Chinatown’s Getting A Massive New Neighbor. What Happens Next?

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Chicago's historic Chinatown neighborhood. Monica Eng / WBEZ
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Chicago's historic Chinatown neighborhood. Monica Eng / WBEZ

Chinatown’s Getting A Massive New Neighbor. What Happens Next?

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Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Ernie Wong as an architect. He is a landscape architect.

Downtown is moving toward Chinatown, raising questions about whether development could erase one of the city’s oldest and most vibrant ethnic neighborhoods.

For decades, a giant swath of vacant land has separated the Loop from Chinatown.

Now, the city has approved plans for a massive new high-end neighborhood there; it’s development on a scale Chicagoans have never seen. Called “The 78,” it’s slated to include 10,000 new housing units as well as commercial and office space and a river promenade. Sixty-story buildings will be allowed to sprout just two blocks north of Chinatown.

“Because of the proximity to Chinatown, it is scary to think about,” said Debbie Liu, a young activist who grew up in the neighborhood.

Part of Liu’s fears come from talking to leaders in other historic Chinatowns around the country about the impact of development on their communities.

“We’ve heard them basically say that because of one development or two developments, it entirely changed their Chinatown. Eventually their Chinatowns got smaller, both in residential areas and in business cores,” said Liu, who works with the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community.

Up to now, Chicago’s Chinatown has been seen as one of the strongest in the nation. But Liu is raising a warning flag about The 78 and the impact it could have on a neighborhood that has been predominantly Chinese for more than a century.

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Debbie Liu grew up in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood. She worries a massive new development could threaten the future of the historic neighborhood. Linda Lutton / WBEZ

Urban Chinatowns are disappearing

“The size of Chinatowns is shrinking,” said Anjan Chaudhry, director of community empowerment at the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development, in Washington D.C. The group has been helping Chinatowns across the country network and implement preservation strategies.

“The low-income communities who have lived there for a long time are being forced out, and they’re being replaced with new residents who can afford to pay more for rent.”

Chaudhry said Chinatowns in Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and even New York and San Francisco are affected.

Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown is just 20% Asian. It’s become the poster child for the gentrification of Chinatowns.

“It’s really the worst-case scenario,” said Chaudhry, whose group takes Asian community leaders to Chinatown in D.C. when they want to show them how bad things can get. (Chicago’s Debbie Liu has made the trip.) “If you walk around in Chinatown [in] D.C., what you see is Chipotle and other chain restaurants.”

To keep Chinatown Chinese, D.C. law says signs in Chinatown must appear in Chinese characters. Starbucks, McDonald’s and even the large Verizon Center stadium that kicked off development there (now Capital One Arena) all boast signs in Chinese.

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Washington D.C. law requires signs in the Chinatown area be transliterated into Chinese. Andrew Leong

“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, but what you’re missing is the neighborhood that used to be here before,” said Chaudhry.

Real-estate prices in D.C.’s Chinatown took off after the sports arena was built, and low-income Chinese who formed the backbone of the community couldn’t afford it anymore.

Chinatowns aren’t just for tourists

History explains why Chinatowns are now at risk, said Sissy Trinh, executive director of the Southeast Asian Community Alliance in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. Many Chinatowns were created more than 100 years ago, essentially through racism. Housing and labor discrimination forced the Chinese to live and work in their own communities.

“If you think about where Chinatowns are geographically located, 100 years ago they were in very undesirable neighborhoods. But now they’re in super desirable neighborhoods: downtown areas, next to formerly industrial districts that are now being converted into high-end lofts.”

You can see all this happening in LA’s Chinatown, Trinh said. There are new luxury buildings moving in, new hipster restaurants.

To get around rent control, Trinh has seen landlords offer residents $10,000 to leave their apartments. They’re then rehabbed or flipped.

As low-income Chinese residents move out, businesses sustained by those residents — everything from grocery stores to hair salons to pharmacies — end up closing. Shuttered grocery stores in LA’s Chinatown have become architecture firms or graphic design studios —“creative office use, as opposed to neighborhood-serving use,” said Trinh.

Trinh said tourists might not understand that Chinatowns are real communities, full of businesses and social services that Chinese immigrants need. They’re walkable, concentrated, and neighbors have bonds.

“Here in LA Chinatown, you’ll see the seniors with their little carts walking down the hill, doing their day’s grocery shopping, stopping for a cup of tea and some gossip with their neighbors,” said Trinh.

As Asian communities form and grow in the suburbs — many more Asians live in the suburb of San Gabriel than in LA’s historic Chinatown, for instance. Services for low-income people in particular are not being replicated there, said Trinh.

“A lot of the families that live in San Gabriel are more middle-income, whereas Chinatown LA is very poor. So you have services that are geared more toward the higher-income folks, which makes it difficult for the immigrants to come in,” she said.

