Philadelphia has a deep and rich food tradition. Home to internationally recognized restaurants (see Visit Philadelphia’s list of Philadelphia’s James Beard Foundation’s honored restaurants), and local eats that have grown cult followings, the city is consistently recognized as an unexpected culinary center of America. Recently, Food & Wine named FDR Park’s Southeast Asian Market, one of the best in the nation.
FDR Park’s Southeast Asian Market has been operating informally for decades. Started by Cambodian and Lao refugees in the 1980s, it began with a Lao woman selling papaya salad out of the back of her van in the park. The Park became a hub of Southeast Asian cuisine in the 90s, operating informally for decades. In 2021, The Vendors Association of FDR Park was formally established with the help of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, countless community leaders, and park and city agencies.
The Market currently operates from 10 AM – 6 PM on Saturdays and Sundays from April 1 – October 29. It is wildly successful, and one study found that the market draws almost 200,000 visitors each year, creating an economic impact of $5.75 million and 92 full-time jobs. However, much of the market’s impact cannot be calculated, due to the cultural impact it provides Philadelphia’s Cambodian and Lao community, which is the fourth largest among U.S. cities.
The Southeast Asian Market is a part of Philadelphia’s collection of successful food markets (including the iconic Reading Terminal and Italian Markets). The Southeast Asian Market’s economic and cultural success is due to a variety of factors that we can all learn from.
Accessibility of the Space
Located just a 10-minute walk from the Broad Street Line’s NRG station or right off I-95 and 76, the market is accessible, no matter if traveling by car or public transportation. A report from CoworkingCafe found Philadelphia to be the 6th best city to live in without a car in the U.S., particularly due the density of public transit options throughout the city. If communities desire to create a public space for gathering, they must ensure that it is accessible through public transportation. The American Public Transportation Association found that every dollar invested in public transit yields $5 in annual GDP. This effect is accomplished through the connectivity that public transit creates, and the economic activity that it enables. People who visit the Southeast Asian Market because of its proximity to the Broad Street Line show how cultural sites can become accessible through public sector investments, which in turn increase the impact of those cultural sites.
Investing in Uniqueness
Philadelphia’s historic Southeast Asian community is a unique strength of the city. Whether it be certain industries or professions, natural resources, architecture, cultural communities, or institutions, when a city has a unique character and it invests in that, it ultimately contributes to place-based economic development. The Southeast Asian community has created this powerful market tradition in FDR Park that is a distinct and powerful identity for Philadelphia’s Southeast Asian community, and the greater Philadelphia area has benefited economically as a result.
Importance of Community Organizers
The Southeast Asian Market would not have been possible without the tireless work of The Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, the Vendors Association of FDR Park, and the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation. The Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia has been serving the Cambodian, refugee, and immigrant community since 1979. It provides early childhood education and development, cultural heritage conservatory, family & health support services, and civic engagement services. In January of this year, the city awarded the Association a $100,000 grant to develop a permanent space for the market. Community-based organizations play an essential role in furthering equitable development because they have been created by the community, for the community, and they understand the challenges that face the community, as well as helping the community find the potential solutions for those challenges.
Bringing People Together over Food
Food has the power to preserve a group’s cultural practices in distinct environments. Food, and the act of breaking bread together, has historically broken barriers and promoted community togetherness. Attendees of the Southeast Asian Market have the opportunity to meet with and learn from their fellow Philadelphians. Food markets promote diversity and inclusivity by providing vendors with low-cost opportunities to display their cultural cuisines and provide a meeting place for people of all backgrounds to share meals together, and therefore learn from each other, while building community.
Philadelphia’s Southeast Asian Market serves as a model to promote diversity, impact, community, accessibility, and grassroots organizing. By learning from the established and proven practices of the SEA market, other communities have the opportunity to harness their uniqueness, and promote local economic development.
Atara Saunders | [email protected]
Atara Saunders is a Research Assistant at Econsult Solutions, working with the Universities and Hospitals, Economic Development, and Real Estate practice areas. She is a rising 4th year student at Drexel University, majoring in Economics and Global Studies.