John Chin, the executive director of Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. (PCDC), is at the forefront of a neighborhood split in two. According to city maps, the space above the Vine Street Expressway is considered Callowhill. But it is known to Chin – as well as to his colleagues and, Chin hopes, many others in the future – as Chinatown North. Chin dedicates his life, as he says, to this expanding neighborhood, in an effort to bring its people together.
How often do you get to interact with people from the community and in what way?
It can be limited. When I go out to get my lunch, I run into a lot of people, and the interaction is small talk. It’s about family, but it’s also maybe about Chinatown, what they like of what is happening. The other is when people need help with something. While they don’t come to PCDC all the time, when they see me walking down the street, they will ask for help.
Is Eastern Tower an expansion of Chinatown North?
We purposely selected a site on the north side. We have an altruistic goal here with the center: to provide recreation, social, health and educational services. The economic piece of it, really, is providing first-floor retail, and also providing 150 apartments. When people in Chinatown see this 20-story building, and they see that it’s on this side, it will make people think that maybe that the future of Chinatown is over there.
How competitive is securing funds with other neighborhoods and districts?
Funding is always competitive and has been since the Great Recession in 2008. Governments at all levels, they are all struggling with balancing their own budgets. Not enough tax revenue is coming in. Foundations which give out money really want nonprofits to look at this as a business. They want to know: If they give us grant money, how is the nonprofit going to use that money, and will it produce a return that will benefit the community? So we look at everything like a business.
What has been the most significant development within the last year?
Late last year we finished the construction of the Francis House of Peace. It was a partnership with Project HOME. It was the first time I think two unique and aggressive nonprofits partnered together to do a housing project. It was successful on many different levels. Number one, the partnership. [They] can sometimes be challenging. The unique mix of residents. They have native Chinese speakers, formerly homeless people, LGBT. And we have kids that have aged out of the foster care system living in that building. So there’s a cultural and language mix. They have a very strong team in that building helping the people, especially in social services and cultural understanding.
In a previous interview with PN, you were asked “Does PCDC ask the community to contribute ideas for future projects?” At the end of your response you said “They don’t have the thought of working together to promote Chinatown.” Could you elaborate on that?
We lack the level of community engagement that is required for a community to be successful: to obtain and secure resources for itself. So, at the most basic understanding of the importance of community engagement is that we elect our politicians to office. The American saying is, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.”
That means that if you are constantly talking and complaining, that person will pay attention to you because they want the noise to stop. That’s why we do “Get out the Vote.” That’s why we hold meetings to educate people in the community. That’s why we have the monthly newsletter, in both English and Chinese. We want our people to come out of ignorance and be educated. Because we learned that lesson 50 years ago, we’ve spent the last five decades trying to pass along that lesson to newcomers and residents.
– Text and images by Robert Tierney and Hongrui Zhang