Asian Arts Initiative shepherds community engagement and integration in Philly’s Chinatown North

Gayle Isa started working at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia in 1993. This was in the aftermath of the infamous Rodney King verdict and the riots in Los Angeles that followed. Racial tensions were high, including those between African Americans and Asian Americans, all across the country. Asian Arts Initiative grew out of this particular moment in time, initially gathering a group of community activists and artists to address these racial tensions through the arts and help Asian American artists find their own voice within the community.

At the time, there were no organizations or programs that focused on Asian American artists, culture, or traditions. The Painted Bride organized the Asian American festival “Live Traditions/Contemporary Issues,” the first festival dedicated to Asian American culture in the city of Philadelphia. Isa came on board as an intern for this momentous festival, and the seed for Asian Arts Initiative was planted.

Asian Arts Initiative is now an independent, multi-disciplinary, community-based arts organization with a wide range of programs that includes after school and summer youth programming, curated gallery exhibitions and site-specific installations that feature works from a variety of artists exploring community issues and concerns, performance-based programs that explore the diverse experiences of Asian Americans and imagine positive community change, and a new artist residency series called Social Practice Lab that engages artists with Chinatown North neighborhood groups to address the impact of development in a positive way and create a more equitable playing field for some of those affected by the changes happening in the neighborhood.

Asian Arts Initiative focuses particularly on Philadelphia’s Chinatown and Chinatown North neighborhoods (separated by the Vine Street Expressway built in the 1960s), with emphasis on integration, influence, and social context through community-driven public events and neighborhood-driven projects. The building itself, located at 1219 Vine Street, is a multi-tenant arts facility that further encourages dialogue and the exchange of ideas among artists, organizations, neighborhood residents, and the greater Philadelphia community.

While the organization has always been community-based organization in how they have designed their programming, Isa, now Executive Director of Asian Arts Initiative, has found that they have increasingly been focusing their efforts and attention on how to engage with the community around them ever since they moved to their current location in Chinatown North five years ago.

“When we first moved in five years ago I would look out the back window at the cinder block wall behind us, the paint peeling off of it, and wish – as an arts organization, wouldn’t it be great to have some sort of art gallery?” Isa recalls. This wish became the Pearl Street project, envisioning the Pearl Street alley that spans four blocks of the neighborhood as an outdoor gallery and vibrant public space.

The alley is, in a way, symbolic of the diversity (and, by extension, inequality) of the Chinatown North neighborhood, with a homeless shelter on one end, luxury lofts on the other, and all types of immigration groups, social services organizations, artists, and professionals in between. In an effort to engage and unite this racially and economically wide-ranging community, they began working with Oakland-based landscape architect and artist Walter Hood, who partnered with them on a series of “really intense and inspiring conversations with a really broad [spectrum] of stakeholders to talk about what Pearl Street is and how it could or should be different.” Isa says, “For me it has become an important symbol of diversity in our neighborhood.”

Even the name itself represents the area’s ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. Or, more accurately, the area’s many different names – Chinatown North; Callowhill; “The Loft District,” referring to the modern luxury high-rises and renovated factory lofts; even “Eraserhood,” referring to filmmaker David Lynch’s bizarre Eraserhead, which was inspired by the neighborhood.

“It’s a neighborhood of many different names and characters,” Isa says. “Oftentimes those different constituencies don’t engage with each other. What we see with the potential of Pearl Street is that this can be a way of getting people to engage with each other.”

Asian Arts Initiative is working with representatives from the city to leverage some of the base-level changes and improvements that they want to see on Pearl Street, in addition to working with a range of private property owners on aesthetic interventions, and building relationships with neighbors to encourage the emotional investment of residents so the initiatives can have a longer life and become part of the fabric of the neighborhood that people take individual responsibility for maintaining and preserving, so that Asian Arts Initiative doesn’t always have to shepherd it.

“Our hope and plan is to continue working on the transformation of Pearl Street with physical changes and landscaping that we imagine can happen and be appropriate for what is still an urban street, to make it a more inviting space where people from all backgrounds feel safer and more welcome.”

They are looking to create a range of programming to really activate the street. “We know it’s about people who make a place, the idea of having activities that draw people out of their comfort zone or offices to meet and interact with each other,” Isa says. On one side of the scale they might have very small and casual micro events like a game of dominoes hosted by Macarthur Fellow Rick Lowe, currently an artist-in-residence with Asian Arts Initiative, and on the other side there is the annual Pearl Street Block Party, launched in 2013, with hundreds of people in attendance and dozens of booths hosted by community groups.

To Isa, maintaining the “Chinatown North” identity is also important to maintain a sense of cultural identity among Asian Americans in the area, who comprise seven percent of the overall racial demographic of Philadelphia and are also the fastest-growing population in the city. “We are invested in being visible in society,” she says. “It’s important to name things so we feel like we belong, and to be able to engage with people of all different races and class and socioeconomic backgrounds, but also to feel like there’s a place where we belong.”