Wei Chen, civic engagement coordinator at Asian Americans United, speaks to the Saturday protest crowd from a plaza atop the Vine Street Expressway. (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)
Listen to Jordan Levy’s audio version of this story.

Thousands of people hit the streets of Chinatown and marched to City Hall on Saturday in protest of the proposal to build a Sixers arena a few feet from the neighborhood’s business rim. 

Organized by the Chinatown-based coalition opposing the Sixers’ plan and various other groups participating in solidarity, the event featured dancers, music and art reminiscent of the neighborhood’s various cultural festivals, and speeches against what they deem to be a plan that would deeply harm the neighborhood.  

“We will show the City Council, the mayor, and the candidate that will be elected in the fall that Philadelphia says ‘No,’” Wei Chen of Asian Americans United told the assembled crowd around noon, before the march began. 

“Are you ready to fight?” he asked. An hour’s worth of demonstrating, singing, chanting, and dancing served to answer the question. 

When the Sixers announced plans last July to construct 76 Place on the western edge of the Fashion District, between 10th and 11th on Market Street, some in the neighborhood were immediately concerned. Gestures from 76 Devcorp, including a $50 million community benefits agreement and a promise to hire Black and brown workers and boost Black business opportunities, did little to reduce Chinatown opposition. 

The proposed $50 million CBA would be the largest of its kind in Philly history. Critics say its term of 30 years couldn’t do enough to offset the long-term ramifications of the new arena on its immediate surroundings. 

“Small businesses that support families will be replaced by low-paying jobs” predicted Steven Zhu, President of the Pennsylvania United Chinese Coalition, speaking to Saturday’s energized crowd. 

A troupe of dancers participates in the anti-arena demonstration. (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

The 76ers have outlined an 8-year construction timeline, with launch targeted for the 2031-32 season, when the franchise’s current lease at the Wells Fargo Center expires.

Widespread resistance in Chinatown became clear at a community meeting last December. By January a formal anti-arena coalition had formed, and a March survey showed blanket neighborhood opposition to the plan. 76 Devcorp meanwhile won the support of some influential building trades unions and the African American Chamber of Commerce. 

The basketball franchise has been linked to two different Philly Ethics Board investigations, one that fined a connected lobbying group for skipping required disclosures, and another that cited financial contributions to a political action committee sued for improperly coordinating with former mayoral candidate Jeff Brown. 

76 Devcorp declined to comment on Saturday’s march or answer related questions from a Billy Penn reporter. 

People participating in Saturday’s event saw it as making an argument for the intrinsic value of the neighborhood, for the feeling of home it provides and the culture it fosters. Many saw it as the start of what could be years of opposition to come.

“Chinatown is Not for Sale” reads a banner on a vehicle pulling a float through the march. The Sixers’ proposal calls for the arena to be built right outside the neighborhood on the western half of the Fashion District shopping mall. (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

‘We know this pattern of predatory development’

As the march wound through Chinatown, shopkeepers and workers peered out of storefronts to see the spectacle. 

Crafts like an intricately designed phoenix and dragon were carried overhead while traditional drum troops and Positive Movement Entertainment — aka the Philly Elmo drumline — provided stepping music. 

Some of the groups participating in the demonstration were inspired by parallel struggles. Philly Thrive and Save the UC Townhomes have fought to have a say in developments that directly affect them. VietLead and Juntos have worked to protect communities that migrants call home. 

Sixers ownership is making an effort to reach out to these various groups, per 76 Devcorp chair David Adelman. “We’ve been on the listening tour, now we’re going on the speaking tour,” Adelman told a Crossing Broad podcast earlier this week. 

Two days prior to the march, about 30 high school and college students crafted posters for the demonstration on the third floor of the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School. 

The site itself was a poignant reminder of past disputes: the school stands in what the Phillies saw as a potential spot for a stadium in the late 90s, when the baseball team weighed a move to 12th and Vine. 

