In Cities Across the U.S., Asian Americans Fight to Keep Cultural Neighborhoods

Originally written for “Washington Media,” a class offered at the University of California Washington Center, during the Fall 2019 quarter.

By Ysa C.

At the gateway to Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown stands the Friendship Archway, a 48-foot-tall gilded gate adorned with golden dragons. Ornate and richly-hued, the archway seems to promise a bustling Chinese community.

But besides the archway and some Chinese-language signage, Chinatown looks like the rest of the city: gray, brown, and glass. Just steps past the grand archway are a McDonald’s and an Urban Outfitters. A little further out, a Hooters.

These chains were once Chinese groceries and restaurants, and D.C.’s Chinatown used to be home to 3,000 Chinese residents — but now that number’s down to 300. And for those left, it’s an uphill battle to stay thanks to more downtown development.

“The gentrification and demise of Washington D.C.’s Chinatown is a sounding alarm for historic cultural districts across the country,” wrote Lailan Huan in a 2016 report by the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development, or National CAPACD.

In cities across the nation, gentrification threatens low-income Asian American neighborhoods as housing costs soar and new development crowds out affordable units. These neighborhoods have served as centers of social life, business and culture for generations of Asian Americans — and some residents are fighting to keep them that way.

Neighborhoods of survival

The first Asian enclave in the U.S. wasn’t in San Francisco, New York, or Los Angeles — it was in the bayous of Louisiana. Saint Malo, La., was a fishing settlement established in 1763 by a group of Filipino sailors, now remembered as the Manilamen. They deserted their Spanish ships to escape mistreatment and made Louisiana their now home.

The most iconic Asian enclaves, though, are the Chinatowns in major cities like San Francisco and New York City. These neighborhoods got their start in the mid- and late 1800s as waves of Chinese workers — mostly poor, young men — arrived on both shores, lured by the Gold Rush and new railroad construction.

They were not met kindly. Violent, xenophobic riots forced the Chinese laborers out of their homes and back to China — or into segregated neighborhoods that would eventually become Chinatowns.

These Chinatowns were largely avoided by white locals. Alta Daily, a 19th century San Francisco newspaper, called Chinatown residences “dirty, filthy dens.” But like the Manilamen’s Saint Malo, it was here that Chinese businesses and community organizations could exist in relative peace.

Later migration waves brought in immigrants and refugees from other Asian countries, who faced similar patterns of xenophobia and segregation. Diverse ethnic neighborhoods began to grow and flourish.

“As communities of color were redlined, forbidden to purchase homes, and segregated into cultural ghettos for the larger part of United States history, […] ethnic neighborhoods served as spaces of survival,” the National CAPACD report said.

Neighborhoods recreated cultural traditions, such as annual Lunar New Year celebrations. But they also formed customs unique to their urban enclave. Japanese Americans in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, created Nisei Week, a festival celebrating second-generation Japanese Americans. That tradition continues yearly to this day.

Even as wealthier Asian Americans left the cities for ethnoburbs — ethnic suburbs like the Chinese Monterey Park or Filipino Daly City — these urban neighborhoods remained cultural mainstays.

“These neighborhoods […] are places where community-building happens, where social networks for survival and economic collaboration are built, and where we find joy, celebration and family,” the National CAPACD report said.

Priced — or forced — out

On August 4, 1977, San Francisco riot police forced their way through thousands of activists surrounding the International Hotel. Known by locals as the I-Hotel, the red-brick building was a low-income apartment complex housing mostly elderly Chinese and Filipino tenants. Activists had formed a human barricade to protect them from eviction.

Police eventually broke through the barricade. They sledgehammered the doors open and dragged tenants out as the crowd protested outside.

After nearly a decade of battling against eviction, 197 I-Hotel tenants were forced out.

“I was devastated,” wrote Prof. Estella Habal in the book Ten Years that Shook the City. She was one of the activists that supported the I-Hotel tenants, including tenant leader Wahat Tompao. “Manong [older brother] Wahat laid face down on the pavement, weeping uncontrollably. I, too, was traumatized.”

The I-Hotel stood at the center of San Francisco’s Manilatown, which once stretched 10 blocks across the heart of downtown. It disappeared bit-by-bit as the city underwent a “Manhattanization” process of urban redevelopment. The I-Hotel mass evictions marked the Filipino district’s climactic end.

