Philadelphia vs. Gentrification
When I first moved from Washington to Pennsylvania for college, one of the things I was most excited to see was Philadelphia’s Chinatown. I love Chinatowns. I love the restaurants and the grocery stores, and how each one is similar but unique through its community and history.
Philly’s Chinatown is smaller than Seattle’s. It doesn’t have restaurants that my family and I used to frequent for dim sum Sundays or the tofu shop that my parents would stop by while my sisters and I waited in the car, but it does have karaoke, new dinner spots to try, and little produce markets selling live seafood and my favorite Asian snacks. I’ve only been there a few times so far, but it’s a nice place for a trip with friends.
While researching for a class, I recently found out that the Chinatown here actually used to be a bit bigger. Over the years, it has decreased in size due to city developments and gentrification—a phenomenon that has plagued Chinatowns across the country in the past and unfortunately, continues to. Philadelphia’s current threat is 76 Place, a basketball arena for the Philadelphia 76ers, also called the Sixers, proposed to be built down the street from Chinatown. Within months of the Sixers’ announcement of their plans, residents of Philadelphia’s Chinatown began protesting the project, with anti-arena signs making an appearance at their annual Mid-Autumn festival (Li).
This arena, along with the history of gentrification in the neighborhood, is part of the reason why Philadelphia’s Chinatown was named one of America’s Most Endangered Historic Sites of 2023 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (Discover).
History of Chinatowns
The first Chinatown was established in 1848 in San Francisco, following the large influx of Chinese immigrants to the area during the California Gold Rush and construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Like many other ethnic enclaves, it began as a place where the Chinese population could come together and maintain connections to their home culture. However, the formation of Chinatown was a double-edged sword. While it provided a sense of belonging for the Chinese community, those outside of the population used its existence as a way to restrict immigrants to certain parts through legal and social discriminatory practices. Chinese immigrants found it difficult to find homes or work outside of Chinatown, making it near impossible to assimilate into American society (Kartik).
This co-opting of Chinatowns has been documented in other places across America as well. It has been argued that the Chinatown concept has been used to promote tourism globally and serves as one of the most commodified ethnic tourist districts. Cities tend to employ Chinatowns as a part of their urban revitalization agendas, which was the case for Houston in the 1990s. The formation of their Chinatown garnered economic support from the city government with hopes that it would revive the city as an attractive international center and boost their economy by bringing in outside patrons. This turned out to be a successful venture, but despite the city’s promotion of a message of diversity and culture, Chinatown soon fell as Houston’s interests turned toward other developments. Construction of buildings like the George R. Brown Convention Center was advertised as profitable to Chinese business owners as it was anticipated that visitors would spend time in the Chinatown shops after their time in the center, but it was soon discovered that few actually did. In addition, the lack of proper infrastructure in the Chinatown area and withdrawal of funding from the city government prevented the neighborhood’s growth. As a result, Houston’s Chinatown was gradually replaced by new streets with little of the original place remaining today (Knapp).
Gentrification and Chinatowns
The downfall of Chinatowns like Houston’s can be easily seen as gentrification—when a community is displaced in favor of another, typically one of higher socioeconomic status. This can happen when higher-class or wealthier populations move into a neighborhood, as sudden development and investments lead to rapidly increasing costs of living, “pricing out” the working-class residents. The emergence of new businesses, combined with the flood of a new customer demographic, can also cause local vendors to go out of business (National).
Construction-based gentrification has already affected Philadelphia’s Chinatown, with the community losing neighborhood space due to the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the Vine Street Expressway. They have also fought this battle several times, with recent examples being their protesting of the Phillies’ baseball stadium plan in 2000 and a slot casino machine plan in 2008. Now, many community members are back with the same protest signs from over a decade ago, emphasizing how often their home has been the target of large-scale development (Li).
Potential Effects of the Proposed Sixers Arena in Philadelphia
Short Term: Loss of Business
Many Chinatown shopkeepers have concerns about the survival of their businesses should 76 Arena development begin. Immediately, the construction of the arena would block off convenient access to Chinatown, likely resulting in decreased visitors. With the Sixers Arena projected to be complete in 2031, Chinatown businesses would have to contend with this traffic disruption for several years, putting them at risk of closure due to loss of economic activity (Li).
The surviving businesses would have to deal with continued or even worsened traffic after the arena is complete. Anyone who has ever tried to travel through a city that is hosting a large sporting event knows how difficult and time-consuming it is to get to your target destination during that day. With the Sixers Arena down the street, the congestion in surrounding blocks would deter most from venturing out to Chinatown.
