The End of the American Chinatown

How renewed interest in downtown living is threatening neighborhoods that long provided a first stop for new immigrants

A shopper walks through Chinatown in Los Angeles. (Jae C. Hong / AP)

LOS ANGELES—As a new immigrant to the United States, Li Zhong Huang knew there was only one place he wanted to live: the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, where he could be surrounded by language, food, and people from his home province of Guangdong. In 2001, he found an apartment with a shared bathroom and kitchen for $390 and moved in, relishing the sunny weather and ample transportation options of his new neighborhood.

A decade after he arrived, though, the neighborhood started changing. Construction started on two new luxury apartment condos. One, Blossom Plaza, now offers two-bedroom apartments with amenities such as a pool, a shuffleboard court, and a fitness center for $2,600 a month. The other, Jia Apartments, features a pool, a spa, and black granite countertops, with two bedrooms starting at $2,500.

At first, Huang liked these developments. The new complexes were clean and attractive, replacing buildings that were old and run-down. But then, two years ago, his landlord said he needed to renovate the apartment; after Huang and his wife left for a few weeks and stayed with friends, the landlord raised the rent to $1,600 and changed the locks, Huang told me through a translator. The change happened so quickly that Huang and his wife lived on the street outside their old apartment building for a few days, trying to get back in to collect their belongings.

For centuries, Chinatowns were neglected by outside investors. When legislation reduced the rights of Chinese residents in America, they moved into close-knit communities for protection and stayed there for years as redlining and other restrictions made it hard to move elsewhere. Investment followed wealthy white families to the suburbs, but Chinese families were prevented from coming along.

But now, as Baby Boomers and Millennials move back into center cities, Chinatowns are some cities’ hottest neighborhoods. Sale prices in Boston’s Chinatown were among the fastest-growing in the city in 2017, increasing by $285,000; one of New York City’s biggest condo projects is a $1.4 billion, 815-unit tower in Chinatown that features a 75-foot swimming pool, an “adult tree house,” and an outdoor tea pavilion. According to an analysis by the website Zumper, rents for a one bedroom in the “historic cultural” neighborhood of Los Angeles, which includes Chinatown, were $2,350 in June 2017—among the highest in Los Angeles, more than listings in popular neighborhoods such as West Hollywood and Silver Lake. A Wall Street Journal analysis found that in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, prices are increasing faster in the zip codes that include Chinatown than in other downtown neighborhoods.

As investors set their sights on Chinatowns across America, longtime residents are being displaced. “Once you have more luxury units, that starts demographic change, whether it’s Harlem or Chinatown—those signs for luxury housing are the beginning of the end,” Andrew Leong, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, told me. A 2013 study completed by Leong and other scholars for the Asian American Legal Defense Fund found that from 1990 to 2010, Asians went from a majority to a minority of the residents of Chinatowns in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. D.C.’s Chinatown is down to about 300 Chinese residents, from the 3,000 who lived there at its peak.

Blossom Plaza apartments in Los Angeles’s Chinatown (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Representatives from Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, a volunteer nonprofit in Los Angeles’s Chinatown that organizes residents (and which introduced me to Huang), told me they’re working with tenants in 10 buildings in Chinatown to fight rent increases and proposed evictions. Katie Wang, one of CCED’s volunteers, told me, “A lot more tenants are talking about landlords harassing them, rent increases, and buildings being bought and sold.”

Some of this displacement is happening because of a lack of strong rent-control laws: Massachusetts voters passed an initiative prohibiting rent control in 1994; Pennsylvania has no state statute governing rent control. But even in places with rent control, Chinese residents don’t feel empowered to speak up when their rights are violated, often because they don’t feel like they truly belong in the larger community, said Jan Lin, a professor of sociology at Occidental College who has studied Chinatowns in Los Angeles and New York. Los Angeles law regulates the amount by which landlords can increase the rent in buildings constructed before 1978, but often residents don’t know their rights or are too intimidated to push back because of their immigration status, said CCED’s Wang.

Still, some of the displacement problems are systemic: market-based economies have largely not figured out how to attract investment to low-income communities without displacing many of the people who have long lived there.

This displacement can be devastating for people who have lived in a neighborhood for decades, who know its bus routes, and who depend on their neighbors for company and help. CCED volunteers brought me to 651 Broadway, a single-room-occupancy building in the middle of Chinatown, where the rent is about $300 a month. Dozens of elderly Chinese people live there, in tiny rooms with a dingy shared kitchen and a communal bathroom where mold grows on the ceiling.

But the people I talked to said they didn’t want to leave; the shabby apartments were located in a neighborhood where they could speak in their own language, buy their own native food, and see their friends. Jun Ha Yu spoke to me from his tiny room. He knows Chinatown intimately: It’s where he goes to the bank and visits the Social Security office, where he can interact with friends and shop owners despite his limited English, where he can buy the type of food he likes to cook. He can easily access downtown Los Angeles and public transit, which is especially useful since he doesn’t drive. If Yu had to move to another neighborhood in car-centric Los Angeles, he’d lose all that.

