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, 9:00 AM PST

By Ryan Lue


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."

Thursday, November 15, 2012 in Next American City

The New York Public Library's stone lions Patience and Fortitude have donned face masks to remind New Yorkers to wear face coverings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Top Urban Planning Books of 2021

Planetizen's annual list of the top urban planning books of the year is here—maintaining a tradition that dates back to 2002.

November 26, 2021 - James Brasuell

Empty Road

The Roadway Expansion Paradox

Motorists want expensive roadway expansions provided that somebody else foots the bill, but when required to pay directly through tolls, the need for more capacity often disappears. What should planners do?

November 28, 2021 - Todd Litman

Moving

Urban Exodus: Data Don't Support the Popular Pandemic Narrative

Americans fled cities in waves during the pandemic, right? Not to so fast.

November 30, 2021 - Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University

London Bikes

How Boosting Biking Could Improve London's Economy

A new study outlines the potential economic, environmental, and public health benefits of increasing cycling mode share in London, which has pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030.

1 hour ago - Forbes

A plaque displaying the name of Re. Peter A. DeFazio, senate representative for the state of Oregon.

Peter De Fazio, Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to Retire

The end of an era for Oregon in Congress.

December 6 - The Oregonian

A view of the Pacific Ocean and California coastline from high in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Santa Monica Mountains Acquires More Land For Conservation

The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority has acquired the final 150 acres of the 325-acre Triangle Ranch open space in the Santa Monica Mountains.

December 6 - The Acorn

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Hand Drawing Master Plans

This course aims to provide an introduction into Urban Design Sketching focused on how to hand draw master plans using a mix of colored markers.