Bonnie Tsui is a contributing writer to CityLab. She writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods.
According to a new study, the Asian population is falling rapidly; and real estate prices are sky-rocketing.
A good rule of thumb to assess changing demographics in a Chinatown: the share of Asian versus non-Asian restaurants in the neighborhood. This is according to a new land-use study of the three largest East Coast Chinatowns - Boston, New York, and Philadelphia - conducted by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, out today.
Restaurants are a good indicator of Chinatowns' ability to "serve local and regional Asian immigrants," the report says. Right now, just under half of the restaurants in New York's Chinatown are Asian; more than half are Asian in Boston and Philadelphia. But that's changing quickly, as these neighborhoods get gutted by gentrification.
The findings are based on a year of gathering data, block by block, on how space in the communities is being used, and by whom. Researchers say the neighborhoods are rapidly getting more expensive and less useful to the people who need them most. From 2000 to 2010, the share of the Asian population fell in all three Chinatowns. In Boston, it dropped from 57 percent of the population in 2000 to 46 percent in 2010; in New York, it shifted from 48 percent to 45 percent. In Philadelphia is fell from 49 percent to 42 percent.
Housing values and rents have soared; the average apartment in New York and Boston Chinatowns is now much more expensive than in the cities overall. High-end condos, businesses, and hotels have encroached heavily on places traditionally occupied by affordable housing, small businesses, and immigrant services.
Despite the drastic demographic changes, some things still indicate strong neighborhood character: heavily residential and mixed commercial buildings; restaurants and bakeries; the predominance of diversified small businesses. In New York’s Chinatown, most small businesses are still geared toward providing everyday goods and services for local residents and workers (restaurants, groceries, and other convenience stores).
The study also found that green space is negligible, though many elderly residents exercise and socialize in public parks, outside of cramped apartments (Philadelphia’s Chinatown has the least amount of space of all three).
The survey suggests that poor government policies and incentives -- continued support of luxury development, for one -- accelerated the decline of these immigrant communities. What's to be done? Recommendations include allocating public land and funds for low-income housing development and retention at a more reasonable proportion to current high-end development; supporting small, local businesses to offset rising rents, given the symbiotic relationship with residents; prioritizing public green spaces; and engaging community organizations, residents, and the larger satellite communities to maintain Chinatowns as shared cultural history and home to working-class immigrants.
Cities often celebrate Chinatowns as key neighborhoods. But if we're not careful, they could become little more than a historic plaque or decorative welcome gate -- empty tributes to the many real-life working immigrants who continue to need the support of these communities.