Forty-six years ago, a spokesperson for Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC), said: “Recent events have led people to believe that the Chinese community is against progress - against the City’s attempt to promote commerce and revitalize the inner core. That is untrue. We believe that these things should happen in the interests of the people. However, when projects are promoted without regard to the rights and livelihood of the people they will affect, we feel that this is neither in the interests of progress nor of the City at large.”
These words were spoken against what would be the first of many urban renewal projects, the Vine Street Expressway, which threatened Chinatown’s cherished Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church and School. Fast forward to spring 2016 — U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx stood against the rumbling din of the Vine Street Expressway. He announced federal resources to begin undoing the harm that the Expressway has inflicted upon Chinatown and its adjacent communities. Residents were astounded - this would come as close to any apology from the federal government.
Over the decades the social, economic, and cultural fabric of Chinatown has been pummeled by urban renewal for the sake of the “greater public benefit.” The Gallery Mall, Commuter Rail Tunnel, and Convention Center all caused the displacement of families and businesses and hemmed in Chinatown. Then there were those projects which were never built, but were advanced under the refrain of the “greater public benefit”: Foxwood Casino (2009); the federal prison (1993); and the Phillies baseball stadium (2000). In all, Chinatown has lost 25 percent of its land to urban renewal. Chinatown and like communities of color are asked to sacrifice for the so-called greater public benefit.
Fast forward to today: the Callowhill Improvement District (CID) voting period ended August 9; it is awaiting the City’s vote count to determine if it has the District support to operate. If it does, it will begin to assess property fees on this eclectic neighborhood, which has a rich history in food manufacturing, wholesaling and distribution. These businesses still are largely immigrant-operated and cater to both Chinese and non-Chinese speaking clientele in Chinatown and Greater Philadelphia.
The CID came as a shock for many in the neighborhood in spring 2018 when Councilman Mark Squilla introduced City Council legislation to authorize CID as a municipal authority. Little did neighbors know that conversations to form CID had taken place for two years. Neighbors were frustrated by CID’s disinclination to provide language access, despite the data that shows that almost 30% of adult residents in the neighborhood speak a language other than English at home.
The developer-backed CID touted goals of security, cleaning, and beautification and initially claimed to use this effort as “a great way to bring diverse communities together.” Yet, CID has failed to bring this neighborhood together. Its gerrymandered boundaries cut out many neighbors who identify as Asian American residents or service organizations.
The contention is not about turf, trash, or checking the box for Asian representation; rather, the process, which CID adopted, did not respect the diverse stakeholders in the community. CID carried out the survey used to develop the district plan, but the survey was only accessible online and in English. How can the proposed district plan represent the community interests when the data collected did not include the input from non-English speakers or people who cannot access internet?
PCDC carried out a comprehensive planning process when it engaged 1,300 stakeholders for its 2017 Chinatown Neighborhood Plan. Philadelphia City Planning Commission engaged citizens, stakeholders, and the private sector to develop the Philadelphia 2035 Plan over a multi-year period. The outside actors on the CID board have not articulated the same level of engagement, which is standard. Neighborhood residents, businesses, and stakeholders invited CID to adopt values of fairness, transparency, equity, and language and cultural access. CID responded by opting for expediency over an inclusive process and equity.
Earlier this year, Mayor Kenney published “Growing with Equity: Philadelphia’s Vision for Inclusive Growth.” It lays out a map for equitable growth in neighborhoods without displacement, in order to “preserve and protect Philadelphia’s diverse neighborhoods.” This is a nod to the reality that, despite a period of local and national economic growth, Philadelphia retains its title as the biggest poor city in America. “Trickle-down economics” does not work.
Without a plan to include low-income and working class people, the CID and other such efforts in the name of progress and the greater public benefit will leave these communities behind.
John Chin is executive director of Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation.