking forward instead of looking back.” His staff, for instance, has amassed a small army of volunteer translators to help constituents; they’ve also spurred creation of the Northeast Philadelphia Chinese Association — a resident-led coalition helping the area’s Chinese population — and aim to create more groups like it. Solomon talks animatedly about the neighborhood’s first-ever Night Market 2017 and the crowds who showed up in the streets to eat: “One woman in her 80s told me it was the best night she’s ever had in Northeast Philadelphia.”
I don’t mean to gloss over the many struggles here — both individuals’ and the neighborhood’s — but I will say that at a moment when the country is simmering in a nativist rage my generation had only witnessed in grainy old newsreels, listening to people talk about embracing cultural diversity as a way to move the needle of progress feels fairly cathartic. Also, American, in the most generous, optimistic sense possible in 2018.
And while we’re on optimism: The Pew report noted that while immigrant families in this city worry about the exact same issues longtime Philadelphians do — crime, schools and jobs — they’re sunnier about the city than everyone else: 57 percent said Philly is moving in “the right direction,” as opposed to 49 percent of non-immigrants who said the same. I’d say the takeaway here as it relates to the Northeast is this: If the still-wretched Boulevard and the trafficky haze and cash-for-gold signage of Cottman Avenue don’t exactly fit the images many Philadelphians have come to associate with a Neighborhood on the Rise, perhaps it’s a question of fresh eyes. And vision.
“You could say I fell in love with this neighborhood,” Le says. He likes the yards, the convenience, the different kinds of people, Steve’s Prince of Steaks down the street from his shop, the bubble tea place nearby. But first and foremost, he’s a businessman: “I see this place as a good long-term investment. I’m catching the wind.”
Published as “The New Northeast” in the November 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.