July 20, 2023

5 Chinatowns and the Communities Working to Preserve Them

Since the mid-1800s, when the first major wave of immigrants from China arrived in the United States in search of economic opportunity, Chinese Americans have formed strong, resilient, thriving communities exemplified by the growth of Chinatowns. Encompassing residences, cultural and religious institutions and family-owned shops, restaurants and other businesses, Chinatowns are steeped in memory, history, and tradition.

Across the country, generations of Chinese families have found, and continue to find, housing, safety, community, and livelihoods in Chinatowns. Yet tragically, as a result of gentrification, large-scale development, displacement, xenophobia, and other factors, some of these vibrant neighborhoods have vanished, and those that remain continue to face existential threats. For two of them—Philadelphia’s Chinatown and the Seattle Chinatown-International District—those threats led to their inclusion on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2023.

View of the San Francisco Chinatown in 2021

photo by: Sharon Mollerus via Flickr CC by 2.0

A view of San Francisco's Chinatown in 2021.

Chinatowns are vital communities where cultural preservation is essential, which is why the National Trust launched the America’s Chinatowns initiative, aimed —together with partners and communities—at preserving these important ethnic enclaves for future generations. As Di Gao, senior director of Research & Development and the program manager for America’s Chinatowns, said, “As preservationists, we believe in the power of place to enrich people’s lives and that by protecting places that are sacred to people, we can directly improve the lives of people who rely on these places for connection, belonging, and meaning. Investing in Chinatowns is one step towards a broader vision where more Asian American spaces and histories are honored and recognized. All this work is mission critical to telling the full American story.”

Here’s a look at five historic Chinatowns around the country, the threats they face, and what is being done to preserve them for the future.

Philadelphia’s Chinatown

Philadelphia Chinatown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Philadelphia's Chinatown, which was listed on the National Trust's 11 Most list in 2023.

Philadelphia’s Chinatown, with its iconic Friendship Gate that welcomes residents and visitors to a neighborhood that brims with culture, traces its history to the 1870s, making it one of the oldest such enclaves in the country.

Though it retains its character, Philadelphia’s Chinatown has shrunk in size over the years, losing about a quarter of its original land to large-scale development. Now, the local community is mobilizing against the construction of an 18,500-seat basketball arena for the 76ers—announced in 2022 by the NBA—that would be located just steps from the Friendship Gate.

Citing Washington, D.C.—where the construction of the Capital One Arena in the late 1990s precipitated the demise of the city’s Chinatown—as a cautionary tale, community leaders argue that the area’s residents and business owners have been excluded from the planning process and that the proposed arena would worsen the trend of gentrification and displacement by increasing the cost of living while also exacerbating traffic and parking congestion. In June, an estimated 3,000 participated in an organized a march and rally in Chinatown to protest the 76ers’ proposal.

Seattle Chinatown-International District

Seattle Chinatown-International District (CID), Seattle, Washington. The Seattle CID is one of the oldest Asian American neighborhoods on the West Coast.

photo by: Washington Trust for Historic Preservation

A gathering in the Seattle Chinatown-International District which was listed on the National Trust's 11 Most list in 2023.

According to the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, the Seattle Chinatown International District (CID) has the distinction of being the only place in the continental U.S. where Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and Vietnamese immigrants along with Black Americans have built a neighborhood together.

In the 1960s and 1970s, construction of highways, parking lots, and sports stadiums split the neighborhood. However, by 1986, thanks to community activism, the CID was placed on the Washington Heritage Register and National Register of Historic Places, revitalizing the community. Now, this historic area is threatened once again by the proposed expansion of Sound Transit (Seattle metro area’s regional transit agency), which is looking to build new stations in or around the CID that could lead to displacement and business closures. The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, a local National Trust partner, has called on planners to keep the CID’s cultural significance top of mind to avoid further disruptions.

