Chinatown fears community and loss of business in 76ers arena plan
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 one block from the Community Walkway Arch. They said neither the organization nor the owner sought community input prior to the announcement.
A spokesperson for 76 Devcorp, the development company behind the arena, said in an emailed statement that the process was in its early stages – years before “nothing changed” – and that the company planned 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 past proposals and are committed to listening to and working with the community in a way that has never happened before,” the statement read. .
But these are promises many in Chinatown have heard before. After decades of developments – 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 cut off parts of the community; and proposals for a jail, casino and other sports facility – all of which have been rebuffed by the community, residents have their own playbook to choose from.
Throughout the country there are less than 50 Chinatowns, some more dynamic and larger than others. Many have taken root in areas of cities 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 bouncing back after losing business during the pandemic, when restaurants in Chinatown were closed for dinner. Much of the older population did not want to leave the neighborhood due to the four-fold increase since 2019 in hate crimes against people of Asian descent.
“This is an ongoing struggle for Chinatowns and other inner-city low-income and colored communities,” said historian John Kuo Wei Tchen, director of the Clement Price Institute of the Institute. Rutgers University on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience. “In the case of Chinatowns that play important symbolic roles for the city’s cosmopolitan claims, the interests of sports authorities often outweigh those roles.”
The 76ers’ current home is in South Philadelphia, a few miles from downtown, along with most of the city’s other professional sports teams.
Many Chinatown residents and business owners worry that if a new arena is built, affordable street parking will disappear, traffic will increase, and holding traditional celebrations and festivals may become more difficult. But they also worry that property values, already rising, will skyrocket and force many who depend on the community to leave.
Debbie Wei is a founding member of Asian Americans United, formed in Philadelphia in the 1980s to unite people of Asian descent to build community and fight oppression. She also organized the protests against a proposed Phillies baseball stadium that city officials wanted to put on Chinatown’s doorstep in 2000.
“If it’s not a stadium, it’s a highway or a convention center. Seattle…Detroit…Chicago, Boston, then Washington, DC I have friends who grew up in Chinatown in DC and it just got decimated,” Wei said.
The home of the Washington Capitals hockey team and the Wizards basketball team moved to the Chinatown community of DC in 1997. Economic development experts say increased foot traffic and the More desirable real estate brought revitalization, but for the Chinatown community, it meant rising rents and restaurant chains forcing them out.
Census figures show that in 1990, about 66% of people who lived in the DC Chinatown area identified as Asian American. That percentage dropped to 21% in 2010. And by the 2020 census, that figure had dropped to around 18% in the two areas 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 worries that the changes to DC’s Chinatown will happen in Philadelphia.
“If you enter a restaurant or a business, the workers are no longer Asian. The owner is not Asian. And a lot of customers are not Asian,” he said. “So where is Chinatown? There is none left. »
But in Philadelphia, Chinese-speaking households have been one of the fastest growing populations, according to the census. The community recently passed the 5% threshold, which means that Chinese languages have become the official languages of the ballot. Asian and other immigrant communities have helped the city reverse a decades-long trend of population loss in recent censuses.
Helen Gym, the first Asian American woman to serve on the Philadelphia City Council and a member-at-large, brandished two t-shirts from previous fights against potentially damaging developments wanting to come to Chinatown. The first says “No stadium in Chinatown”, and the second crossed out the word stadium and replaced it with “casino”, for the 2008 proposal which hoped to put a casino near the current proposal for the arena.
Gym previously joined the stadium fight and said now, as a board member, she is “extremely skeptical” of the 76ers’ proposal.
“For us, this is one of the most vital parts, neighborhoods and communities in the city of Philadelphia,” Gym said. “That side has been a community that has continued to invest in itself, in its people, in small businesses. And in fact, this side is the one that has grown the health and well-being of the city. »
After the stadium failed in 2000, Gym said, the community developed nearby space north of the freeway to add a public charter school, community center, Chinese Christian church extensions, the first Cambodian arts center and other cultural organizations.
Wei was the first principal of this school, the Folk Arts Cultural Treasures charter school. She said the building’s owner turned down offers from developers who wanted to build condos.
“People don’t understand what Chinatown means to people in this community, people from all over the region who call it their home,” Wei said.
“There are very few communities left, real communities, in Philadelphia. They are not only geographical; it’s about relationships and memories. This is a local core that has been systematically destroyed, not just in Philadelphia and the United States; but all over the world,” Wei said. “And once Chinatown is gone, it is gone. You cannot rebuild it.
Associated Press writer Shawn Marsh in Trenton, New Jersey, contributed to this report.