Within an hour’s time on a recent Friday afternoon, five people visited the tiny, constructed room nestled in the rear of Asian Arts Initiative to collect socks, water bottles, deodorant and tampons.
The room on the 1200 block of Pearl Street was filled with artifacts of Chinatown past; photographs of old buildings decorated the walls, and a documentary from the 1970s showing residents protesting the construction of the Vine Street Expressway played on loop in the corner.
Despite encroachments by big development projects such as the Vine Street Expressway and the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia’s Chinatown has maintained a sense of history and community for more than a century.
But it occupies a tightly confined space in Center City, which has forced new immigrants to settle elsewhere in the region.
“Even if people aren’t settling directly in Chinatown, it’s still the heart — the cultural heart and the symbolic heart — of the community,” said historian Kathryn Wilson. She gained an intimate knowledge of the Chinatown community during her years with the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
With the recent 100th anniversary of the birth of preservationist Jane Jacobs, consider the history of one of the city’s most iconic neighborhoods: Chinatown.
Philadelphia is connected to one of the earliest instances of Sino-American relations. The 1784 journey of the ginseng-laden Empress of China to Canton (present-day Guangzhou) – the United States’ first successful voyage to insular imperial China – was financed primarily by Philadelphian Robert Morris.
The beginning of the city’s Chinatown is often traced to the early 1870s, with the opening of Lee Fong’s laundry on Race Street’s 900 block. Fong, like many Chinese, fled the Sinophobia coursing through the American West.