A Clash of Cultural Sensibilities in South Philly

Allyn Gaestel outlines the tensions that arise as a growing Vietnamese community begins to define the visual character of Washington Ave. in South Philadelphia.
November 20, 2012, 9am PST | Ryan Lue
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Made possible by the luxury of cheap land and automobiles abundant, the strip mall stands as a distinctly American theme in commercial development. And so it is not without irony, as South Philadelphia evolves to reflect its growing immigrant population, that this icon of American small business finds an ally not in native Philadelphians but in transplants from Vietnam.

For the hip, modern, civically-engaged urbanite, car culture and all its associated baggage have become an object of revulsion, the residue of the unsustainable old guard. But for immigrants from the Second World, writes anthropology student Austin Argentieri, "these stark structures represent the American dream of accumulating wealth in a free market economy."

"Here, the strip malls serve as bright ambassadors of Philly’s changing neighborhoods, of the city’s future," notes Gaestel. "The Asian population in South Philadelphia East, which encompasses Washington Avenue, grew by 277 percent between 1990 and 2010."

But new proposals by hopeful Vietnamese developers have been met with resistance from local neighborhood associations and non-profit organizations. As one commenter on a Philadelphia Speaks forum puts it, "If this strip is similar, at all, to that one [on 11th] then neighbors can expect 1) crappy parking placement, 2) unsightly trash placed anywhere and everywhere, 3) increased rodents due to this trash, 4) a poorly built facility, and 5) such poor security that drug dealers would have a new hangout spot."

Still, Gaestel points out, the value of immigrant entrepreneurialism is not to be overlooked: "Washington Avenue exemplifies a pattern American cities know well: Immigrants revitalize languishing corridors with small businesses that encourage other small businesses to open. Soon enough, the neighborhood is reinvented... In Philadelphia, foreign-born immigrants comprise 9 percent of the population yet own 14 percent of the city’s businesses, the institute’s research shows."

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Published on Thursday, November 15, 2012 in Next American City
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