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He’s been documenting Chinatown for two decades. Here is what he’s seen.

“A community is its people and relationships and memories, and his photos are an archive of that,” said Debbie Wei, co-founder of Asian Americans United.

Photographer Rodney Atienza in the Chinatown section of Phila., Pa. he has been documenting for nearly three decades.
Photographer Rodney Atienza in the Chinatown section of Phila., Pa. he has been documenting for nearly three decades.Read moreElizabeth Robertson

Meeting one man changed Rodney Atienza’s life trajectory.

A fresh college graduate, Atienza knew that he wanted to serve others in some way, but he wasn’t quite sure how. He moved to Philly from Virginia in 1995 to volunteer with Project HOME, and it was soon after that that he met Harvey Finkle, an award-winning photographer whose career has focused on covering social justice issues and movements.

“I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” Atienza said.

Over the next nearly three decades, Atienza dedicated himself to being a social justice photojournalist. Attend a protest or march in Philadelphia, and Atienza is often in the crowd, stealthily running around with his camera shutter clicking from different angles. That’s particularly true of Chinatown, which Atienza has been documenting since the late 1990s, his lens telling often unseen stories about the historic neighborhood.

Atienza first connected with Chinatown when he read an Inquirer article about Asian Americans United, the nonprofit community organization that was founded in 1985. He connected with leaders of the organization with the idea of creating a calendar that documented the Asian community in Chinatown — which quickly evolved to publishing an entire book documenting the neighborhood in collaboration with AAU.

“Nobody was doing it at the time, and I thought maybe that could bring some publicity to what Chinatown was all about,” Atienza said. “It’s more than a place where you go eat. It’s more than restaurants. There’s a vibrant community behind it that people don’t know about, and we need to bring that to the forefront.”

“His pictures chronicle these fights in a very human way.”

Debbie Wei

Chinatown Live(s): Oral Histories from Philadelphia’s Chinatown was first published in 2000. But in the midst of working on the project, Atienza found himself documenting a historic fight in the neighborhood. Then-Philadelphia Mayor John Street declared he wanted the Phillies’ new home to be at 12th and Vine Streets — right in Chinatown.

Chinatown quickly and forcefully rallied against the stadium by organizing protests, signing petitions and consistently attending common council meetings. Perhaps most significant was the neighborhood-wide strike, shutting down each Chinatown business so everyone could march to City Hall in matching T-shirts, making their opposition to the stadium loud and clear.

“[Atienza] is just making sure that people remember how we fought. And his pictures chronicle these fights in a very human way,” said Debbie Wei, co-founder of AAU. “When you look at those pictures, some of the people have passed. A lot of the young people are grown. A community is its people and relationships and memories, and his photos are an archive of that.”

Atienza had a front-row seat, and photographed it all.

So when he heard about the Sixers proposing to build a new arena on the southern border of Chinatown, Atienza was shocked.

“They had to know about the baseball stadium in the early 2000s, they had to know about the casino fights,” Atienza said, referring to plans 15 years ago to put a casino in what was then the Gallery indoor mall. “I found it ridiculous. It’s a repeat — nothing has been learned.”

The Sixers group has pledged to work with the community to address their concerns, but a recent Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. survey found that after months of contentious outreach efforts, 93% of business owners, 94% of residents, and 95% of visitors oppose the $1.3 billion arena. To many, the Sixers’ proposal represents the latest in a half-century of big, unwanted development projects. They say an arena would generate traffic and parking problems, and drive a wave of gentrification and displacement that would ultimately destroy the neighborhood.

Atienza called the organizers he knew, picked up his camera, and went back to the neighborhood to document a fight filled with déjà-vu.

“Another parallel is the community always getting together and fighting this thing,” he said. “What you’re going to see is the whole Chinatown community banding together and they’re going to fight like hell for it. That’s what happened with the Phillies, and now I’m seeing it happening again.”

“I went into Chinatown just trying to discover who I am.”

Rodney Atienza

What people are fighting, Atienza said, is a threat to the epicenter of Asian culture in Chinatown. A place where communities go to feel at home and safe. And it’s something he can personally relate to.

Atienza is a Filipino American whose parents immigrated to the United States in the 1960s. While he grew up visiting his home country, he still received comments from peers calling him a “banana” in college — yellow on the outside, white on the inside — meaning that he may look Asian, but he’s not culturally Asian.

“I am Asian. This is my experience. You go and live in a neighborhood where there’s no Asians — I did what I had to do to survive,” Atienza said. “Because of that experience, I went into Chinatown just trying to discover who I am.”

Since he first started documenting Chinatown, the neighborhood has changed, becoming significantly more diverse. Atienza knows he hasn’t covered everything about it, and he’s nowhere near done.

“The book, there’s still a lot of holes in there, it’s just not complete,” he said. “The dream one day is to continue that.”