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.

Read Time: 2 minutes

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

Chicago Commute

The Right to Mobility

As we consider how to decarbonize transportation, preserving mobility, especially for lower- and middle-income people, must be a priority.

January 26, 2023 - Angie Schmitt

Sharrow bike markings on black asphalt two-lane road with snowy trees

Early Sharrow Booster: ‘I Was Wrong’

The lane marking was meant to raise awareness and instill shared respect among drivers and cyclists. But their inefficiency has led supporters to denounce sharrows, pushing instead for more robust bike infrastructure that truly protects riders.

January 26, 2023 - Streetsblog USA

View of stone-paved street with pedestrians and "Farmers Market" neon sign on left and old buildings on right in Seattle, Washington

Push and Pull: The Link Between Walkability and Affordability

The increased demand for walkable urban spaces could make them more and more exclusionary if cities don’t pursue policies to limit displacement and boost affordability.

January 27, 2023 - Smart Cities Dive

View of Tacoma, Washington with Mount Rainier in background

Tacoma Developing New Housing Policy

The city’s Home in Tacoma plan is designed to address the region’s growth and rising housing prices, but faces local backlash over density and affordability concerns.

February 2 - The Urbanist

Green alley under construction

Green Alleys: A New Paradigm for Stormwater Management

Rather than shuttling stormwater away from the city and into the ocean as quickly as possible, Los Angeles is now—slowly—moving toward a ‘city-as-sponge’ approach that would capture and reclaim more water to recharge crucial reservoirs.

February 2 - Curbed

Aerial view of residential neighborhood in La Habra, California at sunset

Orange County Project Could Go Forward Under ‘Builder’s Remedy’

The nation’s largest home builder could receive approval for a 530-unit development under an obscure state law as the city of La Habra’s zoning laws hang in limbo after the state rejected its proposed housing plan.

February 2 - Orange County Register