Interestingly enough, a significant part of the 76 Place plan outline is that the presence of the arena would increase foot traffic for local businesses (Economic). Presumably, this is meant to include Chinatown, and tourism from arena events would support the economy of Chinatown, similar to how Houston used their own Chinatown to attract external customers. However, D.C. Chinatown residents say the effect would be opposite: in an open letter published in The Philadelphia Inquirer following the decimation of their Washington D.C.’s Chinatown due to the construction of Washington Convention Center and Capital One Sports Arena, community members wrote that “Chinatowns do not survive on tourism, they survive on community. Chinese and Asian people are the regulars in restaurants, hair salons, and grocery stores…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” (Li). Chinatown business owners also point out that it is more likely that tourists will spend at the arena’s vendors rather than going into Chinatown (Moselle).
Long Term: The Disappearance of Chinatowns
If you go to D.C.’s Chinatown now, there isn't much of the original location that remains. The neighborhood is now less than two blocks, and although there are still symbolic representations left on the streets like the Friendship Arch and zodiac crosswalks, the Chinese-owned businesses are no longer there (Tam). Like Michael Zhang, a Chinatown organization volunteer who grew up in D.C., says, “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”(Li).
Patterns like those of Washington D.C. and Houston show the chain reaction of how urban revival through large developments can eventually lead to the disappearance of Chinatowns. Projects like 76 Place that focus on increasing retail options for an economic boost of the area in particular could have severe consequences on the livelihood of Chinatown residents, especially those whose businesses are how they make a living. Combined with the way that the development of high profile projects like the arena tends to drive up the prices of the surrounding neighborhoods, there is a high potential for residents being forced to move out of the Philadelphia Chinatown area.
What Can Be Done?
Voting and Legislation
In the past, combating gentrification in general has been focused on mitigating the effects in terms of displacement. This is primarily done through legal avenues, such as rent control and stabilization regulations, which can restrict a landlord’s ability to raise rent and decline a lease renewal. In theory, this would protect residents from getting priced out of their homes by accounting for the increase of property values after a development (Huber). In practice, these regulations have mixed results. Research conducted by Stanford University on the effects of of a 1994 rent control law in San Francisco concluded that while there was success in preventing the displacement of minority families, in the long term, rent control regulations unintentionally caused more gentrification of the area as landlords redeveloped their buildings to avoid their loss in income (Diamond).
Although these options have their flaws, similar approaches that are tailored to the needs of a city can be taken to address potential shortcomings shown in past examples like San Francisco. This can be achieved by proposing or supporting initiatives on rent control or stabilization, though even just contacting your district’s city council member with concerns can bring about the attention necessary for change.
In addition, many large-scale proposals like the Sixers Arena require legislative approval from city leadership. If this is the case, being aware of council member platforms and their stances on issues like affordable housing and city development and voting accordingly can make a difference in what projects go through.
Apart from legal avenues, public protest has proven to be effective in stopping harmful developments. As previously mentioned, Philadelphia Chinatown has had success in blocking the construction of developments similar to the Sixers Arena, and the ongoing backlash against the project has already led to delays in construction (Li). Such protests have taken the form of online petitions directed toward the city, as well as public demonstrations that have included community members, city residents, and students of nearby universities. These large-scale gatherings are what tend to lead the issue into the news and media, raising awareness of the opposition and potential consequences.
Philadelphia isn’t the only city with a Chinatown facing threats of gentrification. If you look into almost any major city, from Vancouver to Boston, there are reports of how some kind of city or real estate project will encroach on the neighborhood if it hasn't already.
I hadn’t known that for Seattle, the project threatening the Chinatown is the Sound Transit expansions. Over the next two decades, there are supposed to be thirteen new stations and links connecting the city as a part of the West Seattle and Ballard Link Extensions. The Ballard Link is proposed to run through Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, and the current preferred alternative plan for the link’s route has stations north and south of the neighborhood on Yesler Way and Dearborn Street (Ballard). Last spring, concerns about construction in Chinatown led to community members advocating for more transparency and involvement in the project in order to ensure CID’s survival (Bartick). These concerns are also why the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of endangered sites features, right alongside Philadelphia’s Chinatown, Seattle Chinatown-International District (Discover).
For now, the Sixers Arena is seeking City Council approval, and the Seattle Sound Transit project is waiting on environmental impact studies before proceeding. The future of both cities’ projects remain uncertain. I really hope the Chinatowns survive.
Philadelphia Chinatown’s Friendship Gate (Terry Robinson / National Trust for Historic Preservation)
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