The Philadelphia Barrio: The Arts, Branding, and Neighborhood Transformation
The Philadelphia Barrio: The Arts, Branding, and Neighborhood Transformation

The Philadelphia Barrio: The Arts, Branding, and Neighborhood Transformation

by Frederick F. Wherry


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How does a so-called bad neighborhood go about changing its reputation? Is it simply a matter of improving material conditions or picking the savviest marketing strategy? What kind of role can or should the arts play in that process? Does gentrification always entail a betrayal of a neighborhood’s roots? Tackling these questions and offering a fresh take on the dynamics of urban revitalization, The Philadelphia Barrio examines one neighborhood’s fight to erase the stigma of devastation.

Frederick F. Wherry shows how, in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Centro de Oro, entrepreneurs and community leaders forged connections between local businesses and cultural institutions to rebrand a place once nicknamed the Badlands. Artists and performers negotiated with government organizations and national foundations, Wherry reveals, and took to local galleries, stages, storefronts, and street parades in a concerted, canny effort to reanimate the spirit of their neighborhood.

Complicating our notions of neighborhood change by exploring the ways the process is driven by local residents, The Philadelphia Barrio presents a nuanced look at how city dwellers can make commercial interests serve the local culture, rather than exploit it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226894317
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/15/2011
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Frederick F. Wherry is associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and the author of Global Markets and Local Crafts: Thailand and Costa Rica Compared.

Read an Excerpt

The Philadelphia Barrio

The Arts, Branding, and Neighborhood Transformation

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-89431-7

Chapter One

Culture at Work

The Arts, Branding, and Neighborhood Transformation


In 2003, the Latino neighborhood in Philadelphia was featured in a local newspaper as a place teeming with arts and culture, attractive to urban explorers wanting to venture out of Philadelphia's Center City and ripe with possibilities. Yet barely a decade earlier, it had been regarded as a hopeless section of town, a district portrayed on national television as a devastated place whose "shameless" residents lacked dignity and self-respect. What happened?

To understand the neighborhood's transformation, I read dozens of newspaper articles depicting the character of the neighborhood and interviewed the individuals who were instrumental in changing outsiders' perception of it. In the Latino commercial district known as the Centro de Oro, or Golden District, I met the community's cultural entrepreneurs, whose mission is to "brand" their neighborhood in the service of social and economic development. They lead Philadelphia Neighborhood Tours through the barrio, host community-wide art openings, mount theatrical, musical, and dance performances, and prepare floats for the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade. Leaders of the Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises (HACE) told me that they hire architects to develop streetscapes and storefront window displays that reflect the Latino character of the district. I learned that local business owners volunteer their time and money to ensure that the trash is privately collected and that a security guard is visibly patrolling the sidewalk outside their shops. Some business owners go so far as to rearrange their retail space to accommodate paintings or photography exhibitions by artists who might not otherwise be able to display their works. Other business owners provide food at deeply discounted prices for local arts organizations' receptions and donate prizes for fundraising events.

It may seem surprising that such a systematic approach to changing the community's image could come from a community reputed to be disorganized. It may also come as a surprise that so much energy would go into managing the image of the place rather than dealing with unemployment, joblessness, the drug trade, and the homicide rate, yet the one cannot be resolved without the other. When bad things are "supposed to happen" in a neighborhood, people have little incentive to turn their neighborhood around. To change what people do in a neighborhood, one first has to change what they think is typically done there.

The most common attitude toward neighborhood branding is a cynical one: Every city must have ethnic enclaves; if an ethnic community does not exist, savvy capitalists will create one. No cosmopolitan city in the United States is complete without at least a Chinatown, if not also a barrio. Add "Havana" to the neighborhood's moniker, open a dash of Mexican restaurants along the strip, string up a row of Spanish-language signs, assemble an outdoor festival or two, and witness the city's cultural credibility rise. After all, Miami, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have their barrios and stand out as representing the "real" multicultural cities of the country as opposed to those cities still stuck in the black–white divide. For Philadelphia to count herself as their multicultural peer, she too needs to claim ownership of a barrio, where the musical rhythms, the flavorful cuisine, and the style of life evident on the sidewalks complement the city's other cultural offerings. Yet when the cultural entrepreneurs succeed, they become the victims of their own success, as gentrification sends property taxes up and poor residents out. Simply put, there is a growing demand for things ethnic; consequently, city elites along with local entrepreneurs exploit the raw cultural materials at hand to meet that demand without regard for the residents who populate the place of cultural production. According to this perspective, to brand the neighborhood is to commodify it. Money becomes king.

To anyone who has witnessed the process of neighborhood branding firsthand, this supply-and-demand view is at best simplistic. Arts organizations in the Centro de Oro have turned down opportunities to apply for large grants from national foundations in order to preserve their autonomy. These same organizations struggle to meet payroll from time to time, so it is not as if they can afford to forgo foundation funding. Some Latino property owners have refused to sell their properties or to move to areas of the city where customers might be more plentiful. They are not staying in the barrio "for the money" alone, but also for their emotional attachment to the community that they have helped to build. People's lives are drenched with meanings, and these meanings are not simply switched off when people interact in commercial markets. People and the places they inhabit carry memories and meanings and invite emotional attachment. The arts make these memories and meanings resonate.