Jun Ha Yu in his room in Los Angeles’s Chinatown (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Chinatowns can help ease the transition for first-generation immigrants, Leong told me, regardless of whether they live in the area. They also serve as hubs for people who want to preserve a common culture. Frances Huynh, another CCED volunteer, told me that she remembers taking the bus to Chinatown as a child from her home in the San Gabriel Valley to eat familiar food and see family and friends.

The developments in Chinatowns may appear to preserve some of this culture, but the new restaurants and apartments are sometimes so expensive that they are no longer accessible to the people who created the community in the first place. In Los Angeles, for instance, the Blossom Plaza apartment complex has red lanterns hanging in the courtyard, which allows Brookfield Properties, which owns the building, to advertise “the look you want in a Chinatown LA apartment.” But even the Blossom Plaza apartments that are set aside as “affordable” may be too expensive for current Chinatown residents; a studio for one person is targeted at people with an income of $20,350, while the median household income in Chinatown is $19,500. Residents of 651 Broadway told me that some of the stores they had depended on are getting pushed out, including two low-cost grocery stores. Instead, there are boba tea shops, art galleries, a wine bar, and a much-heralded new Asian fusion restaurant that features a $144 steak. The neighborhoods may still look like Chinatowns, Leong said, but are really just “Disneyfied” versions of the neighborhoods they once were.

That this displacement is happening in progressive cities such as Los Angeles, Boston, and Philadelphia, where elected officials have long spoken of the need to preserve affordable housing, shows how hard it can be to construct laws that reduce displacement or maintain affordable housing once gentrification begins.

Los Angeles also lets developers build complexes that are taller than a zoning code allows, and thus fit more apartments, if they include a certain number of affordable units in those developments. In 2016, Los Angeles voters approved Measure JJJ, which allows developers to increase residential density by building higher structures if they provide affordable units; the measure also encouraged the city to give incentives for building more affordable housing near transit. But those affordable units are, like Blossom Plaza, often too expensive for current Chinatown residents. “We have folks who are making under $30,000 and are too poor for affordable housing,” Sissy Trinh, the executive director of the Southeast Asian Community Alliance, which works with Chinatown residents in Los Angeles, told me.

In Boston, housing set aside as affordable is also often too expensive for longtime Chinatown residents, according to Karen Chen, the executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, an advocacy group. Affordable housing is targeted at people making 80 to 100 percent of the area’s median income, but that income is calculated by using average incomes for Boston and the surrounding suburbs, making the level much higher than the average income in Chinatown.

Still, Boston has slowed development in Chinatown amid pushback from the Chinese community. In 1993, for example, the New England Medical Center was granted permission to build a parking garage in Chinatown, demolishing a building where the local community had a day-care center, after-school program, and ESL classes. But a coalition of residents and local business owners pushed back, led by the Chinese Progressive Association. Residents showed up at planning meetings and at city hall, and forced a referendum on the garage, which was defeated 1,692 to 42. The offices of the Chinese Progressive Association are currently located on Parcel C, where the garage was planned—the current building hosts nonprofits on the lower levels and condos on the top.

Since then, the Chinese Progressive Association has been able to use the coalition it formed in 1993 to draw attention to other developments it says would disrupt the community. It supported the Community Preservation Act, which adds a small property tax in Massachusetts in order to fund affordable housing, and organized residents on behalf of a short-term rental ordinance better regulating Airbnb in Boston. Many units in Chinatown were being used for Airbnbs, which meant they were taken off the rental market. The group is currently trying to connect existing residents to potential investments in the community, working with an environmental-justice organization to bring renewable energy to Chinatown.

Fighting to preserve Chinatown in Boston is an endless battle, Chen told me. Recently some row houses that historically held Chinese families were made into condos. And some low-income families that received subsidies for their housing had to move when their subsidies expired. (Developers received below-market-rate loans in return for setting aside units as affordable for a certain period of time, or offering subsidies over that time.) It can be more difficult to protect communities in the United States because the right to private land ownership was such an integral part of the country’s founding, according to Chen. “It’s such a prevalent thing in the U.S., to overemphasize property rights over community rights,” she said.

Boston’s Chinatown has been able to preserve some existing housing because of the strength of community involvement, Chen said. But “it’s difficult to organize in a community where it is so dispersed,” Leong, the professor, told me. Most of the CCED organizers I talked to in Los Angeles lived in the San Gabriel Valley and took a 45-minute bus ride into Chinatown.

Without local-community involvement, Chinatowns are at risk of becoming historical remnants. The people who lived in these neighborhoods when they were undesirable are having to leave. This creates even greater problems than a cultural hub being displaced. It means even more people join the ranks of the dispossessed in major cities across America, with nowhere to go and no one to help them figure out what’s next.