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.

2 minute read

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

View of Mount Hood at golden hour with Happy Valley, Oregon homes in foreground.

Clackamas County Votes to Allow ADUs, Residential RVs

County officials hope the zoning changes will help boost the housing supply in the region.

June 18, 2024 - Mountain Times

Single-family homes in a suburban neighborhood in Florida.

New Florida Law Curbs HOA Power

The legislation seeks to cut down on ‘absurd’ citations for low-level violations.

June 16, 2024 - The Guardian

Aerial view of intersection in New York City with yellow cabs and zebra crosswalks.

Planners’ Complicity in Excessive Traffic Deaths

Professor Wes Marshall’s provocatively-titled new book, "Killed by a Traffic Engineer," has stimulated fierce debates. Are his criticisms justified? Let’s examine the degree that traffic engineers contribute to avoidable traffic deaths.

June 13, 2024 - Todd Litman

Digital drawing of person holding city skyline with wifi symbols and lines indicating smart cities or data.

Cities Awarded for Data-Driven Projects

The What Cities Works Certification recognizes cities for using data to solve real problems.

June 21 - Smart Cities Dive

The Basilica of St. Joseph in San Jose, California.

Faith-Based Housing Movement Grows

More churches and municipalities are saying ‘Yes in God’s Backyard.’

June 21 - Vox

Close-up of red and white BUS LANE sign painted in street lane.

Why BRT Can Benefit Cities More Than Rail

Bus rapid transit lines offer a less expensive, quicker-build alternative to rail that can bring other infrastructure improvements with it.

June 21 - Governing

City Planner I

Department of Housing and Community Development

City Planner II

Department of Housing and Community Development

City Planner Supervisor

Department of Housing and Community Development

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.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.