Chinatowns Across the Nation Resisting Gentrification

Chinatowns Across the Nation Resisting Gentrification
  • Gentrification is having a profoundly negative effect on Chinatowns nationwide.
  • Washington, DC, lost as much as 41% of the Asian share of the population in its Chinatown since 1990.
  • Skyrocketing land and rent prices have made staying in Chinatowns untenable for many long-term residents and businesses.
  • New York’s Manhattan Chinatown is the nation’s largest, with an estimated Asian population of 54,818 as of 2019 or about 32.8% of the total population.

( – America has become a vast melting pot of cultures, and larger cities feature cosmopolitan experiences, allowing residents and visitors alike to experience various cuisines, languages, art, entertainment, and nuances from nations around the globe. Several cities throughout the US include large, thriving Chinatown neighborhoods, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. Yet, many of these areas nationwide are shrinking in the face of gentrification and other challenges.

How Chinatowns Started

Many people cherish Chinatowns throughout the nation as cultural repositories showcasing traditions, values, foods, and more. Yet, that’s not how these communities started.

The Gold Rush prompted robber barons to build the transcontinental railroad. To contain costs, they hired Chinese laborers and paid them substandard wages, prompting the first wave of Chinese immigration.

Americans who believed they lost potentially good-paying jobs to immigrants willing to work for substantially less demanded Congress act to protect their interests, resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The legislation prohibited immigration, separating families because men had come to the US to work and establish an economic foothold before sending for their families. It notably implemented restrictions based on race.

Additionally, riots resulted in massacres in Los Angeles, CA, in 1871 and in Rock Springs, WY, in 1885 — but attacks also occurred in Denver, Seattle, and Tacoma. Many Chinese moved east hoping to avoid violence, forming communities in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. The attacks and policies of exclusion caused those who remained in the American west to form enclaves, seeking safety in numbers and comfort in the familiarity of their own culture.

Politicians vilified Chinatowns for years, and many states prohibited Chinese from owning property, even if they were US citizens. However, attitudes began changing during World War II when the US allied with China against Japan. Congress repealed the Exclusion Act in 1943.

Over time, Chinatowns became textile and garment manufacturing centers, tourist destinations, and cultural treasures.

Gentrified Chinatowns Are Disappearing

Chinatowns tend to reside in the heart of most cities, in older areas that haven’t seen considerable modernization or investment. Yet, the land on which these communities sit has skyrocketed in value as businesses and developers seek to revitalize and repurpose city centers.

As prices go up in places like New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, housing for residents who’ve lived their entire lives in the communities suddenly becomes unaffordable, potentially displacing elderly residents from everything and everyone they know. Shops and restaurants face the same problem with rents and the added problem of worker attrition.

Axios reported that Asian populations in these Chinatowns have reduced from 6% to as much as 25% between 1990 and 2020 based on Census data. DC actually lost 41% of its Chinatown Asian population during that timeframe.

As Asians face renewed attacks due to recent health scares, cultural communities where they can turn to feel safe and understood become critical resources. Yet, the same biases that affect individuals also affect Asian-owned businesses, threatening those communities.

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