Gentrification 'threatens to wipe out US Chinatowns'

Expensive housing and mainstream stores help put historic Chinese communities on East Coast cities at risk of being wiped out, report warns

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 October, 2013, 8:45am


Faced with a proliferation of luxury housing and chain stores, America's Chinatowns risk extinction as new immigrants are priced out of city centres, an advocacy group says.

A study has found that foreign-born residents have become a minority in the Chinatowns of New York, Boston and Philadelphia. The number of white residents has grown in all three neighbourhoods since 1990, even as the white populations in all the cities as a whole declined.

"For many Asian-Americans, Chinatown is an essential part of our heritage and history. But Chinatowns on the East Coast are on the verge of disappearing," says the report by the Asian American Legal Defence and Education Fund.

For many Asian-Americans, Chinatown is an essential part of our heritage and history. But Chinatowns on the East Coast are on the verge of disappearing

City planners have contributed to Asian flight by encouraging high-end accommodation and outside retailers who have helped make the neighbourhoods trendy, the study says.

The report did not assess the large Chinese-American communities on the West Coast, although they have witnessed broadly similar trends with a Wal-Mart controversially opening last month in Chinatown in Los Angeles.

Gentrification is a highly controversial force in many large cities of the United States, with advocates pointing to benefits that include expanding tax bases and, in some cases, reducing crime.

Throughout US history, immigrant groups have gradually dispersed from concentrated neighbourhoods. Some of the Greektowns and Little Italys that once dotted US cities are now barely distinguishable from surrounding areas.

But the Asian American Legal Defence and Education Fund argues that Chinatowns hold historical and cultural significance worthy of preservation and offered unique benefits to immigrants in terms of housing, food and employment.

"There is still a very real need for the neighbourhoods in terms of the resources and the networks that they offer both for new and older Asian immigrants," said Bethany Li, a fund lawyer and an author of the report.

Li said that historic Chinatowns remained a magnet for new immigrants to learn about job opportunities, even if they eventually lived elsewhere.

"The need is still there. The difference is that they can't live there," she said.

Li fears development decisions will lead more Chinatowns to resemble the one in Washington, where little low-income housing has survived since the opening in 1997 of a basketball and hockey arena.

In one trend that bodes ill for Chinatowns, the study found a sharp decrease of homes that include several generations, a traditional family structure in the community.

In Boston's Chinatown, nearly one-quarter of residents live in non-family group homes as opposed to 5 per cent in 1990 .

In one difference among the cities in the survey, most restaurants in Philadelphia's Chinatown still serve Asian cuisine, while only a slight majority in Boston and less than half in New York do.

The study recommends that urban planners prioritise low-income housing, small businesses and green space.