East Coast Chinatowns reflect changing face of residents
By Lan Nguyen
Chinatowns are known for being a community of working class immigrants. But with development projects on the rise, it is clear that the character of Chinatown is on the verge of disappearing. Gentrification is threatening the historical and cultural identity of Chinatowns across the East Coast, according to a report by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The report, “Chinatown Then & Now,” is a study of three Chinatowns: Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Researchers spent a year going block by block and lot by lot to collect current land-use data. Additionally, they also analyzed three decades of census data.
According to the report, traditional family households in Chinatowns are on the decline. This is a good indicator of gentrification, as immigrants tend to favor multigenerational family housing. With the development of universities and luxury condos encroaching on Chinatown, demographics are shifting from working-class immigrant families to single college students and young professionals. Nonfamily households in Boston Chinatown has increased by 450 percent between 1990 and 2000 and increased another 46 percent from 2000 to 2010.
Boston currently has a “Community Master Plan” that was created in 1990 to limit the height of buildings being built in Chinatown. The plan, however, has been ignored. As a result, tall skyscrapers awkwardly dwarf over their smaller counterparts in the community. The plan is essentially meaningless with its nonexistent enforcement power. According to the report, zoning regulations have also been ineffective as the city tended to side with developers.
As a result of these luxury condominiums, low-income immigrants feel that they are being pushed out. Recently, some Boston Chinatown residents were faced with a 25 percent rent increase with a notice that was entirely in English, said the Chinese Progressive Association’s organizing director Karen Chen and community organizer Baolian Kuang. With the help of CPA and pressure from the community, residents were able to fight the rent increase.
The CPA estimated the current median household income of immigrant families in Boston’s Chinatown to be about $15,000, who are unable to afford the high rent of luxury buildings. Over the past 10 years, they estimate that 2,400 luxury units have been built while 500 affordable housing units have been built.
Local small businesses are also affected by gentrification and displacement of residents. The report found Boston’s Chinatown currently has the smallest portion of small businesses and the largest portion of national chains. Although Chinatown is a tourist attraction, small businesses cannot simply rely on tourists. Instead, they need the daily patronage of working-class residents who rely on the businesses’ affordable goods.
To preserve Chinatown’s identity as a center of community life for immigrants and to prevent it from becoming “little ethic Disneylands,” researchers recommend a census of Chinatown housing, reinforcing low-income housing, subsidizing local small businesses, prioritizing open green spaces, strengthening the linkages of satellite Asian enclaves to central city Chinatowns, and engaging in more discussion with the community.