Piled in front of a Philadelphia City Hall entrance April 27, were 18 boxes filled with 15,000 petitions and 3,000 written postcards opposing the proposal to build a $1.3 billion 76ers’ basketball arena. This would lead to the destruction of one of the last neighborhoods in the city’s downtown core that is predominantly composed of people of color and low-income individuals.
The boxes were slated to be delivered to council members by over 50 participants in a rally who shouted in unison, “Hands off Chinatown!” “People over profits!” and other popular chants.
Speakers included Kenny Chiu of Students for the Preservation of Chinatown who said, “The developers behind the arena do not have Philly’s best interests at heart. They are thinking of their own bank accounts.”
Sinta Penyami Storms, cofounder of the Indonesian group Gapura, added:, “For my community, Chinatown is near and dear to our hearts,” explaining that is where Philadelphia’s Indonesian community first landed when they immigrated to the city in the 1990s.
Will Gross of the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance of Pennsylvania said, “It is a battle between a handful of billionaires who want to take a section of land for themselves versus the people of Philadelphia.”
And then a fashion show became the highlight of the event.
As a model strutted in front of the boxes, banners, signs and protesters, the moderator at the mic said, “Debbie is wearing a beautiful flowing dress that is 4% rayon and 96% opposed to the arena and billion-dollar development.”
Attached to the garments of each of the four models were dozens or even hundreds of signed anti-arena postcards. After their catwalks, each model either read one of the postcards or made their own comment opposing the developers’ plan.
‘No Arena in the Heart of our City’
Following the fashion show, the demonstrators broke down into four groups, each delivering boxes of petitions and cards to council members’ offices. Organizers are calling for council members to commit to opposing any legislation allowing the heavily criticized arena to be built.
Each of the city council members this writer’s group visited — Darrell Clarke, Cindy Bass and Anthony Phillips — were absent due to a council meeting, but their staff members took the boxes of petitions. They each responded that the “councilmanic prerogative tradition” requires them to follow the lead of council member Mark Squilla, who represents the district where the proposed arena would be constructed.
The city’s regressive tradition of “councilmanic prerogative” gives the 10 members who represent geographic areas the ultimate say on land-use decisions in their districts.
Staff representatives also commented that they were waiting for an impact study by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation before deciding whether to support the arena. Mayor Jim Kenney commissioned the study to “assess building design, community impact and urban planning, economic impact, and parking/traffic impact,” according to the PIDC.
The Save Chinatown Coalition developed a legal document known as Request For Proposal that lists other things that should be studied, including mental health, community life and culture, and the “tangible or intangible” value of the neighborhood. One portion calls for examining the “disruption of social and cultural life,” stressing experiences in Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Oakland, California, Seattle and Boston and the recent struggle to stop Black displacement in University City Townhomes in Philadelphia.
“The impact study for me is the community voicing concern,” Gross said, pointing out during the street rally why many Chinatown residents mistrust whatever conclusions the PIDC will make; “There’s no more important impact study than the constituency who says we don’t want an arena in the heart of Philadelphia.”
March on June 10 to stop the arena!
Bad weather caused the postponement of a planned mass march on April 29. “No Arena in the Heart of Our City March and Rally” is now being organized for June 10, with a rain date of June 17. (www.workers.org/2023/04/70596/)
The community’s message is: “We’ll be marching from Chinatown to City Hall to show the Philadelphia City Council that our city is not for sale! We don’t need or want an arena in the heart of our city. We don’t need or want corporate-designed, billionaire-driven predatory development in Philadelphia. Our neighborhoods need investment that is driven by the needs of the people who call it home. We need investment that builds community and connections – instead of tearing them apart.”