How a Highway Divided a Community in Philadelphia

If given the choice to drive or walk, Wesley Morris, Times critic and co-host of “Still Processing,” will always choose to walk. He grew up in Philadelphia, but he resisted getting his driver’s license until the age of 32.

Last November, a $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill signed into law by President Biden allocated $ 1 billion to reconnect neighborhoods bisected by highways.

In the mid-20th century, highways were built to modernize regional transportation and meet the demands of postwar progress. But these mega-road projects often displaced more than a million people across the country, most of them Black; increased car dependence; and brought about decades of environmental harm.

Wesley was struck by the Biden administration’s initiative, partly because it was an acknowledgment by the federal government that its midcentury infrastructure policies had caused communities to suffer. It made him think about a highway that could be addressed by this bill. It was built in his hometown in 1991: the Vine Street Expressway.

Wesley would occasionally cross the Vine Street Expressway as a kid – and he remembered that there was “a big to-do” when it was getting built. But he never considered how its construction impacted the Chinatown neighborhood that it carved through. What happened to all the people who were living there? How did their lives – and their communities – get altered? And why did it take so long for Wesley to ask himself these questions? Wesley returned to his hometown to try to find out.

[You can listen to this episode of “Still Processing” above, or on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, Amazon Music or wherever you get your podcasts.]

Philadelphia’s Chinatown, like Chinatowns all over, is full of the bustle of life. Wander around and you’ll see tea shops, delivery vans, restaurants and markets that the neighborhood relies on. At least, you’ll see that in the part of town that is south of the Vine Street Expressway.

North of the expressway is the Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church and School, a center for social services for the community, and some below-market housing. Many residents of Chinatown use these services, but they have to cross the expressway to get to them. This part of the neighborhood feels more industrial, less vibrant. It’s evidence of the changes the Vine Street Expressway has forced on the community.

If you ask around about the history of the Vine Street Expressway, one name will keep coming up: Cecilia Moy Yep, known as “The Godmother of Chinatown. ” Cecilia, 92, has been fighting major developments in Chinatown for more than 60 years – since before the Vine Street Expressway was planned.

Cecilia has lived in Chinatown since she was in elementary school. And for as long as she could remember, the Holy Redeemer Catholic Church and School had been the heart of the community: “People wanted from all over the city to send their kids to Chinatown to learn Chinese in a Chinese school and to have their children meet other children of the same ethnic background,” Cecilia said.

“It’s where not only we went to school, where we got married, where we buried our dead,” Cecilia continued. “Everything that was part of our life happened at Holy Redeemer.”

The original plans for the Vine Street Expressway cut straight through Chinatown and required demolishing the church. But in the late 1960s, Cecilia was instrumental in the fight to preserve it. “We had a town meeting, and I kind of broke – how should I say it – tradition, by speaking out,” Cecilia said. “Women don’t speak out in Chinatown. Now they do, but not before. ”

“Cecilia is flinty. She’s somebody who has a big spark of personality. But there’s something about flintiness that implies strength and determination. ”

– Wesley Morris

Cecilia’s efforts to preserve Holy Redeemer ended with a compromise: The expressway would still split Chinatown in two, with Holy Redeemer on the north side, and the rest of the community on the south. Today, many students have to cross the expressway daily to get to school.

Wesley recently joined a group of children who were crossing the highway to get to day care. One of the kids said, “I feel like I’m going to get run over by a car.” Another kid responded: “It’s safe because it’s next to a church.” He continued, “God is always looking out for us.”

Every Friday, more than a hundred older adults from the neighborhood have to cross the expressway to get to the food bank at Crane Chinatown, next to the Holy Redeemer Church. Wesley joined a group of them who live at On Lok House, an apartment building for seniors, as they made the crossing on a recent Friday.

Eddie Wong, the housing manager of On Lok House, described the walk as a real-life game of Frogger. And he had a point – if Frogger was played by an 80-year-old with a shopping cart. He emphasized the literal barrier of the expressway created between the Chinatown elders and their need to get to the food bank.

Once you arrive on the other side of the expressway, it “feels like a totally different neighborhood,” Wesley observed. The line of people waiting for food runs between the expressway and a parking lot. “I could see with my own two eyes what it would mean to have your neighborhood split in half by a piece of infrastructure,” Wesley said. But waiting in line has become a significant, if regular, community experience. Friends catch up with one another and hold spots in line with their shopping carts. When the food is handed out, they trade favorite items, like kids swapping lunches.

The Vine Street Expressway didn’t only disrupt life in Chinatown, it also disturbed the peace of the dead – specifically, those who were buried in the cemetery of the First African Baptist Church, founded in 1809.

Plans for building the expressway required excavating graves from the church’s cemetery so that a stretch of highway could be built right on top of it.

All told, 89 bodies were excavated to make way for the expressway, and then were reinterred in Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pa. Eden Cemetery was established, in part, to house the remains of Black people whose graves were moved because of public works projects.

“To disturb graves to actually put a highway – I guess people would say if that was not done, we’d be standing in the way of progress.”

– Pastor Griffith

Wesley met with Terrence Griffith, who is originally from Grenada and has been the pastor of the church since 2001. “I guess our ancestors would not have anticipated that it would become like this,” Pastor Griffith said, as he and Wesley stood at an overpass overlooking where the cemetery once was – now replaced by six lanes of gridlock traffic.

Wesley met many people as he explored new areas of his hometown. And he witnessed firsthand how a single piece of infrastructure can shape your experience of a city. “You can go a whole life without having somebody who isn’t like you – and I mean racially like, you – in your life. Because that’s how the cities were set up. Segregated. ”

The Vine Street Expressway, he realized, is part of this segregation. “The thing is dropped so far down below street level into the earth. All those drivers can just drive right past and not even think about the fact that the neighborhood they’re driving through never really wanted them there in the first place. ”

“But once you take a second to just look to your left or look to your right or, God forbid, look up from your congested, depressed expressway,” Wesley continued, “there’s an opportunity there to think about what you’re actually driving through, or past or beyond. ”

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