Happy Lunar New Years! Lunar New Year is celebrated by people with ancestry in or living in Vietnam, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore, and other countries. It is a coming home holiday that honors ancestors, celebrates family, gives thanks to the land for abundance, and gives wishes for fortune and opportunity. A common practice is to return home to celebrate. My mom texted me a week before Tet, “Con về rồi hả có khỏe không nghỉ đi rồi chủ nhật về ăn tết” which means “Child are you home yet, how are you? Go ahead and rest and then come home to eat tết this Sunday.”
In Vietnamese, “về” means to return to or about. However, “về” is most often used specifically with returning home and to the motherland. When we arrived in Philadelphia in the 1990s, my parents, like other Southeast Asian refugees at the time, were recreating home. In my last blog post, I explored how many Southeast Asian refugees did this through reclaiming land and growing their own cultural foods. Another piece of recreating home was building communities and economies that served the Southeast Asian community. There were people that asked, “What may others in my community need? How can we sustain ourselves on a larger scale while surviving Capitalism?” These folks built small businesses in the ransacked section of South Philadelphia’s industrial Washington Ave.
I remember frequenting these shops on the weekends like a weekly pilgrimage. It always felt like a long ride from West Philadelphia. Hòa Bình, or Peace Plaza, began in 1990 as the first Southeast Asian Plaza in the entire Tri-state area. I remember going into Hòa Bình Plaza’s Sieu Thi Big 8 supermarket, eyeing the tamarind and sesame candy. Meanwhile, my parents would scramble to gather everything we needed for the week–groceries that we couldn’t find in West Philly like mắm tôm shrimp paste, fresh fish, calling cards to call our family in Vietnam, and freshly baked bread. I remember hearing and seeing so many other people that looked and sounded like my family. Growing up, I didn’t see myself in mainstream media and I would have this feeling that my family wasn’t normal, that we needed to hide ourselves to fit in. However, when we came to Washington Ave, it felt like our existence was a celebration. That we could shout in bright red, yellow, pungent fish, thick accents, and unusual vegetables. Washington Ave brought the Southeast Asian community together along our essential needs and supported us in creating a new home. As Inga Saffron wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “[T]hose businesses provide employment and public spaces for residents to come together, what sociologist Roy Oldenburg dubbed ‘third places.’”
Last year’s Tết, we invited our community to ăn Tết at Hòa Bình Plaza. We shut down 11th and Washington Ave and staked our claim to our home by having a block party with bright colors, pungent smells, and live music. The block party was a community awareness raising effort and a live action against the developer, Streamline. Since June 2019, Hòa Bình has faced purchasing and demolition by Streamline. The plan to clear out the plaza was not advertised to all neighbors and the direct small businesses that had served the area for decades. We organized our community to resist the closing of Hòa Bình Plaza . During community meetings with Councilman Johnson, at Planning Commission Meeting, and other subsequent meetings, community members again and again voiced how the Plaza is a cultural anchor.
We have heard in response that being a “cultural anchor” is not a strong enough argument when discussing zoning and planning. Instead, decision makers care more about density, aesthetic, and profit generation. But community members far and wide have joined to #SaveHoaBinh and have shared countless stories like mine of what an important place the Plaza is. Over 12,000 people have signed a petition to save the plaza.
Slowly, we have redefined what constitutes as a reasonable argument. In July 2019, a month into our campaign, the Planning Commission opposed the project and referred to the cultural significance of Hoa Binh. As Saffron reported, “the driving issue [for the Planning Commission] appears to be the loss of the plaza itself, a heritage retail business with great meaning in South Philadelphia’s Asian community.” In August of 2020, after many months of Streamline stalling their presentation to the Zoning Board Administration, ZBA Chair Frank DiCicco stated that this development was “highly controversial.”
The lessons learned so far from our campaign ring loud, the stories and voices of our community are indeed the strongest weapon against gentrification. However, through my fellowship research so far, there hasn’t been much documented about the role of Southeast Asian Americans in reviving the business corridor of Washington Ave. Gentrification relies on the erasure of history to push people out. Gentrification relies on systemic rationales based on profit to win over rationales based on care, community, and culture.
When a community’s story is not written down, does it leave the community more vulnerable to gentrification? Can archives and community storytelling be a tool of organizing to fight gentrification?
Unfortunately, the businesses were evicted during the pandemic and the final decision on what happens to the plaza still awaits. We are continuing to work with the neighbors and businesses on Washington Ave to make sure what happens to the Plaza and what will happen to Washington Ave is informed by the community. The work is not over.
The ability of the Southeast Asian community in fellowship with Black and Brown neighbors to have a “home” in Philadelphia will depend on how we as a community write ourselves into the book of Philadelphia. Last year was the year that the Mighty Mice came together to resist and this is the year of the Ox, the year we will fiercely stay our ground.