Can high-toned arts center calm Philly’s most violent neighborhood?

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A model of Taller Puertorriqueno shows how the differing forms helped break up the long Fifth Street facade.

Mention the Fairhill neighborhood in Philadelphia and the conversation almost always turns to crime and drugs. The dense North Philadelphia community was branded the Badlands two decades ago, and it remains, according to police statistics, the most violent section of the city, a place where bullets whiz past the schoolyard and drug dens line the railroad tracks. The poverty rate is off the charts.

What you rarely hear anyone say is that Fairhill is rich by other measures. The area is the cultural heart of Philadelphia's rapidly growing Puerto Rican community, as well as the Mother Barrio for those who have moved up and out. They mingle on Fifth Street, where Caribbean produce is piled high and salsa music pulses from the storefronts.

Forty-one years ago, an arts center called Taller Puertorriqueño joined the crowd on the Bloque de Oro, as the Fifth Street shopping corridor is called, taking space in a narrow building just north of Lehigh Avenue. As Philadelphia's Hispanic population exploded - it's doubled since 1990 - the center became a refuge for homesick Puerto Ricans, who came for gallery openings, concerts, literary readings, and holiday celebrations.

Thanks to that influx, Taller - the name means "workshop" - soon outgrew its space. In the mid-2000s, the center managed to secure the rights to a vacant, city-owned lot. An architect was commissioned to work up a design for a new building. Taller's director, Carmen Febo-San Miguel, says she carted those renderings around the city for more than a decade before Taller succeeded in raising the money to build the $11.5 million project.

It won't be long now. Taller's new home is finally rising at Fifth and Huntingdon and is scheduled to open in September. The simple, one-story building has become a symbol of the growing visibility and clout of the city's Hispanic population, which is still dominated by Puerto Ricans. Though the new Taller can't cure all that ails Fairhill, it should make the Badlands a lot less bad.

Designed by WRT's Antonio Fiol-Silva, the center is meant to be more than just a venue for cultural programs and art classes. To generate money for events and upkeep, the 25,000-square-foot building includes space that can be rented out for banquets and offices. Because those activities will attract visitors from morning till night, the new Taller promises to help stabilize the neighborhood.

Fiol-Silva's first task was to create a multipurpose building that could handle all the different users. At the center is a 200-seat auditorium that can host theater productions then quickly be converted into a revenue-generating banquet hall for weddings and quinceañeras, the popular Hispanic celebrations for 15-year-old girls.

All the other rooms - cafe, meeting rooms, art gallery, computer labs, offices - will orbit around the large hall. Two interior gardens will flank the space. They bring light into the building and offer space for parties to spill outside. Walled off from the street, they also provide a safe area for children to play.

Fiol-Silva says he conceived of Taller as a village of connected forms, with each part tailored to a specific use. The village concept is an obvious reference to Puerto Rico's rural heritage, but the strategy of differentiating the forms proved useful in breaking up the long Fifth Street facade.

Visitors will enter Taller at the corner of Huntingdon Street. Fiol-Silva, who was born in Puerto Rico, welcomes them with a Caribbean-style patio and a grid of colored panels. The cafe will be just off the entrance, so people can enjoy their food on the patio and in the glass sunroom overlooking Fifth Street. If the colored panels look familiar, that's because Fiol-Silva also designed the Paseo Verde apartments at Ninth and Berks, using a similar strategy.

He switches materials for the other sections. The middle portion, which houses the classrooms, will be faced in a handsome black brick, interspersed with windows. At the northern end, the bricks shift to buff and will be screened with a trellis that will eventually become enveloped with vines. That section is meant to be slightly camouflaged because it will be leased to the Children's Crisis Treatment Center, which works with children traumatized by violence.

One of the best things about the Fifth Street facade is the way it hews to the street line, reinforcing the neighborhood's natural urban rhythms. Because Taller is moving off the heavily trafficked Golden Block, and shifting Fairhill's center of gravity south to Huntingdon Street, it needs to give pedestrians a reason to leave the beaten path.

Taller's new location could actually improve pedestrian circulation through the neighborhood, Fiol-Silva believes. Though Fairhill is dotted with destination institutions, they feel disconnected from one another.

Moving Taller to the Huntingdon Street intersection will establish an important node there, completing a loop that includes the Providence Center, Fairhill Square, and Julia de Burgos School, all between Fourth and Fifth, Lehigh, and Huntingdon. That loop could become even more of a stabilizing force if the city stepped in with sidewalk landscaping and traffic calming on Fifth Street and Lehigh Avenue, which are real speedways.

Taller isn't quite as successful on the west side of the building. About half the two-acre site will be an 86-car parking lot. Given that the banquet hall and cultural events will draw people from far outside the neighborhood, parking is a necessity. Unfortunately, creating the lot means residents of Fairhill Street - a well-kept, fully occupied street - will have to look out on the asphalt expanse.

Fiol-Silva acknowledges the lot is a design problem. Taller plans to mitigate its bleakness with trees. But Fiol-Silva says he designed the lot so a corresponding row of houses - perhaps for artists - can be constructed on the edge of Taller's property, screening the parking. The site is arranged so the parking can be accessed directly from Lehigh Avenue, via narrow Reese Street.

Philadelphia has a tradition of ethnic groups leaving their mark by building cultural centers. Taller continues that story for a new generation of migrants.

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