Philly’s Chinatown And Decades Of Development Fights

The neighborhood has been targeted by predatory development for years. Now, multigenerational community members unite against Sixers' $1.3 billion arena.

(Photo by Jane Smith / CC BY-NC 2.0)

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This story was originally published at Prism.

Loud chants of “hands off Chinatown!” spilled out the doors of Philadelphia’s Ocean Harbor restaurant on a Wednesday night in December as over 200 community residents and advocates gathered for a town hall in solidarity against the Sixers’ proposed basketball arena, 76 Place. With plans to be built less than a block away from the Chinatown’s gateway arch, 76 Place marks yet another development in a long line of project proposals over the past few decades that have threatened the city’s last Asian enclave.

“This is my home,” said restaurant owner Sam Sam, whose Little Saigon Cafe acted as a spillover location where more than 100 other town hall attendees watched the meeting over livestream. A refugee from Vietnam, Sam Sam has lived and worked in Chinatown for over 42 years. “[The Sixers] say the community will benefit, but they lie. They always lie.”

Unlike other arena-related meetings in the past months, the Dec. 14 town hall — held in a Q&A style with interpreters for English, Mandarin, and Cantonese — marked the first open meeting since the summer in which Chinatown residents could voice questions and concerns to officials without imposed restrictions or language barriers.

“This needs to be an open process where the entire community is engaged,” said Michael Zhang, an active volunteer in various Chinatown organizations. “Many of our elders don’t speak English and rely on people to translate for them. There needs to be an open process where someone who understands the issues explains it to them.”

“Closed door meetings, secrecy, and rumors”

Though the Sixers’ construction firm, 76 Devcorp — along with billionaire and 76 Devcorp chairman David Adelman — announced initial plans for the $1.3 billion arena back in July, information regarding the arena’s development had been kept purposefully secret and only accessible through exclusionary channels. Some meetings were invitation-only, while others had organizers telling community members to refrain from asking “hard questions.” 76 Devcorp also formed a steering committee with a handful of Chinatown’s organization leaders in an effort to “ensure Chinatown’s stability and strengthen its future,” though activists say these individuals were handpicked and not representative of the community at large; when members opposed the arena’s development, they were allegedly kicked out of the committee.

None of the individuals on the steering committee chose to attend the meeting, despite being invited.

“We are tired of the closed door meetings, secrecy, and rumors surrounding this project,” said longtime Chinatown resident Colleen Young. “The 76 Place developers cannot cherry-pick which community members and organizations to listen to. We are the people who live here, who have made Philadelphia’s Chinatown one of the last remaining and most vibrant Chinatowns in the U.S., and we deserve a voice in the future of our neighborhood.”

Various questions at the town hall were aimed at David Gould, chief diversity and impact officer of the Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment, which includes the Sixers, though attendees described his answers as “empty, pretty words.” Gould repeated much of the Sixers’ existing rhetoric of wanting to be a “good neighbor,” emphasizing the importance of Chinatown’s cultural preservation while stating that the arena project would have to juggle the wishes of both Chinatown and other surrounding entities in Philadelphia’s downtown Fashion District. Often, his comments garnered loud boos from the audience.

“They’re the template answers we’ve heard over and over again,” said Yvonne Lung, a member of Asian Americans United (AAU). “But if you listen, he’s saying that, even if the community is in-majority against the arena, that doesn’t mean they won’t build it.”

The crowd’s ire wasn’t due to Gould’s opaque responses so much as it was a reflection of their mounting frustrations with the way the Sixers have engaged with the community from the start. Months of secrecy aside, the community’s distrust of the Sixers had already been stoked the week prior, when the arena developers’ private attorneys snuck language into an unrelated, obscure parking refinancing bill that would have helped grease the wheels for the arena’s construction. Though Chinatown activists were able to kill the clause by testifying during the Dec. 7 city council meeting, the incident was a close call that only served to poke holes in the Sixers’ “good corporate citizens” claim.

