Students Organize Against Proposed 76ers Stadium in Philly’s Chinatown

Members of the Chinatown community at the announcement of the Chinatown Coalition to Oppose the Arena. Photo courtesy of WHYY

A proposed Philadelphia 76ers arena one block from the city’s Chinatown is sparking outrage from community organizers. The Save Chinatown coalition has been active since plans for the arena were announced in July 2022, but efforts to preserve the cultural and social integrity of the neighborhood have been present for much longer. For example, protests against the creation of the Vine Street Expressway in the 1970s and a successful mobilization against a planned Phillies stadium in 2001. In its place, a community-based K-8 school — the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS) — was built by Asian-Americans United, a leading advocacy group.

Professor of History Vivian Truong — whose research focuses on Chinatowns, the policing of Asian American communities, and urban studies — provided insight into the current situation. Although her work focuses on New York City’s Chinatown, in her “Chinatowns: Then and Now” first-year seminar, students examine Philadelphia as a case study.

“There are these other moments in Chinatown’s history where these projects were planned to essentially destroy a large part of the neighborhood, and the community mobilized and actually achieved its own kind of vision of what the space of the neighborhood should be used for,” Truong explained. 

Supporters of the proposed arena project have pushed back against the efforts of the Save Chinatown Coalition, arguing that Chinatown is anti-change. But Truong questioned this narrative, arguing that community members have their own dynamic visions for the future, as seen in their building of FACTS, which serve to help future generations of Chinatown residents. 

Activists raised concerns that the arena will bring gentrification — pushing out existing businesses and residents — and risk the loss of a long cultural history that began in the mid-1800s. They’ve cited the 2007 creation of the Capital One Arena in Washington D.C.’s Chinatown, which has greatly reduced the population in Chinatown from 3,000 to 300. 

According to Truong, earlier development projects and their pushbacks — such as a casino and an “urban renewal” campaign — have solidified a strong spirit of activism in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. Joining the generations of activists from the Vine Street Expressway protests, students have become an important part of the Save Chinatown coalition, especially since the arena developers control much of nearby student housing at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. 

David Adelman, who serves as CEO of Campus Apartments and sits on the Drexel Real Estate Advisory Council, is one of the developers of the planned 76ers arena. Campus Apartments make up a large proportion of the University of Pennsylvania’s student housing in University City, a former majority-Black neighborhood. The other two developers of the planned Sixers stadium, Josh Harris and David Blitzer, sit on the Wharton School’s Board of Trustees. Blitzer, in addition, is an executive of Blackstone Group, which owns American Campus — the group which controls much of Drexel housing. 

Because of the connections these developers have to nearby schools, Kaia Chau, a co-leader of Students for the Preservation of Chinatown (SPOC), believes that it is crucial for students to join the fight. Chau, a Bryn Mawr junior, grew up in Philadelphia and attended FACTS. 

Since forming, SPOC has organized a march in November 2022 from the University of Pennsylvania to Campus Apartments’ offices. SPOC also recently protested at a University of Pennsylvania Board of Trustees meeting. Chau said that, in addition to institutional connections to the arena, the frequent visits of students to Chinatown to eat, shop, and explore make it important for students to participate in efforts to resist the stadium. 

“All of our organizing is based on demanding that our schools change their relationships with these developers because that’s the main leverage that we have against the arena,” Chau said. “I think students are realizing that private institutions, the way they make money and the relationships they have, are really unethical. Students are the reason that these schools run, because we pay tuition. We need to make our voices heard and express that we don’t want our money going toward these very unethical people and very unethical projects.”

In addition to Chinatown offering a resource and community for students, Truong said that knowing what is happening beyond the “Swarthmore bubble” provides critical context to history learned within the classroom.

“This is a very particular moment that students can get involved in and there are groups like SPOC, which is active at Bryn Mawr and Penn, and those students are really galvanizing to build these relationships between campus and community,” Truong said. “I think those kinds of relationships are really important in understanding that this is not an isolated neighborhood, but a part of this broader ecosystem that exists outside of campus that students may already feel connected to.”

Much of SPOC’s organization takes place on its Instagram, @spocphilly, where students can get involved. Chau also stated that students can attend a teach-in, which will be held at Swarthmore in April, with more details forthcoming. 

“It feels like we’re pretty disconnected from [Chinatown] and that a lot of students don’t really know what’s going on even though we’re so close to Philly and we utilize a lot of what Philly has to offer,” Chau said. “So I think just talking to people about what’s going on, and making sure that people know why they should care — the neighborhood that they frequent is on the brink of extinction.”

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