Today’s teens and young adults, though born after that conflict, are aware of the neighborhood’s history of resisting large developments

“It’s because of people in our parents’ generation, in the older generation, that are teaching us that we know what this is about,” Kaia Chau, co-founder of Students for the Preservation of Chinatown, told Billy Penn. “That we know how to protest, and we know this pattern of predatory development.”

Students for the Preservation of Chinatown march on Saturday. (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

Fellow SPOC co-founder Taryn Flaherty said concerns about displacement far outweighed whatever benefits the development might bring. “There’s very clear academic research that shows that arenas are not these massive generators for economic growth.” 

Though there’s been a recent return to building sports stadiums downtown around the U.S., the trend hasn’t yet produced much evidence to show that cities are reaping the promised benefits.

At the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures school, the assembled students worked on posters to convey that message.

“All the imagery that you’re gonna see from Saturday is like our version of advertisements and lobbying,” said SPOC organizer Kenny Chiu. “These are ways that we are … showing them that we are here too and we are also pressuring our officials.”

‘It’s this generation’s turn to push back’

Activist and Penn lecturer Walter Palmer was one of the speakers at the march on Saturday. He’s used to applying pressure in development fights, dating back to his work in the 1960s organizing against Penn’s move into the Black Bottom, a portion of what is now known as University City. 

Since then, Palmer has worked all over the city to join communities in challenging developers. 

He recalled being asked decades ago by Debbie Wei of Asian Americans United “to join them, support them in their efforts to stop the baseball stadium from coming into Chinatown.” 

Eric Joselyn came to the march wearing a shirt from 1999, when Chinatown community members successfully stopped the Phillies from building a ballpark in the neighborhood. (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

Developers “need to recognize the fact that when you come into someone’s neighborhood you’re a guest,” Palmer said. “The guests who come in or the guests who want to come in, they need to begin coming in with more humility.”

Also out on the streets Saturday was Will Gross, proprietor of OX Coffee and Ward 2 Democratic committeeperson. His mother, an immigrant from Taiwan, was a Sunday School principal when the plan to build the Vine Street Expressway through Chinatown emerged, he said.

“My folks were a part of pushing back against that, alongside everyone in Chinatown,” Gross told Billy Penn. “So in a lot of ways, it’s like this is my turn and it’s this generation’s turn to push back.”

His mom’s take on the Sixers’ plan? When Gross took her to the proposed site, “she just said ‘It’s going to destroy the neighborhood. It’s going to destroy the ecosystem.’”

Palmer, the Penn lecturer, said the “three P’s” — people, property, and profit — are the key factors in conflicts over changing neighborhoods. That the Sixers announced their plans before consulting nearby neighborhoods, he said, is indicative of a disinterest in the first word, “people.”

76 Devcorp hasn’t taken part in any public community meetings in Chinatown since last winter, despite a spokesperson telling Billy Penn last December that the team “anticipates there will be many more meetings in the New Year.” 

Members of Save the UC Townhomes march in solidarity with the Chinatown anti-arena coalitions. (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

Sixers leadership originally said they hoped to have all necessary zoning ordinances passed by June; the stated target has shifted to the end of this year. 

What comes next? The city is commissioning impact studies for the arena plan, though it’s unclear when results might be reported — a firm to undertake the studies hasn’t yet been announced. Councilmember Mark Squilla, in whose district the proposed arena would sit, said he’s waiting for those results before taking a position on the proposed arena.

Demonstrators on Saturday made clear they saw the march as the beginning of a marathon. 

“We will continue this fight for those who came before us and for those who come after us,” said Kaia Chau of SPOC, addressing the crowd after it came to a halt in front of City Hall. 

Together with fellow student organizer Flaherty, she repeated the cry that’s resounded for nearly a year now. “We are here to say, yet again, ‘Hands off Chinatown.”

Thousands of voices echoed the call. 

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...