To a Philly kid like me, basketball is life. But arenas are not.
Over many years at Palumbo Rec Center, I learned grit and collaboration. I learned the joys of being around a diverse range of players, coaches, and fans. Twenty years ago, my dad wrote an op-ed, still on the wall at Palumbo, describing the very particular magic of that gymnasium. Basketball served as a vehicle for all types, all races, simply there to hoop together. Palumbo, to this day, is the most inclusive community I’ve ever been a part of.
But I’ve watched many more games than I’ll ever play. As sports personality Max Kellermen often notes: Sports are stories. That’s why we love them. We’re not super interested in if a ball goes through the net; we care about the story.
Sports are important because stories are essential to growing up, looking back, and talking over fences. Basketball is a developmental tool, an unforgettable experience, and a shared reference across neighborhoods and generations for sustaining community.
Maybe this is why it’s so difficult to watch the avoidable controversy surrounding the 76ers proposed new arena. I see the opportunity for community, not just a negotiated payoff from a payday.
Where’s the vision?
As a current Brooklyn resident, I see first-hand how Barclay Center bolsters the downtown neighborhood every day. Madison Square Garden stands in the heart of Midtown, a global mecca of sport and music. New York has cultivated success from two different visions: hometown Brooklyn and world-class Manhattan.
I see how a downtown Sixers arena could be a fantastic opportunity for the city. But the current plan doesn’t have a vision, just a bunch of trial balloon payoffs to expedite a transaction.
Equity would change the power dynamic from the owners offering compensation for harms done to Chinatown, into the owners and Chinatown becoming principal partners in a project that will create value for both as well as for the City and region as a whole.
After performances on the court or the stage, it was a tradition at my high school to walk over to Chinatown for a celebratory meal. Here, we were treated with immense hospitality and felt great peace to be who we were and where we were.
All parties to the 76ers arena discussion should recognize a basic asymmetry in the debate. The proposed site is one of many possible locations for the owners to build on, but for Philly’s Chinatown, the site impacts the only location they will ever have. That asymmetry makes the decision about options for the owners — and about existence for Chinatown.
An existential threat gives Chinatown a standing that the owners will never have, and demands from them more humility than they may possess. If they can muster some, they may see a vision for the community that might give their proposal the dignity it lacks and that Chinatown deserves.
That dignity could come from something the owners know well but don’t seem to think applies to Chinatown: equity. Rather than a payoff, the owners should treat Chinatown as a partner who should receive a stake in the project that reflects the existential risk that they are being asked to assume.
That equity could take many forms and only stakeholder conversations would develop them. But just for illustration, one form would be to grant Chinatown control over a significant number of programming nights at the new arena. This would generate a double benefit for Chinatown: promoting events at that arena that would advance the culture of Chinatown and creating returns from those events that flow to sustaining Chinatown.
But whatever form the equity might take, the bigger point is that equity would change the power dynamic from the owners offering compensation for harms done to Chinatown into the owners and Chinatown becoming principal partners in a project that will create value for both as well as for the City and region as a whole.
MORE COVERAGE OF THE 76ERS ARENA PROPOSALPhoto courtesy Visit Philadelphia