Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Is Philadelphia's Chinatown Struggling?

The Atlantic Cities article by Bonnie Tsui brings to light the alarming rate at which America's Chinatowns are changing. Although she only really looks at three cities, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, she makes some good points. But those points were better made fifty years ago.

Immigrants arriving today arrive with more mobility and many may not even prefer the gritty streets of Philadelphia's Chinatown. As we saw with our own Greektown, when gentrification hits an ethnic enclave full of gainfully employed residents, many embrace the change. Though we still refer to the 9th Street Market as the Italian Market, it's no longer exclusively Italian and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The immigrants who arrived from Greece and Italy a century ago are now successful Americans, not struggling immigrants. That's a good thing. That's why every American came here.

Tsui's article doesn't just miss the mark when it comes to the need for affordable housing, or lack of need, she doesn't even seem to understand the history of Philadelphia's Chinatown. I can't speak for her reference to New York or Boston, but Philadelphia's Chinatown is historically bound by Race and Vine, and 9th and 11th.

Beyond that zone was Market East, Franklin Square, the Furnished Room District, and Callowhill. For half of the last century, Chinatown was boxed in by Market East Station, the Vine Street Expressway, and the Convention Center, an era when Chinatown truly faced its most ruthless and callous transformation, not at the behest of pricy loft dwellers, but the city itself was attempting to eradicate a neighborhood it felt didn't deserve to exist.

Through much effort and the formation of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, Chinatown residents managed to save its historic core, but that core is still bound by history.

The Atlantic City's misunderstanding of Philadelphia's Chinatown

The only luxury apartment buildings in Chinatown are 1010 Race, 1010 Arch, and the Pearl, and the Pearl is very diverse in both its residents and retail. For the past few years the PCDC, and apparently whoever drew the map for Tsui's article, has been trying to rebrand Callowhill as Chinatown North.

That's fine, in fact it's great.

But if you want to claim that gentrification is pushing out Chinese immigrants, you can only consider the part of Chinatown that historically housed immigrants. Callowhill, or Chinatown North, never did. Considering Callowhill is not historically part of Chinatown, you could even make the opposite argument, that Philadelphia's historic Chinatown is not only winning the war against gentrification, but actually growing.

Interestingly, Tsui even mentions our Chinatown's deplorable lack of greenspace and the dire need for parks on behalf of its residents. While the Callowhill Neighborhood Association has been advocating for the conversion of the Reading Viaduct into a park, who's been the park's most vocal adversary? The PCDC.

Eastern Tower wouldn't be on the table in a gentrifying Chinatown.

The hard truth is that property values rise and Center City is getting pricier. While the city provides its share of affordable housing, even in Chinatown, it can't subsidize zones based on ethnicity. That's dangerously close to segregation. In fact it's almost the definition of segregation. 

If the PCDC wants to extend the traditional boundaries of Chinatown all the way to Spring Garden, that's fantastic. The real estate is there and available, but it's available for anyone willing to buy. Philadelphia's historic Chinatown is far from a poster child for gentrification, in fact, our Chinatown is one of the strongest in the country.

1 comment:

  1. Immigrants arriving today arrive with more mobility and many may not even prefer the gritty streets of Philadelphia's Chinatown.
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