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On the Ground: The Future of Chinatown

Shops in Chinatown

Welcome to Chinatown

The Chinatown Flower Market

Fighting against a casino in Chinatown

Crossing the Vine Street Expressway

Signing in at the PCDC Expo

Gentrification has gutted Washington, D.C's Chinatown

Philadelphia's Chinatown is a historic oddity. A thriving neighborhood packed with independent restaurants, scrappy markets and hip dining destinations, it is distinct from both its struggling counterparts in the Rust Belt and its upmarket rival in New York City.

That is no accident: The community has an activist tradition that stretches from the battle against the Vine Street Expressway to the fight against the Phillies' stadium to more recent anti-casino campaigns. The neighborhood also boasts a set of robust institutions and longstanding Asian landowners, a bulwark against the wasting deaths from suburbanization and gentrification that befell its equivalents in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C. 

Today Chinatown continues to face the nebulous forces of downtown reinvestment. Housing prices and land costs are skyrocketing, checking the neighborhood's expansion and making affordable housing difficult to find. Similar circumstances have transformed Washington D.C.'s Chinatown into a Potemkin village, with an iconic welcome gate and Chinese iconography but very few Asians or immigrants of any kind.

"There's a legacy of cohesion in Philadelphia's Chinatown, because it fought to protect its territory," says Kathryn E. Wilson, Associate Professor of History at Georgia State University and author of the 2015 book Ethnic Renewal in Philadelphia's Chinatown. "Although the same kinds of pressures were effecting each of those Chinatowns [in New York and Boston], Philadelphia had the greatest sense of stability. What makes gentrification so challenging is it's not something that's easy to mobilize against. It's the private market working the way the private market works."

The most obvious manifestation of this trend is in the struggle to expand Chinatown. The neighborhood's historic core is quite small, bounded by Filbert Street to the south, 13th Street to the west and 9th Street to the east -- beyond which lie major institutions such as The Gallery underground mall, the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the Independence National Historical Park. To the north is the sunken track of the Vine Street Expressway, beyond which lies an erstwhile industrial neighborhood that traditionally boasted few residents (despite David Lynch’s well-documented time there). In the 1980s it seemed to offer a point of egress for the growing Chinese population. 

That area has been dubbed "Chinatown North" by community leaders. Indeed, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation's (PCDC) boundaries as a Registered Community Organization (RCO) stretch up to Spring Garden Street. Though it hosts key sites for the Chinese-American community -- including Holy Redeemer Church, the Folk-Arts Cultural Treasures (FACT) Charter School and headquarters for PCDC, all of which are clustered just above the highway -- the neighborhood is known to many Philadelphians as Callowhill. (The area is also included in the Callowhill Neighborhood Association's RCO boundaries.) 

Little of the vibrancy and culinary variety of historic Chinatown has crossed above the expressway. In 2013, an Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund report found that almost all of Chinatown's Asian restaurants were found in the historic district south of Vine, whereas the area's only remaining manufacturing businesses were based in Chinatown North -- and often served as the backend for the eateries, providing foodstuffs like noodles, fortune cookies and tofu. Most of the neighborhood's population increase is due to a recent influx of high end loft apartments and condominiums.

Rents across Chinatown are higher than the Philadelphia average ($893 for 5.6 rooms) -- which makes sense considering the prime location -- with the highest being in the Census tract that covers Chinatown North at a monthly average of $1,271 for 3.2 rooms. One-bedroom apartments are the most common form of housing in Chinatown, and in both the census tracts that cover historic Chinatown about half of those units cost over $1,000 a month. Forty-five percent of renters pay at least 30 percent of their incomes in rent in one census tract; 52 percent do so in the other. (All of the numbers in this paragraph come courtesy of PCDC.)

That's been the experience of Joe Chou, a manager at the Happy Sign store on 10th Street. 

"I'm a Philly guy, it was my destiny," says Chou, who moved here from Taiwan 16 years ago. "It's a historic city and Chinatown is wonderful. I have a job here." 

But he's never lived in the neighborhood. 

"The rent is very expensive in Chinatown," explains Chou, who resides in South Philadelphia. "But it would be more convenient for shopping and getting to work."

As a result of the neighborhood's rising housing prices, more working-class Chinese immigrants (like Chou) and Chinese Americans have been moving to South Philly and the Northeast over the last couple decades. The city's Chinese population is not large enough to have produced regional satellite Chinatowns, such as Monterey Park near Los Angeles, Sunset Park in Brooklyn or Flushing in Queens, but perhaps that could change if immigration patterns continue.

"We are no longer the place where all the Chinese immigrants go through and live," says Sarah Yeung, Capacity and Projects Manager for PCDC. "Much of that is due to where we are and how densely we are built, as well as the increasing rate of immigration."

Things used to be different.

Philadelphia's Chinatown dates back to the 1880s when anti-Chinese sentiment on the West Coast spurred migration to eastern and Midwestern cities. Philadelphia only attracted a small number of Chinese immigrants: in 1890, just 738 people according to the official Census count, or 0.7 percent of the city's population. By 1960, the next time the Census sought to measure the size of the nation's Chinese population, Philadelphia reported 1,810 residents, small compared to Manhattan's Chinese population of over 20,000 at that time. Indeed, every county in New York City hosted larger Chinese populations than Philadelphia, even Long Island's heavily suburban Nassau County. Nonetheless, according to some sources, this still made Philly the third largest Chinese concentration on the East Coast. At that time, downtown land was relatively cheap, residential demand low and this corner of Center City far seedier than it is today. 

