Living History

The Home Front Under Attack

by denise wong and carmen ye

Popularly conceived of as homogeneous homes to pigeons, cheap food, and commodified trinkets, the historically monumental Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco, while vastly different, have undergone similar struggles due to their complementary roots.

Both neighborhoods, home to yours truly, hold substantial significance for the Chinese American community. San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in America, established in the 1840s, while New York’s is the largest, covering an area of about two miles.

Though characterized by partially dilapidated buildings, buildings painted in bright colors with stereotypically “Asian” pagodas, and the smell of dim sum wafting from restaurants, the two communities share commonalities much deeper than their superficial media depictions. Their origins lie in the 1849 Gold Rush, which attracted the first huge wave of Chinese immigrants to California to try their luck sifting for gold. When the Gold Rush died down, these immigrants often had no financial means of returning home and were forced to permanently settle in the United States. Faced with increasingly discriminatory laws, such as outright exclusion and unjust taxes, some Chinese immigrants moved to the East Coast in search of employment.

Chinatowns were created in this xenophobic atmosphere as protection against pervasive anti-Chinese sentiment, but soon expanded to meet other needs. In their isolated enclaves, Chinese immigrants developed social networks and self-sufficient businesses. With the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, Chinatowns across the country changed once again to encompass the increased flow of immigrants. Grassroots organizations such as Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), and the Chinese Staff and Worker’s Association (CSWA) developed youth advocacy, immigrant labor organizing, and tenant rights’ programs with bilingual services.

It is thus amusingly and painfully ironic that both cities’ Chinatowns, initially formed due to their communities’ isolation from mainstream society, are so threatened and exploited today by the ugly monster known as Gentrification. Euphemized as “economic redevelopment” or “revitalization,” this urban phenomenon refers to the takeover of low-income property by wealthier entities buying into the neighborhood and driving up prices. For example, the Ellis Act in San Francisco allows a landlord to evict his or her tenants on the premise of bankruptcy. Although the landlord is required to keep the property empty for at least five years after eviction, he or she is then able to sell it for a higher profit than the previous rent garnered.

Consequently, the cost of living becomes unaffordable for the neighborhood’s original residents, often resulting in the mass displacement of affected communities. Low-income communities and communities of color are especially vulnerable, particularly if their neighborhoods attract tourists. Gentrification has already wiped out Manilatown, a thriving Filipino community in San Francisco that died out in the early 1970s due to development in the financial district.

Are Chinatowns headed down the same path?

The officially recognized year of establishment for New York’s Chinatown is 1870, when it emerged as a tiny Chinese ghetto in the middle of a highly diverse immigrant enclave. However, its post-1965 explosion into a nationally renowned landmark generated conditions that have pushed gentrification onto the community for decades. The simultaneous influx of Chinese low-income immigrant workers, professional businessmen, and overseas investors in the 1970s stimulated unprecedented growth in Chinatown’s hundred-year history.

Given its newly acquired immigrant labor force, the neighborhood developed an economy anchored on the restaurant and garment industries. However, Chinatown’s garment industry has collapsed since the mid-1990s, as many garment factories closed due to increased competition from Chinese imports. This has thus put many Chinatown residents out of work, but has also led investors to engage in fervent real estate speculation in an effort to profit from the rising population of immigrants. The combination of fewer jobs and higher rent prices have rendered the neighborhood extremely unstable in recent years.

Subsequently, the aftermath of September 11 catalyzed the urban colonialism of Chinatown in the name of “economic redevelopment.” Immediately after the attacks, city officials unhesitatingly tended to TriBeCa, Wall Street, and SoHo, affluent white neighborhoods near the World Trade Center; Chinatown, also a nearby community, was ignored until its residents protested. Moreover, officials also blocked off parts of Chinatown for weeks due to soot in the air, crippling local businesses.

The city has proposed to ameliorate Chinatown’s broken economy by pushing its overdevelopment and promoting the community’s commodification. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, created to address these issues, has prioritized luxury development and augmented Chinatown’s tourism industry. Policy measures such as the Rezoning Plan of Community District 3 have expedited Chinatown’s destruction. Passed in 2008, the rezoning measure granted height protection to the gentrified East Village, allegedly to protect the historic neighborhood from overdevelopment. Proponents of the plan deliberately excluded Chinatown and the predominantly Latino Lower East Side, the other two constituent neighborhoods of CD3, promising to develop a “separate plan” for them. This plan is one of many similar plans passed during New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure that have uprooted communities of color, but is especially detrimental due to Chinatown’s unique post-9/11 experience.

