Why I Serve on the Save Chinatown Coalition

Why I Serve on the Save Chinatown Coalition

One of you said to me last week, “I should probably tell you – because you might not hear it often enough – but I’m in favor of the 76er’s stadium on Market Street. I think it’s exactly the kind of thing we need for Market East.” The person explained that this end of town needs vitality like an arena complex could bring to Market Street..  

(Thanks to that member for sharing! We can disagree on urban development and city planning, (and a host of other political issues!) – just like we don’t have to understand our faith exactly the same way. We can disagree over things big and small and still love one another, be siblings in Christ, remain the church together.) 

I also want more commerce and foot traffic on Market Street;  I just think it needs to be accomplished without such collateral damage to the surrounding neighborhoods, particularly the most vulnerable. There are issues like vehicular traffic – Race Street is already often a backed up on-ramp for  95 North, and the current 76DevCorp. plan includes no additional parking facilities. And do the churches in Center City need more big events complicating people getting to worship? 

But Chinatown worries about even more. They fear a new arena will drive up the demand and cost of real estate. They worry as well that the stadium – when it’s being used and when it’s quiet – will adversely affect Chinatown businesses. They fear both Asian residents and businesses will get forced out. They foresee the 76ers arena as the end of Chinatown.

Some believe that’s the point. That the developers know that an arena only has a 20 to 30 year lifespan. But the difference it could make in that time will open up the Center City’s last working class neighborhood, Chinatown, for gentrifying redevelopment.  

I am a fan of Chinatown – good food I can pick up on my bike ride home and a cultural and historical prize right in the middle of our city (like the centrality of Philly’s gayborhood!)  Remember, the Chinese were only allowed to settle there because it abutted “skid row,” the blocks between Old First and Chinatown along Race Street.  

I am also a fan of self-determination. If the people of Chinatown say they don’t want the arena, why don’t the voices of 4,000 residents matter more than 3 billionaires? 

I’m involved in the Save Chinatown Coalition because leaders from Chinatown asked POWER for help. They needed city council – especially Councilman Squilla because councilmanic prerogative gives him the determining vote – to hear their opposition to the arena. But Chinatown leaders were having difficulty getting meetings with Council people. POWER holds many of those relationships – that’s some of the power that comes from community organizing. We were able to set up meetings for and with them easily. 

Often in Philly (and other big cities’) politics, powerful (read that “monied”!) interests get their way by dividing various communities and pitting them against each other. And buying off politicians. That has been incredibly true between the city’s African American and Chinese American communities. There are real and painful hurts from past political disagreements where both communities were being pitted against one another, and more to the point, used. 

And POWER had an opportunity to try something different this time. You might remember that earlier this year four African American pastors held a press conference announcing their support for the arena. That was an attempt by the 76DevCorp to make it look like the Black community was in favor of the arena despite the opposition from Chinatown. 

In the meetings we set up, many of our Council persons, particularly Black women, recognized a well-known, all too common and long-historied struggle: a poorer community of color becomes an attractive development opportunity for investors. It’s an unfair, unequal fight. And afterward, the people who used to live there, aren’t there anymore.  

Gentrification is about telling poor folks their claim to their neighborhood doesn’t count, that they need to move aside “for progress”… and for folks with more money. Church, for all the neighborhoods in Philadelphia that are being gentrified, there are many more where poverty persists or worsens, without access to any new resources. And everyone who gets moved out has to go somewhere.  

The three billionaires that want to build a new basketball arena in Center City have alot of money. But they also have a track record; they have shown their interests: 

David Adelman has been a major developer of what used to be the Black Bottom, where Black families were pushed out to make way for ‘University City.’ 

Josh Harris provided the private equity funding that drove Hahnemann Hospital– the Center City hospital that served most of the homeless folks Old First serves – into the ground.  

David Blitzer identifies “displacement opportunities” for the private equity firm Blackstone, the world’s largest corporate landlord; he was singled out by the United Nations for causing an international housing crisis and violating the human right to housing. 

I think our city’s “hermeneutic of suspicion” needs to be thicker. These guys are bad actors who have shown their cards. 

This week 76DevCorp. announced  it was adding 80 units of “below market rate” housing as a community benefit to sweeten their deal. That’s not the affordable housing we are building on the corner of 4th and Race. And it’s only about twice as many units as we are creating, though their overall project has a $1.3 billion price tag – and quite possibly the eradication of Chinatown. And there is no legal obligation to their offer.  If you do not know, too often in Philly development, the lower cost housing units promised never get built. 

Chinatown has reason to fear. Washington DC’s Chinatown disappeared after the sports complex was built in the middle of it. The same happened to the working class Black community around Barclay Center in Brooklyn. 

There’s a “Rally for Chinatown” being planned for Sunday afternoon, October 22. It involves a march down from St. Paul’s Baptist Church at 10th / Wallace. (Old First built that Sanctuary; it  was our fourth building on our second property.) We will march to a protest gathering at the Chinese Christian Church at 10th and Spring Garden. 

I was thinking that we could plan a benefit Chinese luncheon after worship at Old First (an appropriate recipient needs to be found), then go together. 

That rally, to be significant politically, needs to be a diverse crowd of 5000. And we can contribute our time and presence and voices to an effort that means to bring people together to say “no” to the private equity developers and “yes” to a city that works for all. 

We can be for economic development; it can bring improvements for the whole city. But doesn’t our commitment to the urban poor and just demand that we always ask ourselves if someone is being asked to pay more than their fair share for what is deemed progress? 

Shouldn’t our goal be making Philadelphia a city that works for all, and our planning processes including the needs of the most vulnerable?