Reviews | Philadelphia’s Chinatown faces existential threat from basketball arena
But now a new threat looms: a $1.3 billion, 18,500-seat basketball stadium project just steps from our doorstep.
The new home of the Philadelphia 76ers would replace part of the struggling Fashion District mall next to Chinatown. The plan for the rest of the mall is to turn it into “a world-class sports and entertainment center to complement the arena”. So the developers insist that they are just replacing one shopping mall and entertainment complex with another. But this innocuous chorus barely tells the whole story. The reality is that Chinatowns across the country have been decimated by sports arenas: the Kingdome in Seattle, Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis, Capital One Arena in DC
Our Chinatown looks to these sister communities and sees the outlines of our future if the development of this arena and its dining and entertainment components continues. Consider Washington’s Chinatown. There was a time when it housed some 3,000 Chinese residents. But after the arena’s arrival in 1997, leading to gentrification and rising rents, that number fell to around 300 – in 2015. According to the 2020 census, only around 18% of DC’s Chinatown residents identify as Asian Americans.
What proposed developments like the 76ers arena ignore is the unique and historic nature of our ethnic enclaves. Chinatowns have existed across the United States for nearly 200 years, created out of necessity by Chinese immigrants who retreated to self-governing neighborhoods seeking safety from the beatings, lynchings and massacres that were often theirs. lot in the highly segregated cities of our country. past. Excluded from most jobs as a threat to white workers, the Chinese took on “women’s work” – running laundries and catering – to survive. From the fruits of this bitter history, Chinese Americans have slowly shaped a life and a future within the diversity of the American tapestry. Chinatowns have become havens of linguistic and cultural safety and familiarity.
Although often frustratingly seen as nothing more than a tourist spot, Philadelphia’s Chinatown is the cultural heart of the city’s Asian American community. It’s where Asian Americans go to shop, socialize, study, worship. Feel at home. Real people and real families live in Chinatown – old people, young people, parents and grandparents. When people say things like, “We’ll encourage people to drive through your community and shop there on their way to a game,” they’re confusing our community with a zoo or Disney World. We are not the Epcot center. We do not fight to preserve our culture in order to provide a commodity for the consumption of others.
We fight because this is our home. And in Philadelphia, we’ve made our Chinatown one of the liveliest neighborhoods in the city. Today it has over 4,000 residents, dozens of small businesses, two elementary schools, a retirement home, three Christian churches and a Buddhist temple. Where the once proposed ballpark would have stood, there is now an annex church, a community center, new affordable housing, an Asian arts organization, a park, and a nationally recognized charter school.
But now our success is once again threatened with encroachment by a project that is sure to turn the neighborhood upside down. The arena is unlikely to be used only for basketball games; the Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, for example, hosts more than 250 events each year, including a large number of non-sporting events. It will increase traffic, raise rents and scare away elderly and low-income residents.
Is a new downtown sports arena really the best idea for Philadelphia? Given the dead zones around arenas and stadiums in urban centers nationwide, is this the best path to revitalization? Just walk past the Capital One Arena in DC when there are no events and you will see what is happening to the street life which is a marker of a vibrant community. Is our best view of the future of our cities limited to chain restaurants, megaproject architecture, and corporate-owned entertainment experiences?
Communities like Chinatown, built on the relationships and memories created there, nurture a commitment to cities that spans generations. When you attack the fragile ecosystem of city life and disrupt this engagement, and destroy the diversity that characterizes thriving cities, there is no turning back. This is why we say no to this arena, and why we will fight, once again, for Chinatown’s right to exist.