The passage of the Rezoning Plan resulted in a hastened assault on Chinatown in the form of luxury construction, tenant harassment, and illegal evictions. The dispersal of the Chinatown community has exacerbated conditions for its small businesses. Corporations have attacked the area like vultures due to its convenient position amidst wealthy white neighborhoods and appeal to tourists and wealthy white patrons. Given developers’ continuous gentrification of Chinatown into a historical and cultural treasure, it is unsurprising that New York has failed Chinatown, allowing it to disintegrate into a Disneyland version of itself and threatening to dissolve a beautiful community famed for its living history.

On the other side of the country, San Francisco’s Chinatown faces a different reality. Less a Disneyland and more a network of extended families, it is the second most densely populated neighborhood in the United States and home to an estimated 23,000 residents. While gentrification has not ravaged this Chinatown to the degree that it did in New York, the community still bears the costs of globalization and urban renewal.

Rooted in the struggle for a self-efficient neighborhood during a period of violent hate crimes toward Chinese in the late 1800s, Chinatown sits on prime real estate. The wealthy neighborhoods of North Beach, the financial district, downtown, and Nob Hill border it, much like New York’s Chinatown being surrounded by Wall Street and SoHo. In 1906, after the infamous earthquake that devastated the entire city and claimed at least 3,000 lives, Chinatown was under threat of relocation.

City officials proposed exporting Chinatown to the city’s southern outskirts, like the dispensable commodity popular opinion believed it to be. The suggested location rested on what is now Bayview/Hunter’s Point, an chemically hazardous area that used to be an old shipyard. Serving as a clear example of environmental racism, in which communities of color are deliberately subjected to environmentally toxic and unsafe conditions, this was a pre-cursor to the gentrification that later hit New York and transformed the lives of residents there.

However, unlike New York, the residents of Chinatown in San Francisco pressured the city government to re-think their proposal by reminding them of the importance of tourism in their neighborhood. As the city’s number one source of revenue, tourism was an industry officials could not afford to lose from their economy. In the end, Look Tin Eli, a Chinese American merchant, commissioned two Caucasian architects to design a new Chinatown in the likeness of a “little” China, resplendent with bright colors and pagodas. Just one problem. The average building in China does not sport a roof with edges gently curling up to the sky. Nor are they decoratively painted with eye-catching shades of red, green, and yellow, traditional colors in the Chinese culture that symbolize luck and fortune. Look Tin Eli did what he had to do for the sake of preserving Chinatown, creating a landmark based on stereotypes and the imagination of two white men gone wrong. [1]

Since its reconstruction in the early 1900s, Chinatown has continued to deal with pressure to redevelop properties into more profitable ventures. To combat this, community organizations lobbied for and successfully passed the 1986 Chinatown Area Plan. This plan set zoning heights to discourage corporate encroachment, restricted the commercial use of space to preserve Chinatown’s function as a residential area as well as capital city, and emphasized the cultural and historical significance of this area. As Deland Chan, a senior planner at CCDC notes, the 1986 Area Plan “has helped to prevent San Francisco’s Chinatown from undergoing the same fate as New York’s” by effectively limiting spaces for corporate use.

Another factor that distinctly sets the two Chinatowns apart is that the catastrophic events of 9/11 and its economic consequences occurred in New York, and not San Francisco. New York’s government pumped money into Lower Manhattan to revitalize the tourism industry there, while Chan states, “To put it simply, San Francisco’s Chinatown never got that sort of attention.” San Francisco was spared the gentrification that befell New York and its subsequent decline in affordable housing for tenants who had neither the financial means nor social capital to move elsewhere.

But although San Francisco’s Chinatown has kept up a fairly impressive stock of affordable housing, that does not mean its residents do not pay for living on such coveted land in other ways. A report by Sherman Gee, a youth educator in the Chinatown community, indicates that the “the hidden costs of keeping affordable housing in Chinatown has been a lack of repairs, dangerous living conditions, and the high incidence of housing violations.” [2] Indeed, over 60 percent of housing consists of Single Room Occupancies (SROs), an eight by ten room legally defined as a rental unit that lacks a bathroom and a kitchen. SRO tenants must share communal bathroom and cooking areas, only to retreat to a living space cramped with belongings and other family members. These buildings have dim lighting, poorly maintained facilities, and landlords who are either apathetic to their tenants’ needs or abroad and unable to deal with problems firsthand.

New York and San Francisco’s Chinatowns are home, yes, but it is a home where our neighbors are underprivileged and underserved, terms popularly used on campus to describe the struggle of the Asian Pacific American community. The very heterogeneity of the APA identity necessitates that all APA groups, not just Southeast Asians and refugees, take part in this struggle toward demanding better resources and political representation. Chinatowns have not escaped the colonialism affecting Asian countries abroad, but gentrification is not inevitable. Despite the push and pull factors of today’s economy, gentrification is largely categorized by such projects as the Manhattan Development Corporation and can be effectively combated, as demonstrated by the 1986 Chinatown Area Plan. The challenge now is not only to preserve Chinatown as an historical and cultural relic but also as a community.