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ANALSYIS: How new Eastern Tower Community Center can be a modern symbol of immigration in Philly

There’s no question about it, these days there are a lot of hot ‘hoods in Philly’s residential real estate market.  And over the past decade, none have been hotter or healthier than Center City’s Chinatown.  According to the 2010 Census results, the area more than doubled in population and added almost 1,000 market rate housing units.  And now, Chinatown is about to get vertical with its growth spurt as the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) plans to build the 23-story Eastern Tower Community Center.  
 
The Center, to be located in the northern reaches of Chinatown at 10th and Vine Streets, is an urban planner’s dream.  The building defines the meaning of mixed-use: retail and recreational space will be utilized on the first two floors, a two-story flexible community center, office space, a possible charter school, and 144 affordable housing units on floors six and up. To top it off, the tower will include a green roof, dwelling units will have operable windows, and silver LEED certification will be sought. Zoning is good to go, approvals have been met, and the PCDC plans to start construction early next year. 

To many, this building is seen as a culmination of the economic growth and overall progress made in Chinatown over the last decade. And it’s true; the Center will no doubt strengthen community values and bring people together in a facility not currently available in the neighborhood.  But on a broader level, Chinatown’s recent progress and the building of the Center is proof positive that ethnic enclaves and immigration are important assets to urban areas and prove to be economic boons for cities.    

Places like New York and San Francisco are intrinsically linked to their own Chinatowns, Italian Villages, and Koreatowns, and have long understood the relationship between them and how they promote economic growth.  Philadelphia, too, knows a thing or two about this phenomenon.  In South Philly, the famous Fabric Row along 4th Street was the commercial center of Philly’s early 20th- century Jewish community.  Originally known for its predominance of fabric and garment-related products, the area has diversified in use over the years yet remains a viable commercial corridor because of its ethnic roots, unique offerings, and associated sense of place characteristics.  

In the same era, a different wave of immigrants, this time Italian, formed an ethnic enclave of their own centered on nearby 9th Street.  Although this area wasn’t called The Italian Market until the 1970s, it earned its name from the start.  The street market featured Italian butchers, cheese shops, and other vendors that catered to the new Italian community in the area and offered niche products and experiences not found anywhere else.  Over the years, the district’s attitude towards immigrants has not changed and thus continued to thrive, more recently seeing an influx of Mexican, Vietnamese, Jewish, and Chinese vendors.    

Up in Chinatown, the same pattern seems to be occurring.  Spurred by the existence of a community banded together by their ethnic heritage, the area has done a bit of asset building and is diversifying.  According to Center City District, Chinatown has become significantly more economically diverse, showcased by a huge influx of ownership housing in an area known for its rental-tilt. 
 
While these successes showcase Philly’s historic and modern acceptance of immigrant populations and their unique cultural heritage, there is cause for concern that these attitudes are not prevailing.  Based on recent United States Office of Immigration statistics, Philly sits in the middle of the greatest immigrant destination in the United States: the Bos-Wash corridor.  And yet, Philly fails to crack the top 10 regions with the most naturalized citizens.  Meanwhile, New York, Boston, and Washington continue soaking up all the foreign awesomeness and associated economic growth. 

With their entrepreneurial spirit and zeal to succeed, immigrants have proven themselves to be economic initiators and jumpstarters for city economies.  Research has proven this trend time and time again and Philly has the historical examples to back it up.  And when the Eastern Tower Community Center is complete in 2015, a more modern, significantly taller, example of Philly’s history-in-the-making acceptance of immigrant populations will take shape.  Now if only the City can find a way to crack those top 10 lists and steal some of New York’s immigrant appeal, perhaps the tide will turn for other urban neighborhoods looking for a new niche all their own.        

Writer: Greg Meckstroth
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