Asian American enclaves survived racist laws. Can they survive redevelopment?

While the legal segregation that once defined Asian neighborhoods is past, they now face new challenges — such as gentrification and urban redevelopment.
Smithsonian Institution's Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles
The Smithsonian Institution's Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles.Raymond Boyd / Getty Images file

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By Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

More than 150 years since the first Chinatowns emerged in the United States, Asian American neighborhoods across the country continue to thrive as cultural hubs that also provide spaces for new immigrants to gain a foothold in American society.

While the legal segregation that once defined Chinatowns is past, Asian neighborhoods now face new challenges, such as gentrification and urban redevelopment, and also opportunities, such as new capital, that will shape these regions into the future.

“Out of hardship, these communities transformed into really vibrant neighborhoods where people have the ability to speak to each other in the language they grew up speaking, start businesses and have the food that comes from their homeland,” said Anjan Chaudhry, director of community empowerment for the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development.

“Now the people who build and shape the community are the ones being pushed out.”

Courtesy of Tim Stowe

Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, for instance, is still a cultural home to Japanese Americans in Southern California, even though most of that community no longer lives in the neighborhood, said Grant Sunoo, director of planning for the Little Tokyo Service Center, a social services organization that has developed affordable housing buildings and owns a single-room occupancy hotel for low-income residents in Little Tokyo.

Little Tokyo houses prominent Japanese American institutions such as the Japanese American National Museum and the Go for Broke National Education Center. Through local organizations, it also provides space for Japanese American entrepreneurs, artists and authors to gather, host events and have a platform in the broader community.

Last year, the Little Tokyo Service Center broke ground on a gymnasium, the culmination of a 30-year project to provide space for Japanese basketball leagues.

But Little Tokyo has long been vulnerable to urban renewal and redevelopment, which started in Los Angeles in the 1950s and led to a shrinking of the neighborhood. Today, Little Tokyo remains at risk, Sunoo said, with ongoing development and proposed public transit projects threatening to raise real estate prices.

“It’s tough to run a business when everything’s under construction, and on the other hand, you’re looking at rents doubling or tripling over a short period of time,” he said.

Patrons wait to dine at Daikokuya on First Street in Little Tokyo.Barbara Davidson / LA Times via Getty Images file

Little Tokyo is emblematic of the threats many Asian American neighborhoods now face.

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“Our historic Asian American and Pacific Islander districts, once neighborhoods of opportunities next to downtowns, now find themselves on the verge of extinction, threatened by skyscrapers, transportation projects, convention centers and sports stadiums on all sides,” a 2016 National CAPACD report said.

For example, the report — titled “Asian American and Pacific Islander Anti-Displacement Strategies” — showed that in recent years, the Chinatown in Washington, D.C., has been reduced from 10 square blocks and 3,000 Chinese residents to two blocks of restaurants, two affordable housing buildings and 300 Chinese tenants. Chinese-owned businesses and markets have also been replaced by large chain stores and fast-food restaurants.

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund also documented gentrification in its 2013 report “Chinatown Then and Now.” In New York, Boston and Philadelphia for example, white population growth in Chinatown outpaced white population growth overall in the city. In Boston and Philadelphia, the white population decreased from 2000 to 2010, while the white population in Chinatown doubled.

In addition, all three Chinatowns have seen rising rents and an influx of luxury condominiums and high-end businesses, while the share of families and multigenerational families — once the norm — has decreased, according to the report.

When longtime residents are forced to move, they can become linguistically, culturally and socially isolated, Chaudhry said. Displacement can also lead to a loss of jobs and transportation, and in some high-cost cities, it can even mean homelessness.

“The future of our neighborhoods really depends on our community’s ability to stand up and fight back against gentrification by organizing for better policies,” Chaudhry said.

While historic Chinatowns and other Asian enclaves are under threat, a new type of Chinatown, fueled by recent waves of immigration, has emerged in many American suburbs.

In 1960, there were more than 200,000 Chinese living in the U.S., Xiaojian Zhao, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote in her book “The New Chinese America.” But every decade since the passage of the 1965 immigration law — which abolished the quota system that limited immigration from non-western European countries — the number of Chinese in the U.S. has doubled.

In addition, the diversity of Chinese people in the U.S. has also increased, so that unlike the earliest Chinese settlers, who mostly spoke Cantonese and were from the southern Guangdong Province, newer immigrants were also coming from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, Zhao wrote.

The Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles on Aug. 8, 2016.FG/Bauer-Griffin / GC Images via Getty

Many of these more recent Chinese immigrants came to the U.S. to pursue education, and more easily integrated into the mainstream than their predecessors, Zhao said. With access to schools, jobs and capital — and anti-Asian housing restrictions gone — these immigrants could move wherever they could afford, so they were no longer forced into inner-city Chinatowns, but could form new communities in the suburbs.

New Chinatowns, such as in Monterey Park, California — where about 67 percent of the population is Asian, according to a 2019 report by the Southern California Association of Governments — feature clusters of Chinese malls, businesses, markets, high-end restaurants and hotels that serve the Chinese community and non-Chinese who have developed increasingly sophisticated culinary tastes, Zhao said.

“People living in large metropolitan areas are no longer satisfied with a Panda Express-type of Chinese food,” she said. “So you have Chinese food that people would say is more authentic than what you would find in China. The food now offered in San Gabriel, for example, is not Americanized. It’s authentic. The chefs are from China, they went to those schools and the menus are exactly as they are in Shanghai.”

(This doesn’t mean that new Chinatowns are exempt from racism. In the 1980s, the Monterey Park City Council voted on an English-only ordinance, according to The Los Angeles Times. A recall effort of some council members followed.)

Like historic Chinatowns, the new Chinatowns also rely on tourism, but with a twist. Instead of catering to white Americans, these neighborhoods are increasingly serving tourists from China visiting the U.S., Zhao said. By clustering hotels, restaurants and tourist services, new Chinatowns have become an ideal entry point for Asian tourists.

“The new Chinatowns have a global outlook,” Zhao said.

While suburban Chinatowns are flourishing, it’s still important to protect historic enclaves, activists and scholars said, because they still provide affordable housing, in-language services and a sense of community to many low-income immigrants.

But National CAPACD’s Chaudhry said that it’s not just those living in these neighborhoods who would be affected by the disappearance of Asian enclaves.

It’s all Asian Americans.

“What we’re losing is our history and our legacy of remembering who our community was, that we’ve been here for a long time,” Chaudhry said. “We’re losing that cultural center, a place we can congregate, where we know we can see people who look like us, a place where we can economically thrive, where we can access jobs, goods or services. It’s a place of political importance, too. These places are uniquely Asian American.”

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