UNWELCOME ARENA. A customer shops for produce in the Chinatown
neighborhood of Philadelphia on July 22, 2022. Organizers and members of
Philadelphia’s Chinatown say they were surprised by the 76ers’
announcement that they hope to build a $1.3-billion arena just a block
from the community’s gateway arch. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pedestrians cross 10th Street in the Chinatown
neighborhood of Philadelphia on, July 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
From The Asian Reporter, V32, #8 (August 1, 2022), pages 7 &
Sudden arena idea angers, unnerves Philadelphia’s
By Claudia Lauer
The Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA — Wei Chen wants people who visit Philadelphia’s
Chinatown to look through the community’s gateway arch and see the
residents chatting in Mandarin on the steps to the apartments above or
the vendors selling traditional Chinese food to families walking by, not
a giant Philadelphia 76ers arena a block away.
"These apartments are full of people who are low-income, who are
elderly people, and people who are new immigrants," said Chen, the
community engagement director for Asian Americans United. "You have to
think about how Chinatown was created. We weren’t welcome in other
Chen, along with other organizers and members of Chinatown, said they
were surprised by the Philadelphia 76ers’ recent announcement 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
reached out for community input before the announcement.
A spokesperson for 76 Devcorp, the development company behind the
arena, said in an e-mailed statement that the process is in its early
stages — years from "anything changing" — and that the company planned
to work with the community to help shape the project and ensure it’s
"We are very sensitive to the Chinatown community’s concern in light
of prior Center City proposals and are committed to listening to and
working with the community in a way that hasn’t happened before," the
Those are promises many in Chinatown have heard before. After decades
of developments — like the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which took
homes from 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, a casino, and another sports facility that all
were beaten back by the community, residents have a deep playbook of
their own to choose from.
Across the country, there are fewer than 50 Chinatowns, some more
vibrant and larger than others. Many took root in areas of cities that
were thought of as red light districts. And as cities grew and changed
around those communities, many Chinatowns have been under threat from
gentrification or development.
Like others, the community in Philadelphia is just bouncing back
after losing business during the pandemic, when Chinatown’s restaurants
were shuttered for dining in. Much of the senior population didn’t want
to leave the neighborhood because of the fourfold increase since 2019 in
hate crimes against people of Asian descent.
"This is an ongoing struggle for Chinatowns and other downtown
communities of color and of low income," said historian John Kuo Wei
Tchen, director of Rutgers University’s Clement Price Institute on
Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience. "In the case of
Chinatowns that play important symbolic roles for the cosmopolitan
claims of the city, sport authority interests often trump such roles."
The 76ers’ current home is in south Philadelphia, a few miles from
downtown, along with most of the city’s other pro sports teams.
Many Chinatown residents and business owners are concerned that if a
new arena is built, affordable street parking will disappear, traffic
will increase, and holding traditional celebrations and festivals could
become more difficult. But they are also worried that already-increasing
property values could spike and force many who depend on the community
Debbie Wei is a founding member of Asian Americans United, started in
Philadelphia in the 1980s to unite people of Asian ancestry to build the
community and fight oppression. She was also an organizer of the
protests against a proposed Phillies baseball stadium that city
officials wanted to place at Chinatown’s door in 2000.
"If it’s not a stadium, it’s a highway 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’s just been
decimated," 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 the increased foot traffic and more desirable
real estate brought revitalization, but for the Chinatown community it
meant rising rents and chain restaurants forcing them out.
Census numbers show that in 1990, about 66% of the people who lived
in the D.C. Chinatown area identified as Asian American. That dwindled
to 21% in 2010. And as of the 2020 census, that had dropped to about 18%
in the two tracts that make up parts of Chinatown.
Wei described signs for chains like CVS and Starbucks appearing with
Chinese translations beside them, calling it a "cosmetic illusion." Chen
fears the changes to D.C.’s Chinatown could happen to Philadelphia.
"If you go inside a restaurant or a business, the workers aren’t
Asian anymore. The owner isn’t Asian. And a lot of the customers aren’t
Asian," he said. "So where is the Chinatown? It’s not there anymore."
But in Philadelphia, Chinese-speaking households have been one of the
fastest-growing populations, according to the census. The community
passed the 5% threshold recently, meaning Chinese languages became
official ballot languages. Asian and other immigrant communities
contributed to the city reversing a decades-long trend of losing
population in recent censuses.
Helen Gym, the first Asian-American woman to serve on Philadelphia
City Council and an at-large member, held up two t-shirts from previous
fights against potentially detrimental developments wanting to come to
Chinatown. The first says, "No stadium in Chinatown," and the second
crossed out the word stadium and replaces it with "casino," for the 2008
proposal that hoped to put a casino near the current proposal for the
Gym previously joined the fight against the stadium and said that
now, as a council member, she is "extremely skeptical" of the 76ers
"To us, this is one of the most vital parts and neighborhoods and
communities in the city of Philadelphia," Gym said. "This 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 wellbeing of the city."
After the stadium failed in 2000, Gym said, the community developed
the nearby space north of the expressway to add a public charter school,
a community center, extensions of the Chinese Christian Church, the
first Cambodian arts center, and other cultural organizations.
Wei was the first principal of that 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 the people of this
community, people all over the area who consider this their home," Wei
"There are precious few communities, real communities, left in
Philadelphia. They are not just geographic; they are about relationships
and memories. They are a place-based core that has 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.
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