An Activist Walking Guide to Philadelphia's Chinatown

Philadelphia's Chinatown was founded in 1870 with a laundry at 913 Race Street, owned by Lee Fong. After World War II, Chinatown transitioned into a family-oriented community. Houses of worship, businesses, and social and cultural organizations were established to improve neighborhood life, preserve Chinese culture, and provide services to growing numbers of immigrants.

Challenges and Activism in Chinatown

Chinatown's location in the heart of Center City, the community has experienced multiple large urban renewal and transportation projects — some realized, others not — that have threatened the very existence of this socially, economically, and culturally significant center for the Chinese and broader Asian communities across Philadelphia and the region.

These challenges have galvanized the Chinatown community and a broader coalition to protect the community, invest in it, and help it thrive. Through a walking tour, attendees got a closer look at these challenges and stories of activism.

The tour was led by:

  • John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC)
  • Caroline Aung, PCDC community project development associate
  • Evelyn Ferrall, PCDC communication and grant writing specialist
  • Rebecca Chan, the Rail Park executive director
  • Melissa Kim, the Rail Park secretary

Established in 1966, PCDC is the oldest "Asian" community development corporation that was spurred into existence as a result of the construction of the Vine Street Expressway through Chinatown. The tour focused on how large-scale public infrastructure, including the convention center, has encroached on Chinatown over the years. The tour began at the Philadelphia Convention Center and visited the Chinatown Friendship Gate, Fashion District Mall, Vine Street Expressway, 10th Street Plaza, and Rail Park. The last stop of the tour was lunch at EMei Restaurant.

The mobile workshop during NPC23 took attendees through the heart of Philadelphia's Chinatown. Photo by Tobin Stuff.

The mobile workshop during NPC23 took attendees through the heart of Philadelphia's Chinatown. Photo by Tobin Stuff.

PCDC's Role in Chinatown Planning

The tour guides talked about PCDC's involvement in urban planning processes over the years and noted that repeated development projects had taken Chinatown land and boxed in the community. The only way for the community to expand was north, which has become an area of focus for PCDC. In the early years, the organization focused on obtaining replacement units for Chinatown residents and later got involved in the construction of housing units.

PCDC commissioned and developed the Chinatown Neighborhood Plan 2017. This plan seeks to strengthen Chinatown as a vital residential neighborhood, a destination commercial district, and a home-away-from-home for immigrants across the city and region.

With generous funding from the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation, PCDC sought to bring together the voices and perspectives of the communities of Chinatown, Chinatown North, and Callowhill, with a targeted effort to engage a hard-to-reach low-income and immigrant population to develop a vision for the future of this changing neighborhood.

Over a year, residents, service providers, local institutions, local businesses, nonprofits, and city representatives worked together to address the issues that concern everyone: the need for more housing and better affordability, public space, small businesses, and overcoming barriers that divide.

Caroline Aung discussed PCDC’s work to support affordable development in Chinatown. Photo Credit: Tobin Stuff

Caroline Aung discussed PCDC's work to support affordable development in Chinatown. Photo Credit: Tobin Stuff

Arena Proposal Faces Community Opposition

In July 2022, a new arena was proposed on the edge of Chinatown. It has been controversial from the beginning, raising concerns from residents and community members over the impact of traffic, negative effects on Chinatown businesses, and compatibility of a large events venue next to a family-oriented neighborhood. A coalition of API groups has organized to oppose the arena. On March 23, 2023, PCDC published a formal press release announcing the organization's opposition to the arena after conducting three community meetings and collecting over 230 language-accessible surveys.

This is not the first time a large sports venue was proposed to be built in or near Chinatown. In 2000, the city announced its intention to locate a new baseball stadium at 11th and Vine Streets, a development that would have paralyzed Chinatown with traffic and illegal parking during events, harming both residents and businesses and blocking any further opportunities for Chinatown's growth. A coalition of local community and national Asian American organizations filed a lawsuit to keep the stadium out of Chinatown. Eventually, the stadium was built in South Philadelphia.

The renewed sports venue fight shows that even after decades of advocacy, Chinatown still needs to be wary of development plans that do not directly meet the needs of the community. Chinatown's status as a vibrant home for residents and businesses has also been threatened by other pressures, as private developers have been building luxury housing and converting previously industrial buildings into offices and housing that is out of reach for many residents.

Rail Park, Philadelphia. Photo by Sean Marshall, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

Rail Park, Philadelphia. Photo by Sean Marshall, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

Rail Park Enhances the Urban Landscape

The Rail Park was the last stop before lunch. In 2018, phase one of the 3-mile rail park opened. Phase one is a quarter-mile historic elevated viaduct that is used to facilitate trains into the Reading Terminal. The construction restored and maintained much of the existing infrastructure and carried the industrial scale and character of the site through platforms, benches, and guardrails throughout the park.

The park overlooks city streets and offers incredible skyline views. There are two proposed sections which include "the Cut" and "the Tunnel". The Cut is an open-air section of land that runs below street level, connecting the Viaduct to the Tunnel. The Tunnel is a wide, beautiful space extending underneath Pennsylvania Ave between 22nd and 27th Streets.

A feasibility study was done in 2022 to determine the funding, phasing, and timing of the remaining sections. There is close coordination between the Rail Park and Chinatown to ensure it continues to be an asset in offering programming and public space and to help mitigate any impacts on the community as the Rail Park plans to construct new phases of the trail in the future.

Chinatown is Resilient Despite Ongoing Challenges

While there have been many challenges to Chinatown over the decades, the community remains resilient. PCDC is working with leaders and developers to build more affordable housing. A community planning process is underway with the city and PennDOT to explore the capping of several city blocks over the Vine Street Expressway that divides Chinatown from its northern half. While the arena remains a proposal, the community presses on staying active and vocal about its opposition to the arena.

The community is strong and fiercely protective of its people, culture, and heritage. This is the fuel that drives the activism in Chinatown and is actively shaping a future where Chinatown remains and continues to thrive.

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Top image: Chinatown gate in Philadelphia. iStock/Getty Images Plus - g01xm.

About the authors
Tobin Stuff is a planner and urban designer at Interface Studio, based in Philadelphia. He works on projects that vary in scale and scope with a focus on transforming data and analyses into compelling graphics and facilitating hands-on community engagement activities so residents and stakeholders can see their communities with fresh perspectives. Tobin is on the APA Asian Pacific Islander Interest Group Steering Committee, most recently serving as NPC23 Liaison.
Miroo Desai, AICP, is a principal planner with the City of Emeryville, California, and has over 20 years of experience as a professional planner working at Emeryville, Oakland, and the County of San Mateo. She is currently the AICP Commissioner for Region VI which covers California and Nevada.

May 31, 2023

By Tobin Stuff, Miroo Desai, AICP