"When we were growing, it was skid row or derelict alley," recalls Harry Leong, director of community programs at the Chinese Christian Church and Center. "I remember on the corner of 10th and Race, there were no less than 10 bars. It was dirty and there were a lot of bums -- drunkards really throughout the neighborhood -- so not as many people came into the area."

Chinatown began to emerge in earnest after Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which allowed more substantial numbers of migrants to legally enter the country. It also created new visas that enabled professionals to immigrate, resulting in an influx of middle-class workers who transformed the city's Chinese population. Though many of these new arrivals would settle in Cherry Hill, Montgomery County and Northeast Philadelphia, they bolstered Chinatown's population and commercial activity -- it remained basically the only place to find Chinese bakeries, grocery stores and restaurants until the 1990s. 

PCDC was created in the late '60s in response to the Vine Street Expressway proposal, which threatened to sever the historic Chinatown from its only real possibility of geographic growth. Though activists could not stop the construction of the mega-highway expansion, they did succeed in sinking the project below street-level, allowing for more lightly trafficked roadways across the highway. Their efforts also prevented the destruction of Holy Redeemer Church, a touchstone of the community, which lay in the path of the project. 

By 1990, a year before the highway opened, Philadelphia's Chinese population had grown to 11,691. The community had weathered the push towards massive urban renewal projects while its counterparts in other cities were destroyed. (St. Louis leveled its Chinatown to clear space for the Cardinals' Busch Stadium; Detroit's Chinatown was blown up to make way for office buildings in the mid-1960s.) 

"What often happened is that a community developed a knowledge base and a best practices for mobilizing, and then developed a more coherent sense of themselves through movement building," explains Jan Lin, professor of sociology at Occidental College and author of the book Reconstructing Chinatown: Ethnic Enclave, Global Change. "They exercise more control over their destiny, but as they do that [the area] often becomes more affluent and prosperous, and they get involved in redevelopment. How does that effect the initial low income community that is the basis of that Chinatown?" 

As of 2013, the Chinese population of Philadelphia is over 29,000; the population of all three of Chinatown's tracts, including the one covering Callowhill, more than doubled between 2000 and 2010. According to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, as a number of the neighborhood's largest buildings are converted into luxury condos, "[Some] are marketed towards more affluent Asians as reflected in the lack of a fourth floor listing in some buildings, due to Asians' negative connotations with the number four." 

That said, those units do not seem to appeal to the growing Chinese student population, which continues to live in close proximity to the universities, but local businesses have grown to meet their consumer demand anyway, as manifested in the five or six bubble tea establishments that have opened in recent years. On weekends, the streets of Chinatown hum with energy as modern noodle shops and stalwart dim sum palaces alike do a brisk business. A 2007 dissertation from Jun Li, a University of Pennsylvania student, includes interviews with small business owners, most of whom expressed support for the increasingly upscale character of the neighborhood, believing it would be good for business. Those hopes seem to have come true as investment remains strong. PCDC reports that 26 businesses opened in 2014; 21 closed -- but those dying stores were quickly replaced.

"This new concept of Chinatown [is one] where there are increasing prices and a diversity of pricing options," explains John W. Chin, executive director of PCDC. "The opponents are saying, 'We want the old Chinatown,' but this new Chinatown allows low-income folks to have higher wages whereas [the old incarnation] suppressed the opportunity to move up in the economy." 

If jobs in Chinatown pay well enough to serve as ladders to opportunity, the neighborhood's central location and easy access to transit remains a boon to immigrant workers who are less likely to have cars or driver's licenses. Many of the region's jobs are still clustered in the suburbs, creating immense barriers for low-income workers. Organizations like PCDC are working to preserve Chinatown as an immigrant node capable of employing and to a lesser extent housing new arrivals. 

"Chinatown still has a really important function to play," says Wilson, author of the recent book on Chinatown. "It's a place where a lot of new immigrants still live and work, a place of safety and comfort for new immigrants. A lot of people I talked with said they would love to live in Chinatown, but can't afford it or there isn't enough housing in Chinatown. A lot of newer residents live in the Northeast, but Chinatown is still the place where their networks come together." 

For people like Chou, the neighborhood is serving that function well. He may not be able to afford to live in Chinatown, but he's just a subway ride away. And the rent in South Philly is more affordable than pretty much anywhere in New York. 

"A lot of people are coming from mainland China or down from New York," he says. "The rent in New York is very high. It's not as cozy as Philadelphia. New York City is like a jungle -- very loud, very crowded. Here it's very relaxed." 

Follow all our work #OnTheGroundPhilly via twitter (@flyingkitemedia) and Instagram (@flyingkite_ontheground).

On the Ground is made possible by the Knight Foundation, an organization that supports transformational ideas, promotes quality journalism, advances media innovation, engages communities and fosters the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit knightfoundation.org.

JAKE BLUMGART is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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