Skid Row and Chinatown

Chinatown 1973, protesters on top of rubble.

The picture that I’m posting here, from Mary Yee’s account of the Save Chinatown Movement, has a bearing in this post. But you’ll have to wait to hear it.

First, I’ll put in a plug for the latest piece that I put in the writing section of this website. “Barroom Brawl: Skid Row and Chinatown on 9th Street in Philadelphia” focuses on efforts to shut down a skid row bar in 1973. It’s my second little vignette about life and times on a particular block on Philadelphia Skid Row.

The first piece in this series, which I mentioned in my previous blog entry, was published by Hidden City Philadelphia last week. You can check that piece out online or as a pdf.

These pieces are really fun to do and a bit obsessive. It involves piecing together all kinds of small pieces, and then filling in some of the blanks so that things hold together and the piece has a narrative. Getting this involves combing through archives, newspaper clippings and the internet. At some point, I realize the story is writing itself, and I am more of conduit. This piece was originally supposed to be an archaeological piece, seeing what physical remnants of Skid Row were manifested on the block. It turned into a story about two neighborhoods, Chinatown and Skid Row, that had coexisted for about a century and, in the early 1970s, went their different ways. All told through the fortunes of a bar.

Which brings me to talking again about Skid Row. It has become an ongoing project of mine. I stumbled into it when I bought an old Bromley map from Pete Woodall, from Hidden City, and he suggested I contact Phil Taylor, a 91 year old amateur photographer who’d taken a series of photos of a TB project on Skid Row. That led me to stumble upon an extraordinary cache of 1950’s era data at a local archive. And then I came across, which had archived, searchable Philadelphia newspapers from which I could pull out all kinds of details. Putting all this together has led to tens of potential stories, articles and books forming in my head. There are so many places that I can take this material. These block vignettes are but reconnaissance missions. I don’t have a clear picture yet of where this will go, but I know I’ll be revisiting this topic and theme in subsequent blog posts.

In the meantime it has led me to some really interesting people. In the last blog post, I described my brief correspondence with a guy in Wales who took a photo 53 years ago. I mentioned Taylor, whom I have gotten to know and will likely write more about in the future. And yesterday evening it prompted me to have some beers with a neighbor.

This study of 9th Street got me to focus on Philadelphia’s Chinatown, which was always somewhat amorphous to me. Researching Skid Row means you cannot help bumping into Chinatown repeatedly, as they largely shared the same turf. Philadelphia's Chinatown is a remarkable story of survival, and makes a nice contrast to Skid Row’s demise. As I have gotten deeper into Chinatown I have repeatedly come across Mary Yee’s name. I know Mary as someone who lives near me. For decades now we have chatted pleasantly when we run into each other. And now, as I did my research, I came across her name in numerous places as she was intimately involved with the “Save Chinatown Movement” in the early 1970s. And so we met yesterday, had some beers, and compared notes. It was long overdue.

Which brings me back to the picture at the top of the post. It is taken on Winter Street, I believe, not far from the block of 9th Street that I profiled. The photo was taken in 1973, the same year I honed in on in that piece. It is an iconic photo, first appearing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, of grassroots resistance to urban renewal and the efforts to save a Chinatown school. And Mary is one of the people on top of that pile of rubble.