Chinatown’s expansion may merely serve as a bridge between cultures—or be its salvation.
“If we were sitting here 10 years ago, most people would say they didn’t want to live on this side of Vine Street,” says Chin.
The majority of the neighborhood’s 4,000 residents lived within a few blocks of 913 Race Street, the site of the first Chinese business in Philadelphia, a laundry that opened in 1870.
The neighborhood grew quickly after the laundry opened, with around 700 Chinese residents by 1890. The area remained gritty well into the 1970s—home to the red light district, flophouses and bars on nearly every corner.
“In spite of all this,” Chin says, “Chinese immigrants were able to raise families here.”
Plans to head north began in the 1990s. In 1997, PCDC built a 51-unit housing complex at Ninth and Callowhill streets, the site of the proposed federal prison. In 2004, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission formalized the neighborhood’s need to go north, championing 10th Street as the connector from old to new.
Already, Chinatown North has doubled in population to more than 1,000 residents, says Chin. But this is just the beginning.
“You can see there’s no more room to expand on the other side [of Vine Street],” says Eugene Luong, the property manager at Lucky Gardens, a brand new residential/retail complex on 12th and Buttonwood streets. “Sooner or later, this is the only way to go.”
“We think we can be an anchor for the redevelopment of Chinatown North,” says Isa of AAI.”
The organization has dreams of purchasing their new home in a 24,000-square-foot building. They’ll rent out space to smaller arts organizations to replicate the communal feel they had at the Gilbert Building.
Unfortunately, their option to buy for $2.5 million expires in September and AAI doesn’t know if they’ll be able to find the money.
“I hope we can make this happen,” Isa says. “Because we can be that bridge between cultures, and the bridge between Chinatown proper and the new area.” ■