Chinatown is full of retail and commercial activity, but many people also live there — on both sides of I-676 Credit: Tiffany Rodriguez / WHYY

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There are two sides to Philadelphia’s Chinatown, one of the oldest in the United States.

To some, it’s a great area to visit: a place to eat noodles, get bubble tea, and sing karaoke. To the roughly 3,000 people who live there — and thousands more who count on it for cultural connection — it’s home.

The neighborhood has also been a consistent battleground for development plans, many of them proposed without residents’ support. Over the past three decades, community pushback successfully stopped a federal prison, a casino, and a sports stadium. In 2000, to fight against the Phillies ballpark proposal at 12th and Vine streets, protesters marched from the Holy Redeemer Church to City Hall and rallied at City Council meetings.

That fight has surfaced again this summer, with the Sixers’ announcement of an arena planned for 10th and 11th on Market Street, within sight of the Chinatown Arch. Protesters may not even need to change their shirts.

“If it’s not a stadium, it’s a highway or a convention center,” Debbie Wei, founding member of advocacy group Asian Americans United, told the Associated Press. “Once Chinatown is gone, it’s gone. You can’t rebuild it.”

Activists know what could happen if they lose — because it’s happened. Like many nonwhite communities of the United States in the latter half of the 20th century, Philadelphia’s Chinatown was partially destroyed by urban renewal projects. In this case, the culprit was the construction of the Vine Street Expressway, which physically divided the neighborhood in half.

A solution to that split may be on the horizon. City officials are making moves toward capping the below-ground-level highway, reconnecting Chinatown’s two sides and potentially resolving a decades-long struggle.

The Vine Street Expressway, aka I-676, runs right through the middle of Chinatown Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

The big trench between north and south

The expressway, officially known as Interstate 676, has stunted the development of Chinatown and contributed to air and noise pollution in the neighborhood, researchers have found.

“Local” lanes that bank the highway at street level on each side act as feeders for expressway on and off ramps, instead of feeling like part of the regular city grid. This has led to pedestrian safety concerns, particularly for the children and elderly who must confront fast moving traffic in order to reach school and access community services.

The north side of Vine is “certainly is not what it might’ve been had we had better access to the other side,” said Mary Yee, an educational researcher and a founding member of Yellow Seeds, a youth advocacy group she described as a predecessor to activist org Asian Americans United.

The newly constructed Crane Center, which opened at 10th and Vine Street in 2019, was built with the intention of getting more people to come north of Vine Street, said Yue Wu, neighborhood planning and project manager at the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation. PCDC headquarters are in the building, and it provides residents with resources spanning from family and housing counseling to childcare.

In an attempt to create a connector, PCDC worked got a grant from the William Penn Foundation and worked with local artists and designers to create a playground in the pedestrian plaza where 10th Street crosses over the highway. The space is decorated with a colorful map of Chinatown, complete with drawings of neighborhood landmarks.

“It’s not only a pathway [where] they try to cross as quickly as possible,” Wu said. “Now it has become a space where they can stop and rest and the kids will have fun.”

A playground and plaza on a Vine Street Expressway overpass is one of the only open public spaces in the neighborhood (Tiffany Rodriguez/WHYY)

Chinatown’s closest parks are Franklin Square and the Rail Park, but both are difficult to access. Franklin Square is several blocks away across highway entrance and egress ramps, and the elevated Rail Park is separated from the south side of the community by I-676.

“There’s no public space within the neighborhood right now,” said Wu. “10th Street Plaza, although it’s surrounded by fast traffic, it’s the only place we can create a playspace for kids.”

There are still safety concerns. Walking across the plaza, the sounds of the highway are inescapable, droning from all sides. There are thuds when heavier buses or trucks pass underneath and screeches when someone decides to flaunt their motorcycle or sports car at the street level.

For the children in Chinatown, this is nothing new. The playground was purposely built along the route many school children walk to reach the popular Holy Redeemer Church and School, as well as the Chinatown Learning Center, which both reside north of Vine, the side opposite where many families live.

As they pass by, a planter facing the street has an inspirational message: “This is, was, will be Chinatown.”