Chicago’s Chinatown has been growing

Andrew Leong, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and an expert on American Chinatowns, calls what’s happening to Chinatowns around the country a “Disney-fication.” They’re neighborhoods that begin to exist not for Chinese immigrants, but exclusively for tourists, said Leong.

But Chicago’s Chinatown has been different — a national outlier. Chinese-owned businesses in Chicago’s Chinatown have been growing, as has the Chinese population. Chicago’s historic Chinatown proper is 90% Asian, and spilling over into neighboring communities. The Armour Square community area that Chinatown sits in is 73% Asian. Asians are also now the biggest racial group in neighboring Bridgeport.

Leong is an advisor on a documentary being made called Three Chinatowns. It features D.C. as a dead or dying Chinatown, Boston’s flagging Chinatown — where there are more white residents than Chinese, said Leong — and Chicago as “the Chinatown that could be, the Chinatown that is surviving, the Chinatown that is growing and thriving.”

Leong said after finding out about The 78, he’s questioning the setup of the film.

“I basically said, oh, my God. At this rate, Boston’s Chinatown may last longer in its authenticity as a traditional historic Chinatown than what is going to happen once the influence, the impact of The 78 comes in.”

Single developments have nearly killed Chinatowns, Leong said. What will a whole new neighborhood do?

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The number of Chinese-owned businesses in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood has been increasing as the neighborhood has been growing. Linda Lutton / WBEZ

Protecting Chicago’s Chinatown community

Leong and activists say there are ways Chicago could try to protect its historic Chinatown and prevent displacement of residents and businesses that serve them.

Leong recommends doing an immediate census of what’s in the neighborhood to be able to quickly monitor changes to housing and businesses.

Community leaders in other Chinatowns say the developer of The 78, Related Midwest, should set aside commercial spaces in the new development for mom and pop businesses and Chinese cultural and service organizations. Job pipelines should be carefully built for existing Chinatown residents to work in The 78.

The city should also buy land nearby to serve as a buffer around Chinatown, Trinh from LA’s Chinatown recommends.

Most important, activists from everywhere agree, is protecting existing affordable housing and creating more — lots of it. Right now, just 5% of the 10,000 units going into The 78 are slated to be affordable.

Leong calls that figure “laughable.”

“In most other cities you have inclusionary zoning that would [require] 10%, 15%,” said Leong.

The developer is also required to build or pay for another 1,500 affordable housing units — some of them in Pilsen and Little Village. But there are no requirements that any affordable units be built in Chinatown.

The city’s Department of Planning and Development says it will implement a formal “preservation plan” if Chinatown residents want one, and it points to efforts to protect the Mexican communities of Pilsen and Little Village as an example of what can be done.

Activists say they need something to prevent real-estate prices and rents from skyrocketing, and low-income people from being pushed out. Census data shows 63% of Chinatown residents rent; 48% have household incomes of less than $25,000 (that’s compared to 27.9% citywide).

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Chinatown has many Chinese-owned businesses that serve both Cantonese and Mandarin-speaking communities that live in the neighborhood. Linda Lutton / WBEZ

Asked if any measures are in place to protect Chinatown, developer Related Midwest referred WBEZ to landscape architect Ernie Wong.

Wong’s firm is designing the street that will connect Chinatown to The 78 and the Loop. Unlike some who argue gentrification isn’t a concern, Wong is worried about it. He doesn’t want Chicago’s Chinatown to end up like those in other cities.

“I get scared about that,” he said.

He thinks keeping housing affordable in Chinatown is critical, especially for seniors. “There’s a level of authenticity that needs to be retained,” said Wong. “If you turn it into this high-end district — even if it is Chinese — you lose that.”

But Wong thinks Chicago’s Chinatown has some built-in protections. A park he designed on the edge of the community can serve as a buffer between Chinatown and The 78, Wong said.

He thinks the recent growth of Chinatown is another natural protection and predicts “greater Chinatown” will continue expanding toward Bridgeport and McKinley Park.

Maybe in the future, “that’s going to be where you have to go to get your really good dumplings at a cheap price,” said Wong.

Wong also thinks a lot of wealthy Chinese will be attracted to The 78. Instead of seeing it as a threat to Chinatown, he thinks it could operate as a release valve, offering well-off Chinese somewhere to live.

And he thinks the developer of the 78 has a stake in seeing Chicago’s historic Chinatown survive “because it makes their development much more interesting.”

Being close to ethnic neighborhoods like Chinatown or Pilsen — “it’s almost like lakefront property,” said Wong. “They can say, ‘Look how close we are to this ethnic neighborhood.’” Wong thinks the relationship to Chinatown can be symbiotic.

But Debbie Liu, the Chicago Chinatown activist, believes Chinatown can’t risk ignoring the experience of nearly every other Chinatown in the country. Chicago needs to plan, she said, because the stakes are really high: “We’re losing culture, we’re losing history that we might never be able to get back.” 

Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.