So Beer Gardens Are Great, But the Chinese Lantern Festival Is An Outrage?

Op-ed: There's a double standard in our discourse over public space.
Photo from Sichuan Tianyu

Photo from Sichuan Tianyu

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from guest writer Sarah Yeung. Yeung is the director of planning at the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation.)

In the discourse around the Chinese Lantern Festival (see the Inquirer and Philly Mag), we are only touching the tip of the iceberg of private uses of public spaces. To urbanists, it is a defense of what feels like something that should be as free as air, a basic right of the city. To the Chinatown community, it is a much more nuanced issue set in a framework of poverty, lack of public space, and the need for economic development.

The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) was engaged as a community stakeholder in the process of coordinating the festival. We saw it as an opportunity to bring a culturally enriching event to the park during underutilized hours. It was also – equally important – an economic development opportunity for Chinatown, a low-income community where livelihoods are dependent on visitor spending.

PCDC was able to successfully introduce local community groups as performers and vendors, and also advocated to keep the use of the playground outside the fenced area, the most utilized section for the community. The park attracted 9,000 visitors its first weekend, many of whom walked to nearby Chinatown and shopped and dined at local businesses as a result.

Our residents, particularly the Chinese immigrants, see access to public space as a privilege, not a right. The festival presents minor annoyances related to the ticket cost and setup (the seniors can’t practice Tai Chi in the usual patch of grass; the fences are ugly).

Ten years ago, the park was a desolate space. The city could not afford to clean it up, program it, or maintain the space. It was the closest public space to Chinatown, but it was virtually inaccessible. It was leased to Historic Philadelphia, and has since become a valuable amenity to the surrounding park-deprived communities.

Yes, public space should ideally be open and free. But sometimes, out of economic necessity, the city has to find creative ways to preserve access. When that happens, the discussion should turn to what types and degrees of access are important, and how to make this decision.

After all, physical access is only one form of sacrifice that we often make when there is private management of a public space. Socioeconomic, cultural and age-related exclusions are commonly accepted and practiced in Philadelphia.

In the summertime, the widely praised pop-up beer gardens, which are private spaces temporarily opened to the public, don’t attract many senior citizens or immigrants who can’t speak English, among other populations. These spaces are generally designed for the enjoyment of those who value craft beer, trendy food, and an aesthetic that repurposes industrial or rustic elements, but does not necessarily value comfort, hold itself accountable to all users, or consider physical handicaps.

The quickness with which some in the media have leapt to criticize the Lantern Festival is hypocritical. The loudest critics are the ones who are silent about these more insidious types of exclusion, which equally damage the democracy of a space. They overlook, or under-appreciate, more salient points about the economic costs of a park and who has the most to lose when a park is permanently inaccessible, out of neglect or fear of safety.

Any introduction of commercialism, which bases your value on your ability to open your wallet, brings an element of exclusion to the space. At the very least, it may create areas where only paying customers can participate. At its worst, it creates a hierarchy of users that directly impinges on a park’s most sacred role: to create a place where community members can be on equal ground, and to see each other on common ground.

When a city cannot afford to maintain its parks, we are left with a practical and wrenching series of decisions. Who helps make them? We should engage the beneficiaries of a public space — the users, and the local community. They have the right to let the city know what access should be protected.

Here in Chinatown, community stakeholders were engaged in the conception and implementation of the Lantern Festival. These stakeholders weighed in on the most important uses to protect, and brought in local businesses and organizations to contribute to and benefit from the event. The Festival will be part of a strategy to enable long-term success for our businesses and families. Community feedback has been generally positive.

Rather than putting physical access on a pedestal, we should be more protective of this process, which should reflect public values and ensure that a park will ultimately serve its users.