How Chinatown rallied when development threatened to divide the neighborhood | Philly History

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Group photo showing Cardinal Thomas Tien and Cardinal Dennis Dougherty (circa 1950) at Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church.

Today, Philadelphia’s Chinatown ranks among the city’s cultural treasures, home to dozens of restaurants serving authentic fare reflective of China’s great diversity, as well as spectacular community events, one of which revelers enjoyed on Feb. 16 as the neighborhood gathered to welcome the Year of the Dog. The neighborhood has grown tremendously since it was established in the 1870s, when Chinese migrants fled racist violence in Western states, expanding to include a number of Asian cultures within its environs.

Nearly one hundred years after its founding, however, the neighborhood faced a potentially existential threat in the form of urban renewal. Officials released plans in 1966 to connect the Vine Street Expressway to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, which involved leveling a sizable portion of the neighborhood.

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“Yellow Seeds,” the bi-lingual newspaper published by the group of the same name beginning in 1972. The Yellow Seeds provided community services for Chinatown residents and resisted urban renewal projects, including the proposed demolition of the Holy Redeemer.

Residents and activists organized to prevent the highway from fracturing the neighborhood’s densely populated community, assembling a coalition of unlikely partners; the traditionally minded Chinese Benevolent Association joined forces with the Yellow Seeds, a group of young radicals. That August, a handful of youths from the coalition gathered on top of condemned buildings to shield them from demolition crews. They waved signs that read “Chinatown for people, not cars,” and “Save Chinatown — homes not highways.” They also chanted “Save Our Church,” a reference to the Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church on Vine Street, which also faced demolition.

While not all of the activists fighting for the neighborhood’s future belonged to the church, the Holy Redeemer became a symbol of Chinatown’s struggle as a historically significant community resource and center of education.

The church’s origins trace back to a visit to Philadelphia by the Chinese Vicar Paul Yu Pin in 1939. Exiled amidst the civil strife engulfing China at the time, Yu Pin traveled to the United States to speak to Chinese Catholics about the events unfolding across the Pacific. He appealed to Monsignor Francis X. Wastl — the pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church — to gather Philadelphia’s Chinese Catholics. This informal survey uncovered only one practicing family. A priest with missionary experience in China named William A. Kavanagh appealed to Archbishop of Philadelphia Dennis Joseph Dougherty for fund-raising assistance to create a Catholic church and school in Chinatown. Dougherty supported the effort, and the archdiocese dedicated the Holy Redeemer in October, 1941.

Over the next three decades, the number of Catholics in the neighborhood grew slowly but steadily, as more immigrants settled in Chinatown and the city’s population continued to rise. The Holy Redeemer not only provided spiritual services for its members but also educational opportunities for first-generation immigrants, helping newly settled residents learn English and integrate.

Chinatown’s growth, however, coincided with urban construction projects such as the Vine Street Expressway. The plans not only would have diminished the neighborhood’s borders, but would have destroyed the Holy Redeemer as well. As discontent among Chinatown’s residents simmered, officials offered to build around the church, but the community — galvanized and civicly engaged like never before—resisted.

The youths facing down demolition crews made national news, and it proved to be a watershed moment for the neighborhood. The protest put a pause on the project. Community activists continued to deploy a number of strategies — including policy components of the 1970 Environmental Protection Act — to delay the expressway’s construction. By the time it came about, planners had made substantial changes in order to safeguard more of Chinatown.

The Holy Redeemer emerged unscathed and exists to this day, offering services in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, and serving a student body that primarily speaks English as a second language.

Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. pglennon@hsp.org