The fall of the I-Hotel served as a warning for Asian American neighborhoods across the nation. Like the former Manilatown, many urban Asian enclaves are located in city centers that were once deemed undesirable. But now, as wealthy suburbanites return to cities, many ethnic neighborhoods are in danger of facing the same fate as the I-Hotel.

Rents are rising nationwide, but Asian American neighborhoods are hit especially hard because of their prime downtown locations. In the neighborhoods studied by National CAPACD, rents rose 74 percent from 2000 to 2014, compared to 53 percent nationwide.

Incomes aren’t going up fast enough to keep up with soaring rents. Over that same period, these neighborhoods lost over 1,500 low-income Asian American and Pacific Islander families to displacement. In some areas, rents are rising at twice the pace as incomes, the National CAPACD found.

The study uses housing data from 2014, but rents have risen even higher since then. Median rent in San Francisco rose by over 11 percent from 2014 to 2017, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Rents in New York City rose faster this August than they have in the past three years, a report by StreetEasy found. And rent in other high-demand cities like Boston, Los Angeles, Oakland and Washington, D.C. continues to climb.

Many priced-out tenants move to nearby suburbs — and in some cases, they form “satellite Asian enclaves,” according to a report by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or AALDEF. Residents and businesses from Manhattan’s Chinatown have since moved to Queens, Brooklyn, and New Jersey.

“Yet in terms of political representation, historical significance, and geographic location, these new Chinatowns are no replacement for the old Chinatowns,” the report said.

Meanwhile, residents who stay in the “old” enclaves grapple with shifts in their neighborhood’s culture — including an influx of white residents. The AALDEF report found that the white populations in Boston and Philadelphia’s Chinatowns doubled even as white populations in those cities decreased overall.

In Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown, where over half of the residents are white, the changes are obvious. Ten blocks of Chinese businesses and restaurants have been largely replaced by national chains or big developments like the Gallery Place mall or the Capital One Arena. The last Chinese grocery closed in 2005, DCist reported.

The city developed ordinances — along with an 80-page design guide — in 1989 requiring buildings in Chinatown to maintain the “Chinese character” of the neighborhood. Most often, this means displaying Chinese translations of business names, but a smattering of buildings have Chinese-style awnings and decorations. A 2019 version of the design guide calls Chipotle’s curved awning a “creative interpretation of the Chinese pagoda.”

But for some critics, these aesthetic guidelines are not enough to make up for the community lost.

“There are a few restaurants left, you see an arch that represents Chinese culture, you see all these signs for different businesses that are written in Chinese,” Anjan Caundhry, Director of Community Empowerment at National CAPACD, told NPR. “But what you’re missing is the neighborhood that used to be here before.”

Fighting to keep a community

D.C.’s “old” Chinatown is not all gone. Three hundred Chinese residents remain, and two subsidized housing buildings have survived — though not by sheer luck.

The Museum Square Apartments were slated for demolition in 2014 to make way for luxury housing. Wah Luck House has come under threat of sale multiple times in recent years. Both house many low-income, elderly Chinese tenants who speak limited English.

These tenants have held onto their homes thanks to help from organizations such as the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center — an organization serving low-income Asian immigrants in the D.C.-metro area — and National CAPACD.

“It really is a struggle for the residents to be involved in the process,” documentary filmmaker Yi Chen told Greater Greater Washington. “The good thing is, [residents] are working with organizations like the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development.”

These organizations helped the Museum Square tenants request to buy the building from their landlord via D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. They also provided legal aid as tenants fought it out with their landlord in the courts.

In Wah Luck House, organizations helped the building establish a Tenants Association that blocked the sale of the building in 2008. Last year, when the building was put up for sale again, the Wah Luck residents purchased it. Two weeks later, the city finalized a 39-million-dollar plan to renovate the building.

Similar battles are being waged in Asian enclaves across the country as community-based organizations fight to protect cultural neighborhoods.

In San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, decades after the fall of the I-Hotel, a new Filipino cultural district thrives. Facing another wave of displacement from the city’s recent tech boom, Filipino activists convinced the city to designate the neighborhood as a safeguarded cultural heritage district.

In New York City, a nonprofit called Asian Americans for Equality offers microloans to small business owners and entrepreneurs, helping “mom-and-pop” shops compete with national chains. Three quarters of its clients have been Asian American owners, the National CAPACD found.

“Where you see neighborhoods that are surviving amidst drastically changing cities, it is important to note that decades of intentional organizing and policy wins are the reason for relative stability and preservation of affordable housing stock,” the National CAPACD report said.

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