Chinatown’s long history of community activism

Philadelphia’s Chinatown was founded in 1871 on the 900 block of Race Street, mostly by Chinese immigrant men fleeing the anti-Asian racism that pervaded the western United States. At the time, that area of Philadelphia was considered undesirable, not far from the city’s “Skid Row.” Anti-Chinese immigration policies limited the community’s growth until after World War II, when men were finally allowed to bring their families to the United States.

Most tourists passing through the area aren’t aware of the history. In June, a pair of 25-year-old New Yorkers picking up some Creole cuisine in the Reading Terminal Market said it didn’t fit their itinerary. “I don’t think we’re going to get to see much of the surrounding area because we are almost out of time,” one of them explained.

This is a common scenario for many non-Chinatown residents: they eat, and then they leave.

Some of Chinatown is packed with retail, like this block of Race Street between 9th and 10th Credit: Tiffany Rodriguez / WHYY

Many of these visitors arrive via the Vine Street Expressway. Over 100,000 cars and trucks traveled along the expressway daily in 2020, according to state traffic counts.

The Vine Street Expressway, like many highways across the country, grew out of the 1956 Interstate and Defense Highway Act, which provided 90% of the funding, according to urban planning and preservation researcher Francesca Ammon.

“There was a race to tap into those funds and build highways across the country,” said Ammon, who works as an associate professor of city and regional planning and historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania.

Plans to connect Philadelphia’s two major highways, I-76 and I-95, were publicly unveiled in 1966, but were quickly met with opposition from Chinatown community members. The proposed highway through the heart of Center City threatened to destroy the Holy Redeemer Church and School, a community fixture, and split the community in two.

During that time, highway projects often swept through and decimated communities of color and areas with lower median incomes, which by default had less political clout. From 1957 to 1977, over a million individuals were displaced by highway construction, according to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. Protests against these infrastructure projects were so common they even had a name: freeway revolts.

“Cities wanted to modernize and ‘improve,’ meaning displacing a lot of people,” said Ammon, but “it wasn’t improvement or modernization for the people who had been there before and called those places home.”

In Philadelphia, community members and activists saw city development as forming a “noose” around Chinatown, wrote Yee in a 2012 journal article. The community organized into several new groups, including PCDC and Yellow Seeds.

Activists protested at City Hall, Harrisburg, and in front of Archbishop of Philadelphia John Krol’s house, since the archdiocese was ready to sell Holy Redeemer. Youth group Yellow Seeds took more aggressive actions, including standing in front of bulldozers as they approached piles of rubble.

The Holy Redeemer Church and School is on the north side of the highway, which forces children to walk across lanes of heavy traffic Credit: Tiffany Rodriguez / WHYY

Mary Yee was one of those demonstrators. She knew the situation all too well: She and her family had been forced to move out of Boston’s Chinatown a decade or so earlier when interstate highways were constructed through the community.

She described generational divisions in the community over how to deal with the impending project. The older generation of Chinatown residents “had a very fatalistic view” Yee said, and felt they couldn’t actually affect the outcome. The younger generation was more questioning of authority, perhaps due to the various social protests at the time, she suggested, like the Black Power and anti-Vietnam War movements.

In the end, all of the community groups were united in opposition to the expressway. They used the newly minted Environmental Protection Act to demand an Environmental Impact Statement, delaying the project until 1980. Facing the possibility of losing federal funding to mass transit, government officials decided to move forward with a smaller version of the highway, which spared the Holy Redeemer Church and School.

The plan was mostly perceived as an advocacy success at the time, said Yee, noting that the affordable housing was built as well. Participating in a grassroots protest movement also left lasting impacts on many of the community’s youth, according to Yee.

“For some of the people, it was a struggle for them to come out and speak forcefully against authority,” Yee said. “It was a big learning experience and growing experience for a lot of the second generation Chinese-Americans.”

If the city builds a highway cap, what would it look like?

A new solution appears to be on the horizon: a federal grant to explore building a cap over I-676, finally reconnecting Chinatown’s two halves.

The idea has been floated several times over the past decade without fruition, but it’s gaining new steam. The City of Philadelphia is applying for a planning grant from the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program, confirmed District 1 Councilmember Mark Squilla, who represents the area encompassing the neighborhood.

