Disappearing Chinatowns

Chinatowns on the East Coast are disappearing, particularly in Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia. These areas that have traditionally accommodated restaurants, apartments and small businesses of Asian working class immigrants since the early 1800’s are becoming more urbanized and mainstream, seeing an influx of wealthy, Caucasian residents. The property value and living costs are rising in these areas, and fewer immigrants are flocking to these once “safe-havens.”

City-dwellers have long treasured the culture and authenticity of Chinatowns. The foreign architecture, cuisine, language and shops offer a retreat from the mainstream bustling city. However, despite citywide pride for one’s Chinatown, these amenities are disappearing as property values rise and McDonalds and Howard Johnson hotels infiltrate the once culture-rich neighborhoods.

Gentrification, the development of an urban area that leads to an influx of wealthier residents, is overtaking these local immigrant communities. The buildings are being transformed to higher-end spaces, and housing costs in Philadelphia Chinatown have almost quadrupled in the last 20 years. A former parking lot became the site for Pearl Condominiums, each unit costing $250,000. Those moving into these new residencies are typically not Asian. A University of Pennsylvania study, “Chinatown: Then & Now, Gentrification and Displacement on the East Coast,” shows how Asians are actually becoming the minority in these neighborhoods.

Many think that gentrification is improving these areas, making them more accessible to the public. Supporters of this development argue that the market should be free to upgrade these neighborhoods in our capitalist economy. However, many within the communities are worried that in an effort to make a buck, these cities will lose a part of their charm.

Executive director of Asian Americans United Ellen Somekawa says, “If you just make it about money and the marketplace, and who can pay the most for rent, that doesn’t recognize or protect the unique role of a community like Chinatown.”

Chinatowns have historically been the destination of Asian immigrants, a safe place to arrive without knowing the dominant language and culture of the United States. Without these areas, immigrants may face more vulnerability. However, some argue that the disappearance of Chinatowns has less to do with gentrification and actually is a result of fewer Asian immigrants.

As China’s economic development and standard of living has skyrocketed in the last few decades, fewer Chinese citizens are migrating to the United States in search of better opportunities. Also, second and third generations of Chinese-Americans may choose to integrate into the wider culture, rather than stay within the Chinatown community.

Whether due to gentrification or fewer immigrants, Chinatowns are changing. If they will disappear entirely is still debatable; Americans have been concerned about their demise since the 1920’s, and perhaps the current concern is unwarranted. However, Chinatowns will certainly be taking on a new flavor as the outside world permeates these neighborhoods.





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