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How a Highway Divided a Community in Philadelphia

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

Last November, a $1 trillion infrastructure bill signed by President Biden earmarked $1 billion to reconnect neighborhoods intersected by highways.

In the mid-20th century, highways were built to modernize regional transportation and meet the demands of post-war progress. But these mega-road projects have often displaced more than a million people across the country, most of them black; increased car dependence; and caused decades of environmental damage.

Wesley was struck by the Biden administration’s initiative, in part because it was a federal government acknowledgment that mid-century infrastructure policies had hurt communities. It got him thinking about a highway that could be addressed with this bill. It was built in his hometown in 1991: the Vine Street Expressway.

Wesley would occasionally cross the Vine Street Expressway as a child—and he remembered that there was “a big job” when it was built. But he never stopped to consider how the construction affected the Chinatown neighborhood it cut through. What happened to all the people who lived there? How have their lives – and their communities – changed? And why did it take Wesley so long to ask herself these questions? Wesley returned to his hometown 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 everywhere else in Chinatowns, is buzzing with life. Wander around and you’ll see teahouses, vans, restaurants, and markets that the neighborhood relies on. At least that’s what you see in the part of town south of the Vine Street Expressway.

North of the highway is the Holy Savior Chinese Catholic Church and School, a center for social services for the community, and a number of under-market homes. Many Chinatown residents use these services, but they have to cross the highway to get there. This part of the neighborhood feels more industrial, less lively. It is testament to the changes the Vine Street Expressway has imposed on the community.

If you ask around about the history of the Vine Street Expressway, one name will always come up: Cecilia Moy Yep, known as “Chinatown meter† Cecilia, 92, has been battling major developments in Chinatown for more than 60 years — even before the Vine Street Expressway was planned.

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

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

The original plans for the Vine Street Expressway cut right through Chinatown and had to demolish the church. But in the late 1960s, Cecilia played an important role in the struggle to preserve it. “We had a town meeting and I broke – how should I say – tradition by speaking out,” Cecilia said. “Women don’t speak out in Chinatown. Now, but not before.”

“Cecilia is very strong. She is someone with a great spark of personality. But there is something about fire resistance that implies strength and determination.”

— Wesley Morris

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

Wesley recently joined a group of kids crossing the highway to get to daycare. One of the kids said, “I feel like I’m being run over by a car.” Another child replied, “It’s safe because it’s next to a church.” He continued, “God always takes care of us.”

Every Friday more than a hundred elderly people from the neighborhood have to cross the highway to get to the food bank Crane Chinatown, next to the Church of the Holy Savior. Wesley joined a group of them living in On Lok House, a senior apartment complex, when they recently made the crossing.

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

Once you get to the other side of the highway, “it feels like a totally different neighborhood,” Wesley noted. The line of people waiting for food runs between the highway and a parking lot. “I could see with my own eyes what it would mean to split your neighborhood in half by a piece of infrastructure,” Wesley said. But waiting in line has become an important, albeit regular, community experience. Friends talk to each other and keep spots in line with their shopping carts. When the food is handed out, they trade favorite items, such as kids swapping lunches.

Not only did the Vine Street Expressway disrupt life in Chinatown, it disrupted the tranquility of the dead—particularly those buried in the cemetery of the First African Baptist Church, founded in 1809.

Plans for the construction of the highway required excavating graves from the church cemetery so that a stretch of highway could be built on top.

In all, 89 bodies were exhumed to make way for the highway, then reburied 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.

“To disrupt digging to actually build a highway — I think people would say if that didn’t happen, we’d be standing in the way of progress.”

— Pastor Griffith

Wesley met with Terrence Griffith, who is originally from Grenada and has been a pastor of the church since 2001. overpass overlooking where the cemetery once was – now replaced by six lanes of traffic jam.

Wesley met many people as he explored new parts of his hometown. And he himself witnessed how one piece of infrastructure can shape your experience of a city. “You can go a lifetime without having someone in your life who isn’t like you — and I mean racially like you. Because that’s how the cities were born. Divorced.”

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

“But if you take a moment to just look left or right or, God forbid, look up from your crowded, depressed highway,” Wesley continued, “there’s an opportunity to think about what you’re actually driving through, or in the past or beyond.”

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