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Inside the Movement to Save Philly’s Chinatown From a New NBA Arena

Organizers in Philadelphia’s Chinatown are drawing from generations of resistance to face an “existential threat.”

Firecrackers explode as the Suns Youth Group performs a traditional lion dance in the Chinese New Year Parade in Philadelphia's Chinatown on February 22, 2015.

This article was originally published on Waging Nonviolence.

Since the summer of 2022, the city of Philadelphia has seen a fierce battle over the home of their professional basketball team, the 76ers. Currently located at Wells Fargo Center on Philly’s south side, economic power players have been shopping around a proposal for a new 18,000 seat arena called 76 Place, which would move NBA games to the city’s bustling downtown core (known as Center City). With a billion-dollar price tag, 76 Place represents a partnership between team owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer and real estate mogul David Adelman, who have argued that the arena would create new jobs, raise tax revenue and revitalize a part of downtown that many see as full of untapped potential.

A massive PR campaign has accompanied the plan to shore up support among elected officials, community groups and everyday Philadelphians. Alongside a steady stream of community engagement meetings and media appearances, developers have committed to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement, or CBA — a common feature of gentrification fights. The arena’s website pledges that this CBA would be “the largest in the history of Philadelphia,” with $50 million worth of potential investments in neighborhood amenities, affordable housing and support for small businesses. That being said, other parts of the plan’s rollout have been far more opaque: Some key community stakeholders were not notified before it was announced, while city government has rejected over 100 public records requests about the planning process.

But from its outset, 76 Place has faced a torrent of public pushback due to its proposed location: directly next to Philly’s Chinatown, a center of Asian American culture and politics in the city since the 19th century. Chinatown residents have repeatedly organized against development projects in and around the neighborhood since the 1970s, including an expressway, federal prison, baseball stadium and casino. When this current proposal was announced, the neighborhood immediately jumped into action again, forming the “No Arena in Chinatown” campaign to reject both 76 Place and the offer of a CBA.

For the past 18 months, the campaign has argued that the arena would displace longtime residents, increase traffic congestion and disrupt the neighborhood’s homegrown economy. Residents and their allies have used a wide array of tactics to oppose the project, including a petition, mass protests, cultural production and untold hours of door-knocking, phone banking and public comments.

In anti-gentrification work around the country, labor unions often serve as organizing models for community groups or as partners in CBAs — but the 76 Place fight has had a tense relationship with organized labor in Philly. Almost a year ago, the 50 member unions of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council endorsed the arena. UNITE HERE — which represents food-service workers — has been in ongoing negotiations with Sixers ownership, pushing for more permanent, full-time positions with union contracts. Although leadership from UNITE HERE and UFCW (which represents custodial workers) have offered criticisms, neither union has formally opposed the arena — suggesting that developers could potentially win them over with the right concessions.

But for those challenging the arena, compromise is not an option: “This project will kill this community,” said campaign leader and Chinatown resident Debbie Wei at a rally last summer. Much of the campaign’s ongoing work has come under the Save Chinatown Coalition, a multiracial grassroots assembly that includes neighborhood and student groups, civil rights and housing justice organizations and Philly’s DSA chapter. One of the central organizations in that coalition is the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance, or APIPA, a 501(c)4 nonprofit and PAC that conducts a wide range of political work and leadership development “to build long-term power for APIs in Pennsylvania.” Throughout the campaign, APIPA has been vital to the citywide mobilization that has made “No Arena in Chinatown” such a forceful demand.

As the campaign prepares for a new year of struggle — in which developers will likely seek approval from city government — I spoke with APIPA executive director Mohan Seshadri. We talked about how the campaign’s demands took shape, the unique conditions of Pan-Asian organizing and how Philly’s Chinatown is drawing from generations of resistance to face an “existential threat.”

Talk me through some of the history of anti-gentrification work in Philly’s Chinatown and how APIPA got involved in that work.

Philadelphia’s Chinatown was formed 150 years ago, most likely by Chinese and Chinese-American workers and immigrants fleeing a wave of anti-Asian violence and lynch mobs [that] went rampant up and down the West Coast. When it was formed, it was the “red light” district, it was skid row: Our community was de facto (if not de jure) redlined into that area. But every time a successive wave of Asian or Asian American migration happened, their first port of call has been Chinatown. It’s certainly a center of Chinese activity, but you have all of these other communities that also see Chinatown as the place that kept them safe when they really needed it.

As a result of this, you have multiple generations of organizations and movement-builders who are committed to defending Chinatown from gentrification and displacement and unjust development — but also have this really deep commitment to leadership development and training the next generation. Some of the leaders that we have in this fight right now were the same leaders who won the fights against the casino 15 years ago [and] the baseball stadium 25 years ago. But it’s not just them: Their kids who grew up on the picket lines are now running the youth organizing aspects of our fight. [We have] kids being told by their parents, “In 15 years, in 20 years, in 25 years, you’re gonna have to teach your kids to defend Chinatown, because that’s the only reason it still exists.”

APIPA [is] a statewide Asian American civil rights organization and political home, but we were built by leaders in Chinatown and in the Vietnamese community in South Philly. We were trained to build statewide Pan-Asian political power, but in a way that feeds back into the fights that have defined Asian American presence in Philly — which in so many cases is land justice, sovereignty [and] self-determination for our communities.

Anti-gentrification work often focuses on Community Benefits Agreements that reconcile public demands with developers’ interests. Why has this campaign focused on blocking the arena rather than winning a CBA?

Chinatown is not something that can be protected by a monetary investment. It’s protected by being a place of welcome and safety and sanctuary for every Asian American community in the greater Philadelphia area. And if you can’t get to Chinatown because there’s six years of construction, if you don’t want to get to Chinatown because businesses shut down, then Chinatown dies. The thing that has made our community a thriving, vibrant place for 150 years is [under] existential threat.

