Wei Chen wants visitors to Philadelphia’s Chinatown to look through the community’s gateway arch and see residents chatting in Mandarin on the steps to the apartments above, or vendors selling traditional Chinese food to passing families, rather than a massive Philadelphia 76ers arena a block away.
Chen and other Chinatown organizers and residents were taken aback Thursday by the Philadelphia 76ers’ announcement of a $1.3 billion arena proposal just a block from the community’s gateway arch. They claimed that neither the organization nor the property owner sought community feedback prior to the announcement.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for 76 Devcorp, the development company behind the arena, said the process is in its early stages — years away from “anything changing” — and that the company plans to work with the community to shape the project and ensure it’s “done right.”
Many people in Chinatown have heard similar promises. After decades of development — such as the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which took 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, a casino, and another sports facility, all of which were defeated by the community — residents now have a deep playbook to choose from.
There are fewer than 50 Chinatowns in the United States, with some being more vibrant and larger than others. Many took root in what were considered red light districts in cities. As cities grew and changed around those communities, many Chinatowns faced gentrification or development.
Like others, the Philadelphia community is just getting back on its feet after losing business during the pandemic, when Chinatown’s restaurants were closed for dining-in. Because of the fourfold increase in hate crimes against people of Asian descent since 2019, many seniors did not want to leave the neighborhood.
The 76ers, like the majority of the city’s other professional sports teams, currently play in south Philadelphia, a few miles from downtown.
Many Chinatown residents and business owners are concerned that a new arena will eliminate affordable street parking, increase traffic, and make it more difficult to hold traditional celebrations and festivals. They are also concerned that the already rising property values will cause many people who rely on the community to leave.
Debbie Wei is a founding member of Asian Americans United, which was founded in Philadelphia in the 1980s to bring people of Asian ancestry together to build community and fight oppression. She was also an organizer of the protests in 2000 against a proposed Phillies baseball stadium that city officials wanted to build next to Chinatown.
In 1997, the Washington Capitals hockey team and the Washington Wizards basketball team relocated to D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood. According to economic development experts, increased foot traffic and more desirable real estate brought revitalization, but for the Chinatown community, rising rents and chain restaurants forced them out.
Wei called the appearance of signs for companies like CVS and Starbucks with Chinese translations beside them a “cosmetic illusion.” Chen is concerned that the changes in D.C.’s Chinatown will be replicated in Philadelphia.
According to the census, Chinese-speaking households in Philadelphia are one of the fastest-growing populations. The community recently passed the 5% threshold, indicating that Chinese languages are now 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 elected to the Philadelphia City Council and an at-large member, displayed two T-shirts from previous battles against potentially harmful developments in Chinatown. The first reads, “No stadium in Chinatown,” while the second crosses out the word stadium and replaces it with “casino,” referring to a 2008 proposal that hoped to locate a casino near the current arena proposal.
Gym explained that after the stadium failed in 2000, the community developed the adjacent space north of the expressway to include 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.