In this book we explore the process of branding in two parts. In part 1, we look at what people do to brand their neighborhood, how visitors to the community respond to these efforts, and why some local business owners participate in the process but not others. In part 2, we go beyond the mechanics of branding to try to understand what makes some images resonate more than others. There we look at the ways in which these symbols and understandings limit how the image of the neighborhood can be believably transformed.

The Branding Process

A brand has many components. In the context of a neighborhood, the brand is apparent from what businesses sell, how their storefronts are designed, what kind of music emanates from open neighborhood windows and passing cars, and what kinds of themes are depicted on the neighborhood's plentiful murals. Special events featuring the music and dance traditions of particular countries reinforce the brand. What people do intentionally and unintentionally to brand their neighborhood is the focus of the first three chapters of the book.

I observed direct and indirect branding activities in the barrio during the two years I spent living in Philadelphia and the other three traveling there frequently. I donned the costume of the caballero to march in the Puerto Rican Day Parade, swept the floors of the rehearsal space before and after major events, carried movable stages from the back of a minivan to outdoor performance sites, hauled trash bags down to the sidewalk, carefully mounted masks onto walls, shopped at Cousin's Supermarket for the refreshments used at dance rehearsals and for receptions, contributed narrative sections to grant proposals, and engaged in strategic planning as a board member of the pan-Latino performance arts organization Raíces Culturales Latinoamericanas (Latin American Cultural Roots). Through my volunteer work, I encountered visitors to the district (some for the first time) who talked about why they came to the area and how the reputation of the community kept some of them from visiting earlier. From community insiders, I heard a great deal about how outsiders insulted the good people of the community by focusing only on the people engaged in antisocial behavior, and about how this one-sided view affected neighborhood commerce by discouraging the "right" kinds of investments (chic clothing boutiques, higher-end restaurants, and cultural performance spaces) and encouraging the "wrong" kinds (check-cashing vendors and pawnshops).

To attract the right kinds of investment, neighborhood leaders focused on changing the impressions that outsiders have of the neighborhood. Chapter 2 explores how the tours and cultural workshops organized by community leaders shape outsiders' understandings of the neighborhood's reputation. I contrast the experiences of the Philadelphia Neighborhood Tours in this Latino neighborhood with those described in David Grazian's Blue Chicago to illustrate the nuances of marketing ethnic identities and places. (Chicago and Philadelphia have comparable populations of Puerto Ricans and rank as the second and third largest Puerto Rican populations in the United States, numbering 111,055 and 91,527, respectively, in the year 2000.) How individuals demonstrate their authenticity in the cultural economy of the ethnic neighborhood tour need not be seen as a confidence game. I agree with Grazian that there are situations in which "confidence men" dupe cultural tourists, luring them to a prefabricated setting where shills cheer them to spend their money on what these consumers believe to be an authentic experience, but those involved in the confidence game know that these consumers are purchasing a counterfeit good (a less-than-authentic performance). Such situations of deception are not ubiquitous, however, for I did not observe them in this neighborhood. The members of the arts organization and of the community development corporation have a sense of integrity and self-respect, and there are some things they are not willing to do just to attract dollars to the district. What types of businesses establish themselves and what types of performances they enact speak not only to the financial bottom line but also to their identity and their place in society. I end the chapter with a discussion of what one Latino leader called the "American Cultural Stock Exchange" and the unspoken regulations that help maintain collective identity in the marketplace.

In the third chapter, I describe three arts organizations that are leading the branding efforts and how they, the artists, and other performers create an ethnic art scene. The art world is not a unified entity, and it does not paint a coherent portrait of the neighborhood's cultural identity. Rather, arts organizations strive to balance what their leadership sees as authentic expressions of Latino cultural identity and what the foundations funding them consider worthwhile cultural productions. "We have a mission. When we are only trying to satisfy the funders to get the money, we've strayed from the mission. At that point, there's no use in doing this kind of work anymore," explains Mike Esposito, one of the cofounders of Raíces. From conversations with him, Yolanda Alcorta (the other cofounder), Carmen Febo (executive director of Taller Puertorriqueño), and Jesse Bermudez (AMLA), I discern a common theme: Art is a vocation, and artists and organizations are motivated to answer the call—even at a financial loss, if the integrity of the work requires it. The sense of calling can spark conflict among the collective artists when they do not agree on how or whether some public events should be staged. But such vocal disagreements indicate passion, not disorganization. The neutrality that marks professional behavior in other fields mars the cultural authenticity of players in the art world. Aglow with passion, this world attracts artists, funding organizations, city agencies, business owners, cultural consumers, and private citizens into its orbit.

