PHILADELPHIA — Wei Chen wants people visiting Philadelphia’s Chinatown to look past the amber roast ducks hanging in the restaurant’s window and notice the two older women conversing in Mandarin on the steps to the apartments above.
“These apartments are full of low-income people who are seniors and people who are new immigrants,” said Chen, director of community engagement for Asian Americans United. “You have to think about how Chinatown was created. We weren’t welcome in other neighborhoods.”
Chen, along with other Chinatown organizers and members, said they were surprised by the Philadelphia 76ers’ announcement Thursday of a proposal to build a $1.3 billion arena just a block from the community’s Gateway Arch. They said neither the organization nor the property owner had reached out to the community before the announcement.
A spokesman for 76 Devcorp, the development company behind the arena, said in an emailed statement that the process is in its early stages — years before “something changes” — and that the company plans to work with the community to help shape the project. and make sure it’s “done right”.
“We are very sensitive to the concerns of the Chinatown community in light of Center City’s previous proposals and are committed to listening and working with the community in a way that has not happened before,” the statement said.
But these are promises many in Chinatown have heard before. After decades of development — like the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which took away the homes of 200 families; Interstate 676, also known as the Vine Street Expressway, which threatened to tear apart parts of the community; and proposals for a jail, casino and other sports facility — all of which were rejected by the community, residents have their own deep book to choose from.
There are fewer than 50 Chinatowns across the country, some more vibrant and larger than others. Many of them put down roots in areas of cities that were considered red light districts. And as cities grew and changed around these communities, many Chinatowns were threatened by gentrification or development.
Like others, the Philadelphia community is just recovering from the loss of business during the pandemic, when restaurants in Chinatown were closed for dining. A large number of seniors did not want to leave the neighborhood due to a four-fold increase since 2019 in hate crimes against people of Asian descent.
“This is an ongoing struggle for Chinatowns and other low-income inner-city communities of color,” said historian John Kuo Wei Chen, director of Rutgers University’s Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and Contemporary Experience. “In the case of Chinatowns, which play an important symbolic role in the city’s cosmopolitan claims, the interests of sports authorities often take precedence over those roles.”
The current home of the 76ers is in South Philadelphia, a few miles from downtown, along with most of the other professional sports teams in the city.
Many Chinatown residents and business owners are concerned that if a new arena is built, available street parking will disappear, traffic will increase and traditional celebrations and festivals may become more difficult. But they also worry that already soaring property values could soar and force many who depend on the community to leave.
Debbie Way is a founding member of Asian Americans United, which was formed in Philadelphia in the 1980s to bring people of Asian descent together to build community and fight oppression. She was also an organizer of protests against the proposed Phillies baseball stadium that city officials wanted to place at the doorstep of Chinatown in 2000.
“If it’s not a stadium, it’s a freeway or a convention center.” Seattle … Detroit … Chicago, Boston and then Washington, D.C. I have friends who grew up in Chinatown in D.C. and it was just destroyed,” Wei said.
The home of the Washington Capitals hockey team and the Wizards basketball team moved to D.C.’s Chinatown community in 1997. Economic development experts say increased foot traffic and more desirable real estate have brought revitalization, but for the Chinatown community This means rising rents and chain restaurants forcing them out.
Census data shows that in 1990, about 66% of people living in the Chinatown, DC area identified themselves as Asian American. This was down to 21% in 2010. And by the 2020 census, this had fallen to around 18% in the two districts that make up parts of Chinatown.
Wei described signs for chains like CVS and Starbucks appearing with Chinese translations next to them, calling it a “cosmetic illusion.” Chen fears that the changes in DC’s Chinatown could happen to Philadelphia.
“If you walk into a restaurant or a business, the workers are no longer Asian. The owner is not Asian. And a lot of the customers are not Asian,” he said. “Where is Chinatown? It’s no longer there.”
But in Philadelphia, Chinese-speaking households are one of the fastest-growing populations, according to the census. The community recently passed the 5% threshold, meaning Chinese languages became official voting languages. Asian and other immigrant communities have helped the city reverse a decades-long trend of population loss in recent censuses.
Helen Gim, the first woman of Asian descent to serve on the Philadelphia City Council and a member of the City Council, held up two T-shirts from previous battles against potentially disastrous developments that wanted to come to Chinatown. The first read, “No stadium in Chinatown,” and the second crossed out the word stadium and replaced it with “casino” for the 2008 proposal, which hoped to place a casino near the current arena proposal.
Gym previously joined the fight against the stadium and said that now, as a council member, she is “extremely skeptical” of the 76ers’ proposal.
“For us, this is one of the most important parts and neighborhoods and communities in the city of Philadelphia,” Gym said. “This country is a community that continues to invest in itself, in its people, in small businesses. And in fact, it is this country that has increased the health and well-being of the city.”
After the stadium failed in 2000, Gym said, the community developed the nearby space north of the highway to add a public charter school, a community center, Chinese Christian Church expansions, the first Cambodian arts center and other cultural organizations.
Way was the first principal of that school, the Folk Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School. She said the building’s owner rejected proposals from developers who wanted to build apartments.
“There are very few communities, real communities left in Philadelphia. They are not just geographical; they are about relationships and memories. They’re a place-based core that’s been systematically destroyed not just in Philadelphia and the U.S., but around the world,” Wei said. “And once Chinatown is gone, it’s gone. You can’t rebuild it.”
Associated Press writer Shawn Marsh in Trenton, New Jersey, contributed to this report.