May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which celebrates the rich diversity of the AAPI community, their cultures, and contributions. In observation of AAPI Heritage month, we sat down with John Chin, Executive Director of Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, to discuss the joys and challenges of leading the only institution in Chinatown that addresses the needs of neighborhood revitilaztion and affordable housing development.
PCDC has been a consistent leader in the struggle to preserve Philadelphia’s Chinatown. How do you honor that history in your work and leadership today?
In our work to preserve Chinatown, Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) has found many challenges in our approach. Many years ago, we came to an ‘Aha!’ moment where we realized that Chinatown is a living and breathing community and many generations are coming through here. The real question that helped us figure this out is, ‘Who are we preserving Chinatown for?’ And we have settled on the answer that we’re preserving Chinatown for the future generations, because we want them to experience and enjoy Chinatown. If we’re focusing on future generations, shouldn’t they also have a voice in how Chinatown is sustained and developed? We’ve done a lot of our neighborhood planning work to make sure we include those voices who are our future residents, workers and leaders of this community.
What does the Crane Community Center mean to the community in Chinatown?
Crane Community Center is one of those neighborhood projects that had been on the drawing board for many, many years. All our neighbors in Philadelphia have this kind of project. It’s a dream of PCDC, and the founding members of the organization, that one day Chinatown would have its own recreation center like other neighborhoods, and a place that would serve our community’s needs in the culture and language that they understand. We have to acknowledge that Chinatown is one of the few neighborhoods in the City of Philadelphia that doesn’t have a City owned and operated recreation center. When we were able to finance and build this community center, it allowed us some breathing room to sort of enjoy our accomplishments because this is the type of project that we talked about when we imagined sustaining Chinatown.
The Community Center is a multi-use and multifaceted center. There is programming that helps individuals apply for entitled benefits. We help them begin building and saving so they have a foundation and a basis to build wealth and climb out of poverty. In addition, we have recreation, not just basketball and volleyball, but badminton, and ping pong, which are two sports that are very popular in the Chinatown community. We want this place to pay attention to cultural needs, so we have Tai Chi classes and we will soon begin offering martial arts classes as well. Lastly, we have meeting space available to organizations and people in the community. The Crane Center is many dreams packed into one particular project and it sort of evokes a feeling of pride when we think about it.
Is there anything about the AAPI community and community development you wish more people understood?
I wish people would have a better understanding of life in Chinatown and life for Asian Americans. There’s the ‘model minority myth’ that says Asian people are very good in school, that they’re very successful, and there’s this family push for their kids to excel in education, but not everybody experiences the same outcome.
For me, I was born and raised in Chinatown. My two siblings and I both benefited from our parents’ hard work when they opened up a restaurant in Chinatown and through their hard work they put us through college, but that didn’t happen to our neighbor next door. For every success story, there are multiple challenges for other families.
I want people to know that the Asian community is not monolithic. We come from different places, we have different cultures, different languages, and that we – like everybody else – have different levels of wealth and poverty. When you come to Chinatown, it may look like a commercial district, but behind every commercial store there’s workers and residents. There’s a big story behind this façade of commercial development.
PCDC was recently awarded $600,000 from the state’s Community Revitalization Fund for a mixed-use development on Winter Street. Talk about the project and the plans for the space.
Number one, it’s about strengthening our commercial corridors. We’re actually developing a vacant lot that’s in the corner of Chinatown. It’s actually the last remaining lot that’s going to be developed and we’re going to complete the commercial corridor on this block.
Number two, we’re building six affordable rental units. Like the rest of the city, we’re trying our best to build more affordable units because it’s in demand and is needed by low-income families.
Number three, we’re building more retail space. Someone may ask ‘Why is PCDC building more retail space in Chinatown?’ Well, what we’re trying to build here with this project is affordable retail space to help small businesses fight gentrification that forces small businesses, especially businesses of color, out of the neighborhood that they have been successful in. In addition, we want to work with the businesses to use the space as a hybrid space to offer small business technical assistance workshops.
PCDC is piloting this, and we’re really hopeful that this can be a model for other property owners and landlords to follow that you can still make a profit, but still make the space affordable.
Any advice for other CDCs working to preserve and simultaneously grow their historic communities?
I would say that to sustain Chinatown, you have to continue to grow Chinatown. We want to make sure that people see Chinatown as a destination for living and working and as that continues to happen, Chinatown will be sustained. My thoughts about other communities is to really focus on small businesses in your community, because these are the job creators. It’s easier for a neighborhood person to find a job in the community than it may be to find work in mainstream corporate America for a variety of reasons, including language access. My advice is really to see residential affordability and supporting small businesses as related, not opposing goals. Look at them as synchronized goals for a healthy neighborhood.
What’s on the horizon for PCDC?
We have more affordable housing developments in the pipeline. We are focusing on investing in a narrative around a cultural district for Chinatown that includes some of our other neighbors. Chinatown is in the middle of Center City and we have the Historic District to the east, the Convention District to the west, and the Fashion District to the south. If there’s going to be a moniker about districts, we want to figure out the right name, identity, and branding for Chinatown’s district. That’s what we’re working on, but unfortunately, because of the anti-Asian hate, we are investing time and resources to deal with this racial conflict. But we have two goals here: one is to ensure that people who are Asian feel safe, and don’t become victims; two, is this anti-Asian hate has really opened our eyes to see that there’s a lot of work to be done on cross cultural relationship building and we’re investing time and resources to do that.