February 26, 2015

Stacey Mosley: Why Callowhill is Philadelphia's best neighborhood

Neighborhoods Callowhill
Bufad Pizza Callowhill 2 Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Bufad's Margherita Pizza and the Savory Ricotta Panna Cotta with a pickled beet and orange relish, crushed pistachios and crostini.

When I first began searching for a home to call my own, I was two years deep into analyzing vacant property data as part of my work for the city. It was 2012 and the real estate market was starting to rise from the creeping depths of the recession. Rowhomes were flipping left and right as they continue to do today, bringing vitality to places that had once been bleak.

While many of my fellow home-buying millennials began plucking up lovely brick rowhomes, thoughts of flooded basements, leaky roofs and first-floor break-ins filled me with dread. Honing in on the few high-rise condo buildings throughout the city, my attention kept being drawn toward Callowhill.  

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Graffiti from the time when the Goldtex Building fell into disrepair are still evident on the roof, where a section was left intact after the recent renovations. Thom Caroll/PhillyVoice. 

Surrounded entirely by neighborhoods undergoing massive change, the future of investment in Callowhill was becoming increasingly clear. Bart Blatstein bought the old Inquirer building. Construction of the Goldtex apartment complex was on its way. Eric Blumenfeld had vested interest in the Divine Lorraine, and conversations about the Reading Viaduct were growing stronger.

If these transformative developers were staking ground in Callowhill, why not grab a front-row seat to the forthcoming change?

That is why I bought a loft in Callowhill. 

Some would say the neighborhood doesn’t look like much. Stuck in a zoning coma for decades, a new identity for Callowhill is rising from the once-barren wasteland many refer to as Eraserhood — from the days when David Lynch lived at 13th and Wood during the dystopian 1960s.

Manufacturing made this often-forgotten neighborhood, and it never let go. In the 1800s, oodles of products were emerging from the factories between Vine, Spring Garden, Eighth Street and Broad. But after people fled the city for the suburbs in the mid-1900s, so did the money. Callowhill’s industrial zoning was kept in place for an expected return, but the demand never came back. 

Since the ‘90s, though, the neighborhood has morphed into an area with great vibrancy that grows more triumphant each day.

The Present

While neighborhoods like Fishtown and Newbold are refilling their storefronts and rowhomes, Callowhill is reinventing itself entirely. 

Yes, the landscape, full of large vacant lots, gated fields of transformers and many buildings still seemingly coated in a layer of industrial soot, can seem unwelcoming at first. But it’s because of that manufacturing upbringing - with big, brick beauties and concrete giants in Art Deco and Mission Revival architectural detail - that the neighborhood received a National Historic District status in 2010.

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The Lasher Building at 1309 Noble Street was built in 1927 and restored in the year 2000. The building was designed by Phillip Tyre, an Art Deco architect, designer and painter who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice.

Many of the old factories have taken on new lives and are now home to artists, residents and small businesses alike. In the Wolf Building at 12th and Callowhill (once home to the Wolf Bros. paper factory), software development firms, designers, architects and a production studio have taken over. Similar buildings nearby still have the names of their former selves engraved on their stony facades: Edwards, Packard and the newly renovated Goldtex.

They are now the lofty homes of young couples, young professionals and dogs. Lots and lots of dogs.

The Nightlife 

After dark, you don’t have to look beyond the neighborhood for underground entertainment. 

Callowhill pulses at night with some of the city’s best music venues, including classics like the Starlight Ballroom (now District N9ne) and the mighty Electric Factory. You’re likely to find an ample line out the door of Union Transfer and a local musician or book signing at the versatile Underground Arts.

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The Trestle Inn occupies the Southeast corner of 11th and Callowhill Streets. Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice.

But my favorite revival of all is The Trestle Inn. After suffering in a fire years ago, this former strip club has been transformed into a place for beer- and whiskey-drinking souls and great DJs spinning retro beats to the backdrop of 1960s movies and live go-go dancers. It’s a dark, alluring space full of deep reds, fire-bitten walls and the toffee-colored glow of its finest libations.

The Art 

Callowhill became the home of artists and their studios decades before its residential resurgence. 

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Vox Populi, a nonprofit art gallery at 319 North 11th Street.

Walk down 11th Street and you’ll find a newly outfitted ground-level gallery space at Vox Populi amidst a slew of little-known galleries like Napoleon, Tiger Strikes Asteroid and Practice. You can easily spend a First Friday in the winter in the comfort of one single building drinking wine and jiving with brooding artists. It's quite the alternative to walking the streets of Old City for the 15th time. 

Outside, you’ll find works by some of our city’s finest street artists — take the Ben Volta mural lashing out of Union Transfer’s western wall or the NoseGo strutting up Hamilton Street, for example.

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"Amplify" a 2014 mural by Benjamin Volta and the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program occupies the western wall of Union Transfer, an independently-owned concert venue at 1026 Spring Garden Street. 

The Food

As Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran set the tone for gastronomic revival in the Gayborhood, in Callowhill, Michael and Jeniphur Pasquarello are doing the same in their own right.

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Bufad's Margherita Pizza and the Savory Ricotta Panna Cotta with a pickled beet and orange relish, crushed pistachios and crostini. Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice. 

Their three distinctly different restaurants, Bufad, Cafe Lift and Prohibition Taproom, are huddled together on the block south of 13th Street and make up one of the best stretches in the neighborhood. If you can, have your meal outdoors. You’ll sit across from the sturdy, stone Rebman building and the greenery that seems to pour from its edges. It’s a scene unlike any other in Philly.

Elsewhere, longtime residents will tell you there’s no place better for a quick bite than Jose's Tacos. For something a little more nuanced, there’s the Venezuelan restaurant Sazon, known for its luscious, chocolate desserts - perfect for a romantic date. 

There’s more coming, too. Newcomer W/N W/N coffee bar is gaining popularity with its local food mentality, and steady murmurs about a restaurant coming to the Goldtex building are coming true thanks to the owners of Franklin Mortgage & Co. 

The Future

No ode to Callowhill would be complete without the Reading Viaduct.

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A Philly explorers’ legend, the Viaduct saw its last train depart in the 1980s, and the railway has sat dormant ever since. Its chain-linked fence can’t keep out the perpetually curious, who have now rallied alongside the city to repurpose the abandoned railroad into an official public space.

Become a Friend of the Rail Park from Good Motion Project on Vimeo.

Much like Franklin Paine Skatepark before it, the gritty, beautiful elevated section of the Reading rail line is a transformation waiting to happen. Meanwhile, two new apartment complexes are underway on what used to be vacant lots nearby. 

One thing is certain: Callowhill has volume, and it is the massive projects like these that excite me each time I walk out onto the streets. 

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The Callowhill neighborhood sits north of Center City, with its southern border butting up to Chinatown and the Vine Street Expressway. Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice. 

One by one, all of this neighborhood’s lonely giants are coming back to life again.

Stacey works as the Data Services Manager for the City of Philadelphia where she currently helps departments leverage data to improve operations, and empowers them open up their data to the public. In addition to being a data nut, Stacey also sits on the board of Young Involved Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @StaceyMosley.