Philadelphia’s Chinatown residents fear a proposed NBA arena could jeopardize their existence

Xu Lin, a restaurant owner, said that when he immigrated to America with his family as a teenager, Philadelphia’s Chinatown provided him with jobs and housing. And today, he says, it remains a refuge for his family and other immigrants trying to take root in the city.

“There was a lot of racism. There was a lot of violence,” Lin said. “But we know that Chinatown is a home, somewhere safe. We can be who we are. I can be who I am. I can speak languages. I can see how I look and well Am. ”

But Lin said that after the Philadelphia 76ers unexpectedly announced their plans to build a playground adjacent to the neighborhood, they worried the safe space might be destroyed. He is one of several Chinatown community members, business owners and organizations that formed a coalition to speak out against the proposal, which they say was developed without his input.

Critics say the project threatens to civilize the enclave, bring economic pressure on the community and negatively affect the surrounding environment in the long run. Frustrated residents say they have repeatedly had to put on hold similar projects that have failed to contain their voices. And given the financial pressure this sector has had to walk shoulder to shoulder due to the coronavirus pandemic and The economy’s post-collapse, some worry that the sector could serve as the ultimate tipping point.

Lin, whose restaurant, Bubble Fish, is a few blocks away from the proposed site, said, “It seems very disrespectful to the community that they don’t consult before making a big public announcement.” “Every few years, someone wants to dump a huge project like this in our community that threatens our very existence. We’re pretty tired of it.”

Pictured: Philadelphia Council member Helen Jim posing for a photo in the Chinatown neighborhood of Philadelphia on July 22, 2022.
Philadelphia City Council member Helen Jim in the Chinatown neighborhood on July 22. Matt Rourke / AP

Entrepreneur David Edelman, who led the project for the team, claimed that in his eyes, the proposal marks the “beginning of the process”.

“I think we’re splitting hairs here, because for me, this is just the beginning,” Edelman said. “It is a nine-year project. I’m not here to rush anyone. Almost every day since we made the announcement, we have met with a different group within the community. ,

The coalition, of which Lin is a part, convened shortly before the proposal was officially announced in late July, when members heard the news via word of mouth. A privately funded $1.3 billion arena called “76 Place” is proposed to be built on the edge of the Fashion District, neighboring Chinatown. In addition to the potential area, the team also unveiled the formation of 76Devcorp, a development company run by Edelman that is leading the project.

“This will have a significant impact on this community and so far none of the 76 people have reached out to inquire or ask for the opinion of any member of the community who came together at the first meeting of the coalition,” the coalition said in a statement. ” development company.

A spokesman for Mayor Jim Kenney said it was “exciting” to hear about the arena’s proposal. They said they are “looking forward” to the development team’s community engagement process. However, City Council member Helen Jim, whom 76 people said she had contacted for input about the project, said she was given less than 24 hours’ notice before the proposal was announced.

“They would be wise to be in concert with Chinatown and really drive the Chinatown project,” Jim said. “There’s no other way.”

Image: Customers shop for produce in the Chinatown neighborhood of Philadelphia on July 22, 2022.
Customers shop for produce in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood on July 22. Matt Rourke / AP

Edelman said the company did not arrive at first because Chinatown has “multiple constituencies” and because “it would not have been practical to be able to coordinate all group meetings” while maintaining confidentiality. He also said that he wanted to wait until the website and other materials were translated into Chinese.

“All the translations weren’t even done until the day we started meeting, and we just wanted to be properly prepared to be able to connect with the community in an easy way. It was not done out of disrespect,” he said .

In response to concerns about gentrification, Edelman said the company is rebuilding an area next to Chinatown and that it “doesn’t want to do anything to displace any businesses or displace any residents.”

But Fariha Khan, co-director of the Asian American Studies program at the University of Pennsylvania, said that historically, major development projects have had far-reaching and long-term effects on their surroundings. A sports field, she said, could prompt outsiders to see opportunities in the area. For example, bars and restaurants may start moving in.

Lin said discussions have already begun on such possibilities. Most of their customer base is made up of Chinatown residents or Asian Americans who seek services related to their culture. Because of the arena, the influx of outsiders will only drive out its loyal patrons. The stress of the pandemic has already prompted many business owners to list their shops for sale or to close completely. And Lin said that with the added pressure from one area, “we won’t survive.”

The proposed location of a new Philadelphia 76ers basketball field at the top right with the Fashion District shopping center and the Chinatown neighborhood in the foreground.Matt Rourke / AP

“For small businesses like ours, we are already struggling with very high rents,” he said. “And we all know arenas with their sports teams, they build their own restaurants, they have their own bars. They’re within their own structure. They won’t bring additional business to our community.”

Khan stressed that financial stress is only part of the issue. The environmental impact is huge. She said the city has often viewed Chinatown as a place of consumerism and goods, not as a neighborhood home to families raising their children and seniors socializing with each other. works.

The community has little green space and areas for families to gather. An amphitheater can flood an already congested neighborhood with more traffic and congestion that aren’t a helpful addition to a neighborhood with schools and a senior center, she said. Lin likewise said that an arena can bring in a flood of rowdy spectators.

“People have to deal with thousands of people on the street after the game. It doesn’t feel safe, especially after people have had a few drinks,” Lin said.

Jim said members of the community have repeatedly fought over projects going into the neighborhood in the past. In 2000, residents of Chinatown protested a proposed stadium for the city’s major league baseball team, the Phillies. The facility was laid out outside the boundaries of the community, and since then, Jim said, a folk art-cultural treasures charter school has been built on the site for children in the community.

He said that one church has also expanded to serve hundreds of congregations in the area. In 2009, the community found itself once again leaving behind a proposed casino.

“There is no doubt that the history of a city like this reflects a community that fought tooth and nail for its existence for decades,” Jim said.

Lin said that while efforts to keep developers out were successful, significant amounts of land have been compromised by other projects. The city initially planned to demolish a community church, in order to rebuild the Vine Street Expressway in 1989. While the neighborhood managed to save the church, the expressway split through Chinatown into north and south parts. Both Jim and Lynn also reported that the construction of a convention center destroyed the homes of about 200 families.

Community members say they see other American Chinatowns that have dealt with similar developments as a foreshadowing of their potential outcome. A basketball arena, now known as the Capital One Arena, moved to Chinatown in Washington, DC in 1997. While the region’s Chinese population was once at 3,000 at its peak, growth contributed to gentrification, leaving just around 3,000. 300 in the enclave. Seattle’s Elders Chinatown-International District The high-rise houses are also charging the price from their neighborhood, Sports stadium and transit centers in the area.

“It’s happened to them. We see it and we know it’s not going to be good for us,” Lin said. “They don’t care about the Asian community there. They care about profits. ,

Jim said Philadelphia’s Chinatown has grown and has proven in many cases that with input from residents and business owners, it can expand in a way that preserves the vital community. Khan said that projects that do not involve community voices have caused irreparable damage. And now it’s up to the growth company to be receptive.

“76 people should learn about the community they want to be a part of,” Jim said. “We are very clear that they should start by listening to what the community’s plans are for development, for growth and expansion, and its concerns about affordability and housing.”

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