Highway caps and removals have been used in other cities to ameliorate the effects of 20th century “urban renewal.” St. Louis placed a cap over I-44, reconnecting the city with its renowned Gateway Arch. Boston famously moved I-93, which cut through its downtown, underground during the “Big Dig.”

Philly itself is also in the midst of building a “cap park” to cover part of I-95 and reconnect the Old City street grid with the Delaware River waterfront. After a decade-long process and effort to raise $225 million in funding, the final design will cover only one block’s worth of highway trench, from Walnut to Chestnut streets.

Officials are hopeful federal funding will spur a Vine Street Expressway cap that helps reconnect the neighborhood Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

That’s one of the questions facing the Vine Street Expressway project, if the planning grant were to come through: How much of I-676 should be covered?

Councilmember Squilla is pushing for a full cap of the highway east of Broad Street, where Chinatown is. He knows that’s optimistic. “We always hear people say, it’s pie in the sky, it’ll never happen, it’s so much money, it’s not worth it,” he said. “But we look at it differently, we know it’s worth it.”

However, if caps extend far enough, Squilla noted, the resulting roadway is considered a tunnel, which means it’s required to meet certain light and ventilation requirements, which is likely to raise project costs.

The project is still years away from completion. The next step, which is expected to begin this summer, is a 9 to 12 month early feasibility study, according to Christopher Puchalsky, director of policy and strategic initiatives at Philadelphia’s Office of Transportation Infrastructure and Sustainability (OTIS). The study, coordinated with PCDC and other Chinatown leadership, will look at issues around engineering, traffic and more.

After the study is complete, the city will work to engage the community, settle on a design, and create a cost estimate, then eventually apply for more federal funds. “Those are the three essentials if you want to ask for construction funding,” said Puchalsky. “We’re not there on any of those three yet.”

He’s hopeful the project will be less expensive than the Penn’s Landing cap. He gave a rough estimate of $20 to $30 million per block, and said it could be phased in as funding allows.

Studies have shown highway caps or removals can speed gentrification, as property values often increase post-renovation. “Are the people who were displaced by the highways the ones who are going to take advantage of these new cap areas and the new housing that’s going to go in?” said Ammon, the Penn professor.

OTIS director Puchalsky suggested affordable housing could be incorporated into the plan. “More than almost any other thing, this is not our project,” he said. “We’re running it … we’re going to pay for the first phase, but this is everyone’s project. This is the community’s project.”

What will be on top of the cap is still up in the air, according to Councilmember Squilla, but some have discussed building a park. It would be “no more complicated than a roof garden,” said Julie Bush, principal at Ground Reconsidered, the landscape architect firm that worked on the design of I-676 caps further west, on the Ben Franklin Parkway. She described the ideal vision as having “more space for people.”

Many Philadelphians of Asian descent depend on Chinatown’s markets for their shopping

Mary Yee, the Chinatown activist, said she’s in favor of capping as much of the highway as possible, but emphasized the community should have say over the final design.

Even before the Sixers publicized their Center City arena proposal, Yee cited Washington DC’s Capital One Arena, home to the NBA Wizards, as an example of how the fates of other Chinatowns haven’t been “quite as sanguine” amid recent downtown development.

“Gentrification is causing encroachment on almost all the Chinatowns [nationwide],” Yee said in an interview before the Sixers’ announcement. “In DC, all you have left is just a few restaurants, a couple gift stores, and a decorative arch.”

The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation this week released a statement saying it was “concerned about the drastic changes” the proposed Sixers arena might bring to the area.

“During Chinatown’s 150-year history,” the statement read, “PCDC and our community has fought against numerous development proposals that would diminish the neighborhood,” the Vine Street Expressway among them. “[We] will continue to hold this and all developers accountable to commitments to inclusivity and equity.”

That’s just the character of the neighborhood, said Wu, PCDC’s neighborhood planning and project manager.

“The people in this community are very resilient and resourceful,” Wu said. “Even though they might not speak English, even though they don’t have a lot of financial means — they always find ways to thrive and to find opportunities for themselves. And I think that’s my favorite part of Chinatown.”