“We basically didn’t sleep Monday night, trying to figure it all out,” said AAU founder Debbie Wei of the frantic hours Chinatown activists spent organizing the night before the city council meeting. “Clearly 76 Devcorp knew what they were doing. They promised this big, stupid, transparent thing.”

Councilmember Mark Squilla, who represents the district containing Chinatown, was present at both the city council meeting and the December town hall. In response to activist testimonies and resident concerns, he promised town hall attendees that any legislation regarding arena development moving forward would be subject to 30 days of review and comment from the community before implementation. The audience reacted to this commitment of transparency with applause, though in the grand scheme, it is one of many hurdles left to overcome in Chinatown’s fight against the arena.

“We’re a small community of largely second-language speakers who work full-time jobs,” said Wei. “We’re not all tech billionaires with a whole corporate structure behind us. That’s what these guys are doing; they’re using corporate power and billionaire dollars to crush a community that’s been in existence for 150 years.”

“Chinatowns don’t survive on tourism, they survive on community.”

For many Chinatown residents, the threat of the Sixers’ proposed arena is nothing new. In 2000, the community protested the Phillies’ plan to build a $685 million baseball stadium near 12th and Vine streets. In 2008, the community marched again to stop the development of a 3,000-slot-machine casino. Today, anti-arena posters lining Chinatown’s brick and stone buildings tell the story of a neighborhood repeatedly under siege, with the words “no stadium” and “no casino” crossed in red slashes to make room for the new “no arena” tagline.

Activists say this recurring history is a product of institutional, structural racism.

“Do developers place these large projects in wealthy, white communities?” asked Wei, who had been an active participant in both the stadium and casino fights in the past two decades. “It’s definitely a pattern, it’s structural, it’s systemic. There’s no question that developers practice it.”

Like many of the 50 other remaining Chinatowns across the country, Philadelphia’s Chinatown has suffered the effects of construction-based gentrification, losing homes to both the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the Vine Street Expressway. Community members fear that the Sixers’ arena would further the neighborhood’s decimation, overwhelming already congested streets and parking lots as sports fans, concert goers, and other event attendees swarm to fill the arena’s proposed 18,500 seats — then, ultimately, spiking property values and forcing elder and lower-income residents to leave.

“We also have to consider things like safety, like drunk sports fans pouring into our community at a time when Asians have already been targeted by violence,” said Wei in reference to the surge of anti-Asian hate crime since COVID-19.

Community members have also pointed to D.C. Chinatown’s gentrification and displacement as a cautionary tale, with past D.C. residents warning Philadelphians of the devastation that awaits their neighborhood should the Sixers arena be built. In an open letter published with The Philadelphia Inquirer, these residents recounted how the Washington Convention Center and Capital One sports arena co-opted nearly 25% of their land and drained the neighborhood of its businesses, residents, and cultural essence — a stark reality compared to what the developers had promised.

“Chinatowns do not survive on tourism, they survive on community. Chinese and Asian people are the regulars in restaurants, hair salons, and grocery stores,” said the letter. “It isn’t a lack of tourism that kills Chinatown economies; it’s when Asian people stop coming because there is no parking, or the businesses they rely on shut down.”

Zhang, who grew up in D.C.’s Chinatown before moving to Philadelphia, echoed this sentiment. “Maybe the signs are in Chinese, but they’re CVSs and Starbucks. It’s nothing authentic. There are no Chinese people walking on the streets anymore,” he said.

In an op-ed also published with The Philadelphia Inquirer, 76 Devcorp acknowledged the displacement that threatened Chinatown in past construction projects, promising that the arena’s intended location in an existing, boundary-marked structure would allow them to instead “protect Chinatown’s residents and small businesses.” However, this claim failed to address the pollution and environmental impact that at least six years of construction and demolition would cause for the neighborhood even before the arena is completed.

