Dragon at the gate

Columnist : Albert Paschall

“The Dragon is over proud.  He is enthusiastic to the point of impetuosity, and he loses his temper easily.”

–2000 – The Year of the Dragon in the Chinese Zodiac

     At 11th and Arch Streets in Philadelphia a giant, colorful arch is the gateway to the city’s Chinatown section.  Its been attracting visitors to Chinatown’s successful restaurants and shops long before the taxpayers of Pennsylvania walled in Chinatown’s east side with the $700 million Pennsylvania Convention Center.  And while the neighborhood has stood the test of time its fighting for its life now to stand up to the political fire being whipped up by the 65,000-seat dragon breathing down its back.  Philadelphia Mayor John Street’s plan to put a new baseball stadium right in the heart of Chinatown.

     As the Republican National Convention gets ready to bring the international media glare to the city of brotherly love Philadelphia’s proud rookie mayor has his plate full.  With two municipal strikes pending and his die-hard constituents in the Philadelphia Hospital Workers Union threatening to air their grievances with the patients in Children’s Hospital Mayor Street failed to deliver a plan by his self-imposed deadline of June 30.  After personally choosing the Chinatown site, Street, at first, enthusiastically defended the decision then began to fume when the Asian-American community rebelled.  In an impetuous move Street decided to go live on prime time TV to make his case.

     Awkwardly sitting in a contrived studio, thanking one TV station for airing his speech and ignoring three others that broadcast it, Street went on a rambling, graphic laden dissertation defending his decision.  With an artificial backdrop of the city at night while it was still daylight, the mayor urged constituents to be the generation “not afraid to change.”

     Street’s right.  The last thing that Philadelphians should be afraid of is change.  Their under-funded schools can’t get much worse and the $1.2 billion going into the stadiums could buy a lot of textbooks.  There’s more than 300 miles of roads that need repairs and at a million a mile that leaves $800 million that might got into the city’s blighted housing stock in neighborhoods that have already been over-run time and time again by government money.  Changing Philadelphia’s priorities is something one shouldn’t fear.

     But the entire focus of the Mayor’s TV address was on stadiums especially baseball in Chinatown.  Trying to make the case for invading just about the only commercial district in center city Philadelphia that doesn’t ask for, or want, taxpayer subsidies.

     For two generations the Chinese-American community in Philadelphia, anchored by some of the city’s loveliest churches, has paid its own way.  They’ve paid their taxes while building their homes and enormously successful businesses with very little crime.  Businesses that brought suburbanites and tourists to the city long before taxpayers subsidized Philadelphia’s nearby Center City District, the Gallery at Market East Shopping Mall and ‘Pennsylvania’s’ Convention Center.

     Street’s baseball stadium plan is suspiciously close to the notion that Chinatown’s economic independence is the real target.  Do Street’s strategists want political control of Chinatown?  Build a stadium at Street’s location and for the first time in its history Chinatown will become dependent on city hall for relief from the problems the monstrosity brings.  Traffic, litter and the types of petty vandalism that comes from 65,000 people attending 100 or so games every summer in an already successful urban neighborhood.

     Then there’s the question of an additional $200 million the Mayor will need to acquire the site.  With Philadelphia’s Senator Vince Fumo opposed, Street can’t expect another stadium check from Harrisburg, surrounding suburbs long ago said no to further city subsidies and the Phillies organization is very quiet on the question of money.

     The private sector still might prevail.  Developer Daniel Keating has a first rate plan for a new stadium at 30th and Market Streets.  Located over a train-yard suburban attendance would jump with commuter baseball.  Or with the state’s $170 million and $50 million in naming rights, the Phillies current home- Veteran’s Stadium – could be turned into a state-of-the-art urban view park like Baltimore’s Camden Yards in a neighborhood that already, grudgingly, accepts it.

     John Street is trying to bring the stadium dragon to Chinatown’s front gate and Chinatown is fighting back.  With a recent poll showing that Philadelphians oppose all new stadiums by a 4 to 1 majority Street had best be careful.  There’s something he wants more than new stadiums: a second term.  Someday the dragon that he’s foolishly trying to ride into Chinatown might devour his chances of getting that.