Philadelphia’s Chinatown, long viewed by policymakers and non-Chinatown residents as a tourist destination and a place to get a good, affordable meal, is a community with a long history. In studying the history of Chinatown, students can gain valuable knowledge about a range of histories, including the history of immigration policy in the United States, the formation of ethnic enclaves in urban environments, and the role of urban neighborhoods in the development of the city.
Philadelphia’s Chinatown in particular offers additional lessons in contemporary community organizing as a means to affect social change. The resources in this primary-source activity document the evolution of a community over time and its ongoing struggle to maintain its geographic and cultural integrity. Members of this community have engaged in a wide range of civic activism—at times sanctioned by and at other times in defiance of local government.
As students investigate Chinatown’s history, they can discover the role of tradition and legacy in shaping a community’s response to struggle. They will also come to understand the role of community organizing in social change and how social change happens. Social change is a dynamic process, with disparate groups who lack power seeking unity in order to gain the strength to affect change. The materials used in this primary-source activity record the experiences of people whose lives, just for a moment in time, are altered as they pursue justice for their community. They present the complexities involved in collective action and help to humanize history for students. The efforts to save Chinatown offer a view into one way democracy works to shape our cities and our nation—a view from the ground up.