“Maybe some of the businesses here think they’re going to get a bump from arena traffic and sell more bubble tea or hotpot — well, they have to survive until 2031 to even see the first spectator,” said Jonathan Waldman, a longtime resident and co-founder of the Concerned Citizens of Chinatown Association (CCOCA). “And the truth is, they’re not going to survive; not with all the construction-related road closures, not when people stop coming to Chinatown, and not when the arena bumps their rent and real estate taxes.”

In line with these concerns, many attendees at the December town hall demanded that 76 Devcorp conduct formal and independent environmental impact studies to gauge the predicted effects the arena would have on Chinatown before any plans move forward. Others challenged the company’s claim that the arena would bring positive solutions and impacts to the neighborhood.

“Why does it have to be an arena? Why not put a public school, since most of our schools are over 70 years old? What about a center for arts and culture?” asked Wei. “If you want to put something in a downtown area that represents what the city is, put something that reflects small business development, local community, and ethnicity.”

The next generation of activists

Though Chinatown’s historical battles demonstrate the community’s strength and enduring tenacity, activists like Wei say it’s also indicative of frustration, anger, and exhaustion.

“We’ve always had to do the impossible, over and over again,” said Wei. “I think people are waiting for us to wear down and tire out. I admit, I’m 22 years older than I was during the stadium fight. I’m no spring chicken.”

Though the Sixers arena fight has forced longtime Chinatown activists to once again join the battlefield, it has also paved the way for the younger generation to take the lead. From putting up posters to organizing protests, many high school- and college-aged students have volunteered their time and energy to fight for the community’s preservation.

“This is not just about [protecting] Chinatown because it’s a place to shop and eat,” said Lung. “This is for our elders.”

An example of these efforts includes the formation of Students for the Preservation of Chinatown (SPOC), a coalition of student activists founded by college junior Kaia Chau and sophomore Taryn Flaherty. Friends since childhood, Chau — who is Wei’s daughter — and Flaherty grew up under the tutelage of their activist mothers, attending protests and participating in advocacy before they could articulate what they were fighting for.

“The child care I received was going with my mom to protests,” said Flaherty. “And during the 2008 casino fight, I remember Kaia and I dressing up as fairies for one of the Chinatown coalition’s plays. We would jump around from behind the slot machines so no one could find us, to show that, no matter what you chose, you’d never find the fairy because casinos are exploitative.”

In late November, Chau and Flaherty organized one of the first protests against the Sixers arena development, leading nearly 100 University of Pennsylvania students and other Philadelphia residents in a march to Campus Apartments headquarters, where Sixers chairman David Adelman also serves as CEO. In conjunction with other student organizations such as Save the UC Townhomes and Fossil Free Penn, protesters condemned Adelman for his role in exploiting students’ debt for profit, gentrifying West Philadelphia, and now setting his sights on Chinatown.

“It’s important for students to lead these protests because institutions like Penn and Campus Apartments wouldn’t be able to exist without our money,” said Chau. “If these institutions see we’re not happy with how they’re treating our communities, we can make a really big impact.”

In addition to leveraging their power as students, Chau and Flaherty stress that education and social media are crucial in amplifying anti-arena sentiment and saving Chinatown.

“The arena will be built if we do nothing. The arena will be built if there’s only slight resistance. There needs to be a huge pushback,” said Flaherty.

Wei echoed this sentiment, adding that signing petitions, writing letters to elected officials, and supporting the small businesses in Chinatown are also methods that could help bolster the community. When asked how she felt about her daughter taking up the activism mantle, she said it felt bittersweet.

“Part of it is my frustration that this fight has to continue to happen, but whether or not it’s this battle, people with conscience have to fight,” said Wei. “If the younger generation is prepared to do that, then we’ve done our job as elders.”

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Rikki Li is a Philadelphia-based writer and editor whose works often revolve around themes of hunger, cultural identity, and queerness. She has an M.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School and currently works as Acting News Editor at Prism. Follow her on Instagram @lyriklly and Twitter @writtenbyrikki.

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Tags: philadelphiagentrificationdevelopmentchinatown

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