May 2, 2023

Why We're Protecting America's Chinatowns

Many people get into historic preservation because of a personal connection to a special place. My story begins in Chinatown. Growing up, I frequented Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, where my father worked for 15 years, and it was a place where I could connect with my roots and explore my identity as a daughter of Chinese immigrants.

Later in life, I found myself moving to the East Coast and living in Manhattan’s Chinatown, a bustling dense neighborhood with close ties and ancestral roots. I loved that I could find everything I needed in the neighborhood 24/7, how the layers of history blended seamlessly with the living present, and the way shopkeepers would greet me with warmth and acceptance. It was and still is a place where I feel a deep sense of belonging as a Chinese American. It inspired me to learn about urban planning, development, and preservation and how these practices impact the future of ethnic enclaves like Chinatown.

photo by: jpellgen via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

View of King Street in Seattle’s Chinatown International District.

Signs of Neighborhood Change

When living in Manhattan, for a few blissful years, I lived in a fourth-floor walk-up above a soup dumpling restaurant on Pell Street. Every day, I would pass an open door on the first floor which led to a small unit that belonged to an elderly neighbor. I could smell the aroma of decades of home cooking, admire the beauty and patina of the pressed tin ceiling, and marvel at the well-used vintage stove visible from the hallway. Glimpsing this time capsule transported me to another time and place.

One day, on my way home from work, I came back to find the apartment empty and my neighbor gone. Shortly after, the space was gutted and leased out for a higher rent. This was just one sign of underlying change. More trendy bars, galleries, and hotels were appearing while long time businesses shuttered. The more I saw, the more I realized how resilient yet vulnerable Manhattan’s Chinatown— and historic Chinatowns everywhere—are, even as they continue to nurture a vast ecosystem of people who depend on them. For decades, Chinatown communities have organized to fight large scale development and unfair planning decisions, and have experienced outmigration, suburbanization, gentrification, and cultural displacement among many other challenging dynamics.

The Start of the Campaign for America’s Chinatowns

The National Trust for Historic Preservation launched the America’s Chinatowns initiative during the COVID-19 pandemic when Chinatowns across the country were reaching a breaking point and fighting for their survival. While all communities suffered, people stopped visiting Chinatowns much earlier and the trauma of the pandemic intensified pre-existing challenges. Misinformation and misconceptions about the Asian American community flared up age-old perceptions of perpetual foreigner status. A dramatic increase in violence targeting Asian American communities shattered any sense of security, and to this day, businesses and residents are still hurting.

Through this America’s Chinatowns initiative, we recognize that historic Chinatowns are built upon a long pattern of previous waves of occupation and settlement. Today, they are so much more than cultural destinations; they are working-class neighborhoods and active community hubs for the Asian American diaspora. They are safe spaces for new immigrants realizing their American dreams. We also recognize that these historic, vital, living communities are shrinking, shifting, and actively facing erasure.

Through our research initiative, we found that out of the 83 Chinatowns identified nationwide, less than half remain and we began to research typologies to understand the differences and commonalities among these communities. Most alarmingly, only a tiny fraction of these places are officially recognized for their Chinese American heritage or protected by the systems of preservation.

Sign the Petition: Support America's Chinatowns

Together, we can mobilize preservation action to support America’s Chinatowns for future generations. Sign our petition today to commit to the cultural preservation of America’s Chinatowns for future generations, so their vibrant pasts can remain at the heart of their thriving and prosperous futures.

Many formal preservation policies and tools were not designed to protect places like Chinatown. But today, there is broader recognition that there is no future in preservation unless we expand the definition of preservation, and the targets and interests of the field, to prioritize the needs of all communities who have contributed to the American story. It is long past due to ask what more the national preservation community can do to amplify existing grassroots action to support Chinatowns now and in the future.

Today, I am honored to lead the National Trust’s America’s Chinatowns initiative and to collaborate with passionate and dedicated local leaders around the country to amplify and support the cultural preservation efforts already happening in Chinatowns, as well as continue expanding preservation tools to better serve Chinatowns and other cherished immigrant neighborhoods.

Building Partnerships in Chinatowns Nationwide

As part of this work, we are currently expanding our mapping and research efforts, exploring grant and funding opportunities to support community-based organizations and legacy institutions, and hosting a series of national roundtables to co-develop this initiative with frontline communities, reflective of and responsive to their lived experiences.

In February 2023, we hosted our first roundtable in Los Angeles, convening over 30 people representing grassroots, local, state, regional, and national perspectives. We gathered a remarkable cross-section of preservationists, planners, community activists, elected officials, archivists, researchers, storytellers, artists, and Chinatown organizations together for the first time to talk about the future of Chinatown. This was part of the National Trust's plan to develop a national program that is rooted in community partnerships, networks, and collaboration.

photo by: Di Gao/National Trust for Historic Preservation

View of Pell Street facing toward Bowery Street in Manhattan Chinatown.

We learned that while every Chinatown is unique, there is value in creating a well-connected peer network of Chinatowns to share effective solutions, tackle common challenges, and avoid reinventing the wheel.

We also learned that in order to make a difference, it is essential to think innovatively and expansively about the potential for preservation to help communities like Chinatowns thrive. We need to ask and answer together questions like: What does it mean to preserve a living, active community? What do Chinatown communities consider their cultural assets, and what tools and policies do we have to protect them? Collectively and individually, what makes Chinatown, Chinatown, and what will be lost if Chinatowns disappear from our shared cultural landscape?

photo by: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Di Gao, senior director of research and development at the National Trust, presenting opening remarks at the Los Angeles Chinatown roundtable in February 2023.

In almost every conversation, we have also heard about cultural resources related to Chinese American history that are found in suburban and rural areas across the country. Our next mapping and documentation efforts will include these as well, with efforts already underway in communities along historic Route 66.

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 of this work is mission critical to telling the full American story.

photo by: Di Gao/National Trust for Historic Preservation

Los Angeles Chinatown’s Central Plaza was built in 1938 to relocate the residents and businesses of Old Chinatown after it was a demolished to make way for LA Union Station. It is the first modern American Chinatown that was owned and planned by the Chinese of Los Angeles.

Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to on this journey regardless of their background has shared their own powerful connection to a local Chinatown. It’s clear that while each historic Chinatown is singular in the history it uniquely holds, our own personal stories and connections are universal and shared. We hope you will share your own personal connection about what you love about Chinatowns, and add your voice to the national conversation on how we can best sustain and support America’s Chinatowns for future generations.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

Di Gao is the senior director of research and policy at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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