How often do you visit Chinatown?
You might be a regular at a number of Chinatown businesses: Kevin’s for haircuts, Ken’s for karaoke, SpiceC or Nan Zhou for hand-drawn noodles, Chubby Cattle for hot pot, Penang for Malaysian food, KC or Mayflower for pastries, Heng Fa for groceries… this list could go on forever. Maybe you’ve come to Chinatown during Lunar New Year to watch the Philadelphia Suns perform Lion Dance in the street, or during the Mid-Autumn Festival for the delicious food, games, and performances.
What if we told you that the existence of Chinatown is under threat from an 18,500-person capacity basketball arena? What if we told you that the project's ensuing destructive demolition and construction would push the Chinatown community, its businesses and residents, to the brink of extinction?
We are the Students for the Preservation of Chinatown (SPOC), a coalition of college students in the Philadelphia-area dedicated to fighting against the proposed construction of a new 76ers arena right next to Chinatown. Our founders and leaders grew up going to Chinatown daily. We celebrated our most important life events and memories in Chinatown. I remember going to Chinatown’s annual Mid-Autumn festival as a small child and I would only stop complaining and crying once my Dad lifted me up on his shoulders so I could see the lion dancing of the Philadelphia Suns. Birthday parties, graduation celebrations, and holidays were all spent in Chinatown. We greeted elders as “grandfather” and “grandmother,” “auntie” and “uncle.” Our community nurtured us. It taught us how to value our relationships, honor our elders, and practice our culture.
Chinatown is a thriving community. Over 2,000 people live here. There is low-income housing, a senior housing complex, apartments, and houses. There are over 120 businesses, including supermarkets, hair salons, and restaurants. This community also relies on its three churches, a Buddhist Temple, health clinics, daycare centers, and elementary schools. And now, three multi-billionaires aim to force them out. We’ve fought off many large predatory developments to preserve our growing community, and we cannot afford to lose this fight either.
Penn has close ties to the three developers, who all have a record of predatory development. David Adelman, the face of 76 Place, is the CEO of Campus Apartments and sits on the Penn Medicine Board of Trustees. Campus Apartments and Adelman have heavily contributed to the legacy of displacement and gentrification of the Black Bottom, a once thriving Black, working-class neighborhood that has now been removed and renamed as University City. David Adelman has continued this pattern across the country, building apartments for college students and then charging egregious rent prices to make his billions.
Josh Harris, co-owner of the 76ers and another developer behind 76 Place, graduated from Wharton and sits on the Wharton Board of Advisors. He co-founded Apollo Global Management, a private equity company that aided in the shutdown of Hahnemann Hospital, an institution that served predominantly underinsured Philadelphians and was the closest thing Philadelphia had to a public hospital.
David Blitzer, the other co-owner of the 76ers and the last developer behind 76 Place, also graduated from Wharton and sits on the Penn Board of Trustees and the Wharton Board of Advisors. He is the Global Head of Tactical Opportunities at the Blackstone Group — a firm that has been accused by the United Nations of violating human rights around the world and contributing to the “global housing crisis.”
Adelman, Harris, and Blitzer are people who make decisions for our university and are directly invested in the destruction of Chinatown. As students who care deeply about Chinatown, we are concerned about our university’s deep ties to developers that continue to make billions off of destroying low-income communities. As students of the University, we say no to using our tuition dollars as the bridge for Penn to remain business partners with deeply unethical developers.
On November 18, we held our first protest, marching from Penn’s campus to Campus Apartments’ office. We’ve emailed the administration expressing our concerns about the University’s ties to the arena proposal. On February 22, we spoke directly in front of President Liz Magill, expressing these same concerns. On March 3, we attempted to deliver our demands to the Board of Trustees.
We are asking Penn to cut ties with the three developers behind 76 Place and their corporations, end the move to privatized student housing, reevaluate the Wharton curriculum by requiring its students to take courses that develop an understanding of international human rights standards as a basis for practice, and issue a statement in support of Chinatown against the arena. After a few remarks to administrators inside, we took it to the streets outside, meeting many students, community members, and Chinatown residents in a rally.
Some people would object to seemingly harsh action against the University. We wish that we did not have to do this, either. We wish we had all the time in the world to fully exhaust the proper channels despite the bureaucracy. But Chinatown does not have time.
76 Devcorp is planning to complete requests for city approval for the project by this fall. Chinatown is just recovering from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic and a spike in violent anti-Asian hate crimes. Our youth are facing the loss of a community that they can grow up in. Our elders are facing the loss of their long-time homes that they have felt safe in. Our community is facing the loss of everything they have built since Asian immigrants in Philadelphia were forced into the area we call Chinatown 150 years ago.
We care deeply about our community. We would not be who we are today if not for Chinatown. The generations before ours fought to preserve this beloved community for us. We now have a responsibility to return the favor, to make sure that our elders have this community to grow old in, and that the generation after us can have a place in which to grow up and connect with their culture.
When you see us protesting, know that we are fighting for our community’s right to exist. The privilege of our education requires us to use our voices to fight for those who are never heard: the non-English speaking, the workers, and the elders. As students, we will continue to demand that this university practices ethical leadership. We demand that Penn cut ties with people who destroy communities, and who play with communities’ housing and land as commodities to increase wealth regardless of who is harmed.
Next time you go to Chinatown, look up and look around. See the community as we see it — a home, a cultural center, a spiritual center, a carefully tended collection of relationships and memories. We are more than a place to eat — we are a home, and we will fight.
STUDENTS FOR THE PRESERVATION OF CHINATOWN is a coalition of college students in Philly and the surrounding Philly area dedicated to fighting against the proposed 76ers arena next to Chinatown. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Instagram, @spocphilly.