San Francisco’s Chinatown

The oldest Chinatown in the continental United States is located in San Francisco. It was established by some of the country’s first Chinese immigrants, who worked in mines during the Gold Rush from 1848-55 and helped build the feat of engineering that was the Transcontinental Railroad.

San Francisco’s Chinatown is no stranger to adversity: The massive earthquake that struck the city in 1906, and the fires it triggered, leveled much of the neighborhood and claimed many lives. But the community rebuilt, making this historic Chinatown that now spans 30 blocks into an attractive destination for new immigrants while also turning it into a major tourist destination.

Today, the plethora of small, family-owned shops and eateries that are the backbone and lifeblood of this Chinatown are still reeling from the loss of tourism-driven business during the pandemic, as well as an increasingly expensive real estate market that has driven up rents and ongoing gentrification. Part of the revitalization includes the Chinatown Community Development Center’s efforts to preserve affordable housing for Chinese residents; new amenities, headlined by the long-awaited opening of the Chinatown-Rose Pak subway station; and the renovation of Portsmouth Square, often referred to the “living room” of San Francisco’s Chinatown. With support from local organizations, some previously cash-only venues have also started to accept credit card payments in an effort to bring more revenue.

Boston’s Chinatown

A black and white image of Chicago's Chinatown in May 2022.

photo by: Chris Rycroft via Flickr CC by 2.0

Black and white image of Boston's Chinatown in May 2022.

Boston’s Chinatown is the only remaining historic Chinese American enclave in New England. The area’s first Chinese residents were laborers who arrived in the United States via the West Coast and moved eastward in search of jobs. After federal laws that restricted Chinese immigration to the United States were lifted in the 1940s, the neighborhood transformed into a haven for Chinese families.

Like other Chinatowns, Boston’s has been fractured over time. In the 1950s and 1960s, the city used eminent domain laws to seize portions of Chinatown to accommodate highways I-93 and I-90, destroying homes and businesses in the process. Then, in the 1970s, the city zoned an area adjacent to Chinatown for adult entertainment, leading to the rise of a notorious red light district that became known as “The Combat Zone.”

The encroachment didn’t stop there. Over the years, Boston’s Chinatown has lost land to the Tufts University Medical School and the Tufts-New England Medical Center. Private development and gentrification have also taken their toll, though organizations like the Boston Chinatown Community Land Trust have organized to prevent their neighborhood from shrinking further.

Resistance by the Chinatown community has indeed helped preserve the neighborhood. In the 1990s, local activists, led by the Chinese Progressive Association, prevented the construction of a 455-car parking garage that would have been built dangerously close to a daycare center and an elementary school and resulting in a host of environmental concerns. Yet Tufts University’s presence, and the institution’s quest for expansion, remain a threat.

Chicago's Chinatown

While other Chinatowns across the country have watched their populations decline and their physical space decrease, Chicago’s 110-year-old Chinatown is defying that trend by growing—U.S. Census Bureau data shows that the Asian population in Chicago’s Greater Chinatown has grown from 11,090 in 1990 to 28,617 in 2020—and is therefore serving as a beacon of hope.

A view of Chicago's Chinatown at night from the train station  in 2009.

photo by: Adam norwood via Flickr CC by CC BY-NC 2.0

View of Chicago's Chinatown in 2009 through the Welcome Gate.

There are plenty of incentives for Chinese Americans in the Windy City to move to or stay in Chinatown: In addition to the community services that have long been in place, over the last decade, this Chinatown has benefited from new, accessible recreational activities, and a branch of the Chicago Public Library that have encouraged residents to remain in their community. And, Chicago’s Chinatown seems to be resisting gentrification and maintaining its ethnic composition, with new leases in the neighborhood are being advertised by word of mouth and other forms of advertisement within the community. However, for some this has raised questions about this strategy's compliance with the Fair Housing Act.

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Nathalie Alonso is a freelance journalist and children's author based in New York City. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Outside, Refinery29 and TIME for Kids. She holds a B.A. in American studies from Columbia University.

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