The other reason why we’re committed to opposing the signing of a CBA is who these billionaire developers are: They have made their billions off of predatory development. However much money they’re willing to shell out, it’s pennies on the dollar for what they stand to make in terms of their long-term profits off of this arena and all the real estate around it that they will gobble up as they displace the surrounding community. It’s also, frankly, insulting in its size. They’re claiming it’s the largest CBA ever offered to a community like ours. That’s $50 million over the course of 30 years, which sounds like a lot when you just say the first half of that sentence. But actually, we’re talking about over 150 businesses, monasteries, educational institutions, nationally-ranked food institutions, the place where our elders go to walk the streets and feel safe at night.

At the end of the day, we see that it’s a land grab and ultimately, what they’re offering is not enough to save our community. We’re not going to sign off on the destruction of our community — we’re going to fight this thing.

With thelong history of seeing these sorts of fights, I would imagine that Chinatown residents have developed a thorough playbook of tactics. In the past year or so, what tactics have been the most effective so far at slowing down the progress of this arena?

We could separate all of this into the tried-and-true methods and the new stuff that didn’t exist 20 years ago (or our people didn’t know how to do).

For example, we’ve never run “Save Chinatown” election work before this past year. We built a city council slate where we specifically endorsed candidates that were willing to commit to listen and be accountable to Chinatown. We knocked on over 50,000 doors and made hundreds of thousands of calls to get them in office. And we were successful in electing two members of the Working Families Party to city council as independent third-party candidates; we kicked the Republicans off city council; we elected the first South Asian city council member and the first openly-LGBTQ city council member. In so many cases, our messaging was, “These are the people who will have Chinatown’s back.” And across the city, people responded by saying, “I’ll vote for them.” It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Back in June, we had a march from Chinatown to City Hall where we got over 3,500 people into the streets in favor of Chinatown. We’ve done so many press conferences and media actions highlighting the underhanded tricks and runarounds that developers are trying to do. I can’t emphasize enough the role that arts and culture has in Chinatown defense fights: drumlines, lion dances, traditional arts and crafts, but then also new spins on that. The brother-in-law of one of our leaders is a songwriter and rewrote the Miley Cyrus song “Wrecking Ball” to be “No More Wrecking Balls.” Then they made a music video with different leaders and kids wearing papier-mâché sledgehammers and boba and bowls of phở and things like that — and now it’s like a mini-anthem for our movement.

It’s this beautiful mixture of old and new: You have thousand-year-old traditions — including ones that were built out of resistance back in Asia — getting remixed in various ways and then you have bread-and-butter advocacy tactics. It’s good organizing and it’s a good fight to be in.

Having to be able to translate these demands and analysis across various language barriers and culture barriers — is that capacity more on the staff side, or more about mobilizing citizens to talk to their neighbors?

It’s both. When we’re out, we do our work in 15 different languages, we knock hundreds of thousands of doors, we make millions of phone calls every year. It’s financially impossible to serve the people at scale by having hundreds of workers: There’s too much work to do. So when we’re talking about so many ethnicities and communities and languages, you can’t staff that out: You have to organize.

So many of our people are used to providing translation and interpretation services for their families. When we have a canvassing script or a piece of mail, we [might] pay a translation firm to do the heavy lifting, but then we’ll send that translation to community leaders to have them sign off on it in terms of, what are the words that our people actually use to talk politics: What’s the slang, the grammar, the syntax, the dialect. Because there’s no point in doing all of this work if you’re not actually being effective in messaging to the people you’re trying to talk to.

We have an entire side of [APIPA] that has member organizations all across the state. In so many cases they’re not big, fancy nonprofits [or] even movement organizations, but they hold a Filipino dance recital or an Indian Independence Day celebration and every single member of their community comes out. And now we have all our people in a room together with the leaders of that community and we’re able to talk to them about politics, civic engagement, long-term power-building, our policy platform and things like that.

[Because of] the mechanics of how and where Asians live in Pennsylvania, they’re not all in these ethnic enclaves that are super defined: In so many cases, they’re just living where everyone else is. So we’ve had to get really good at being able to communicate overly complicated political things to an Asian refugee elder who doesn’t speak English — but then go knock on his neighbor’s door in the Irish or Italian or Black or Latinx community and have that same conversation, because we need their voice as well.

Throughout the campaign, you’ve been able to create strategic alliances with people who have the same self-interest in stopping the arena. Do you feel like there’s an opportunity to move some of these short-term alliances into long-term solidarity?

Absolutely. One of the things we’ve run into is that our communities don’t talk to each other. The developers have weaponized many of these ancestral tensions and they’re playing this really vicious “divide and conquer” strategy. So when we’re going into a neighborhood, we’re going to try to talk to every single person about Asian American political power, about justice and safety for our communities and how to build a city that works not just for our community, but for theirs as well.

There are folks who are involved in this because their home is under attack and they want to defend their home. And then there are folks who want to defend their home and build a movement that makes Philly a more livable place for all of us. What does it look like to bring all of our members in closer connection with leaders who are fighting environmental pollution and gentrification in South Philly, and fighting to preserve the last remnants of the Black Bottom in West Philly — and so many of the same issues? In too many cases, their fights are going uncovered. How do we take advantage of these eyes on us to lift everyone up and bring us together into something long term that can hold elected officials and developers accountable?

I come out of this tradition where we don’t fix this by sitting down to eat together and learning about each other’s cultures. That’s important. We have to share stories. But actually, we fix this by being in struggle together. We fix this by being in the streets together, by committing to start to show up for each other and keep showing up.

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