As Philadelphia’s Chinatown fights a proposed casino mere feet from its doorstep, I’ve been thinking a lot these days about why saving Chinatown means so much to me.
Several years ago my youngest son, who studied kung fu and Beijing Opera in Chinatown, told me: “My favorite place to be is Chinatown. I know everyone there. I can walk around and hang out. The guy in the laundromat always gives me candy and everyone knows I’m a lion dancer and the old people all smile at me.”
Chinatowns around the country represent an increasingly rare phenomenon. They are communities in the deepest sense: places not only defined by geography but also by memory and relationships. It is why my son would rather buy his candy in Chinatown even though he could get it cheaper at Walmart. When he buys his candy in Chinatown, he knows the clerks, he feels happy to see them and they are happy to see him.
The responsibility that comes with relationships and knowing that there is something bigger than yourself is part of what makes a community live — it is part of what makes us fundamentally human. It isn’t just about a geographic area. It is about emotion, about connection to a place.
Real communities like Chinatown support and sustain close relationships, and an understanding of each community member’s dependence on one another. Children growing up with a sense of connection to a place, who are part of a community, have a stronger sense of self. With roots. With commitment to the city in which their community sits.
The myth of a narrow view of economic development in Philadelphia is that we no longer need to be connected to a place for it to develop economically. Tourists will supply the economic engine. And we no longer need small, local businesses. Our every need can be met by distant corporations, driven by technology and machines. Our contact with other people can be through electronic media. Who needs community any more?
Another vision for economic development, however, seeks to have communities come together around common local experiences and our hopes for the future of our communities and cities.
The “economic development” plans that place stadiums, mega malls and casinos in residential communities reflect a type of thinking that doesn’t give a damn about people or the environment. If these fields of schemes don’t pan out economically, we can just build more, expand and move on to other people and other places.
A different economic development model would recognize the value of permanent residential communities in Philadelphia and place concerns about the health and safety of people and places in equal regard to dollars — money which is speculative at best.
Historically, in real communities, people knew each other. People had relationships. Therefore, people acted with the belief that the economic is not as important as the ethical and the social. Without communities, the ethical glue that has held us together through the millennia becomes undone.
True progress has to do with the human heart and the relationships we build and sustain over time. Our future as a city is not about me and mine, not about rugged individualism, but about collective
responsibility. It’s about what is ours — all of ours.
When you see us in the streets protesting, this is why we fight. By keeping intact our love for a place — for a community — we keep alive our hope for humanity and become a part of a much broader global movement with our need to prioritize the local, treasure our relationships and recommit to our collective responsibilities as a species.
And if we allow Chinatown to die, with Chinatown will die the hopes, dreams, memories and connections of thousands of people to a city they no longer can claim as their own.
Debbie Wei is a founder of Asian Americans United and the principal of the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School. For more information on the Philadelphia Chinatown casino struggle, contact Asian Americans United at (215) 925-1538, or sign a petition and get more details.