Artistic activities also influence the image that insiders have of their neighborhood. In chapter 4, we see how local businesses participate in neighborhood branding efforts. The different ways that business owners envision the neighborhood influences the types of investments they make to improve the neighborhood in general and their own businesses in particular. A business owner may describe the commercial section as the Golden District, but it matters whether she believes "the gold" will shine again or is tainted. The business owners in the neighborhood are central to the branding efforts because their storefronts, the types of goods they sell, and their interactions with customers are the routine ways in which the neighborhood's identity manifests itself. Without these unscripted performances of authenticity, the scripted narratives about the neighborhood's character could not stand.

The Cultural and Social Constraints on Branding

The narratives that branders construct about the neighborhood rely on the accumulated narratives that have characterized the community and its inhabitants. These histories of representation make some depictions of the neighborhood seem so "true" that evidence indicating otherwise is more easily discounted. The most widely circulated stories about a stigmatized neighborhood perpetuate the stigma; therefore, it is instructive to see how community leaders, business owners, artists, residents, and others work to stage the positive character of a stigmatized place in the service of community development.

In chapter 5 we look at the "environment of reception" for Puerto Ricans and other Latinos in Philadelphia—the degree of prejudice shown toward them by the majority of non-Latinos and how that gives rise to a widespread image of the barrio as a struggling, sometimes dangerous place. Our focus is not on how these prejudices affect assimilation but on how they shape the types of branding projects that will resonate as authentic. The chapter draws on surveys from the 1950s about the perceptions of Philadelphians toward Puerto Ricans, testimony before the Human Relations Commission in the 1960s about racial tensions, mob violence, and prejudicial beliefs toward Latinos in Philadelphia, marketing surveys from the late 1970s about the Latino commercial district, and more recent national surveys about the contributions that different ethnic groups have made to the United States. The chapter also draws on letters and memoranda written between community leaders and their consultants about how to brand the Latino commercial district, my interviews with individuals who participated in those branding efforts, and newspaper reports about the Latino neighborhood and its ethnically themed (branding) events.

Newspaper reports provide a glimpse into the core beliefs about the neighborhood and the ethnic group populating it. I analyze these articles in chapter 6 to demonstrate how coverage of the Latino district has changed over time. The chapter presents both a quantitative content analysis and a qualitative discourse analysis to show how the neighborhood was depicted during three periods. In the 1970s, newspapers portrayed Puerto Ricans as "hard-working," and articles highlighted a mix of positive and negative community characteristics. During the 1980s and 1990s, positive images gave way to a discourse of Puerto Ricans as welfare recipients and troublemakers. The most recent coverage focuses on how neighborhood residents and other Latinos have contributed to American society and worked to overcome their own social ills. Running through all these media accounts is a series of cultural codes or binaries that describe the barrio as "good," "bad," "constructive," "destructive," "safe," or "dangerous." Such binaries represent the limits that constrain branding entrepreneurs.

These neighborhood codes also constrain how city government, community development corporations, local entrepreneurs, and the newspaper and television media can appeal to tourists and other cultural consumers to boost spending in the city. As leaders in postindustrial cities have worked to replace lost manufacturing jobs with employment in cultural tourism or related cultural industries, they have confronted the realities of managing visitors' impressions of the city's neighborhoods. The attitude of outsiders derives not simply from racism or ignorance but from an overarching cultural code of the city that defines which neighborhoods are "decent" and which ones "street." These categories of evaluation affect the neighborhoods' attractiveness for investment.

Although situated places as well as historical events may be seen as having certain characteristics, the characteristics do not reflect the essential nature of these places. Whether a community viewed as dangerous or disorganized can be transformed into a desirable, culturally distinct district depends partly on representation. Some representations may cast a neighborhood's characteristics as contingent and relative, the implication being that its dangers can be ameliorated by better parking facilities, neighborhood watch programs, greater police presence, improved police-community relations, and improved trash collection and community clean-up campaigns, along with public art and community gatherings that bring the neighborhood residents and business owners into contact with one another for a common purpose. Other representations may render the neighborhood's characteristics as inherent and fixed; people who are "culturally deficient" or "antagonistic" toward civil society are not going to benefit from external interventions, so they should be geographically contained and let alone. Community leaders intuitively understand how their neighborhood is recognizable because they appreciate how its characteristics can be contrasted with other neighborhoods. These leaders strategically address the negative as well as the positive perceptions of their community, for they know that ignoring the negative characteristics will only amplify them.


Excerpted from The Philadelphia Barrio by FREDERICK F. WHERRY Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1: Culture at Work
The Arts, Branding, and Neighborhood Transformation
2: Latin Soul, Latin Flavor
Performing the Authenticity of Place
3: The Art World of the Barrio
Sources of Attraction and Motivation
4: Ringing the Registers
Entrepreneurial Dreams
5: Stigma, Status, and Staging
The History of a Reputation
6: Character on Parade
Cultural Constraints on Neighborhood Branding
7: Redemption and Revitalization in the Barrio
A Tentative Conclusion
Appendix: Telling It like It Was
Methods and DataNotesWorks CitedIndex

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