A Lunar New Year celebration in Boston's Chinatown in 2004. AP Photo/Angela Rowlings

The Chinatown Atlas stitches together a digital portrait of the evolving neighborhood.

As Chinatowns across America experience shifting demographics and are squeezed by gentrification, how can cities preserve these storied neighborhoods—both in collective memory and for the people who continue to depend on them?

For Boston, the Chinatown Atlas is a start. An ongoing project by Tunney Lee, a professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at MIT, the Atlas uses a trove of historical images, maps, and news articles unearthed from various archives to tell the story of the Boston neighborhood that has served as a landing board for so many Chinese Americans. Originally conceived as a banner display and shown at multiple galleries and historical societies around the city, the project is now partially available online.

It began in 2001, Lee says, as a way of “looking at the changing streetscape,” mapping the growth of Chinatown and its multi-faceted relation to the city. When Lee tells people he studies Chinatown, he says, they ask for restaurant recommendations. He hopes that the Atlas will spur a deeper conversation. ”We want people to go beyond that, to understand how complex the history is,” he says. ”It’s not simply victims and oppressors.”

The Chinese American Civic Center on Tyler Street in the 1980s. (Chinatown Atlas)

Lee’s great-grandfather came to Boston in 1892. His grandfather, his father, and his cousin came later. The Chinese Exclusion Act made it difficult to start a family—or hold one together—in Chinatown. Lee’s ancestors were among the many who returned to China to get married and have children. Lee was seven years old when he arrived in Boston in 1938 as a refugee from the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Atlas is of great personal importance to him. “It tells a story that people forget, how our ancestors suffered terrible hardship, and how they survived,” he says.

The stories, images, and maps are sorted by era, spanning 1875 to the present and defined by turning points in immigration law, physical and infrastructural changes to the city, and social shifts that reshaped Boston’s Chinatown community.

Chinatown Atlas documents the beginnings of Boston’s Chinatown in the late 19th century, when Chinese men who had come to work on the construction of the transcontinental railroad were driven out of the West by widespread anti-Chinese legislation and violence. By the 1890s, the Atlas reports, Chinatown had formed on Harrison Avenue between Essex and Beach Streets. In the context of the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882 and extended through 1943, the Atlas explains that Chinatowns served as:

“A community base ...with the services and sense of home needed by those who worked hard and lived lonely lives except for Sundays. Because of the Exclusion Act, they were men without their families. There were stores selling groceries and supplies; restaurants serving familiar food; barbers to cut and trim the queues; village associations where letters from home could be picked up and kinsmen to talk to.”

And this was how Boston’s Chinatown—and many others—persisted, not as the place where all Chinese people lived, but as a hub of community and social services for both residents and suburban Chinese working-class populations.

But from the outside, Boston’s Chinatown was seen at times as an undesirable neighborhood, a blight on the city. When, in the 1960s and ‘70s, there was an explosion of sex shops, adult bookstores, and strip clubs, the Boston Redevelopment Authority responded by confining adult entertainment businesses to an area on Washington Street bordering Chinatown. This area became known as the Combat Zone, troubled by drug trade, prostitution, and crime. It endangered residents and formed a physical barrier between Chinatown and the city. Photos such as the one below, from the Atlas, show the striking juxtaposition of Combat Zone businesses with the traditional shops and restaurants.

As the Combat Zone began to fade, Sino-Vietnamese entrepreneurs opened stores. (Chinatown Atlas)

The Combat Zone faded as the adult entertainment business turned to DVDs and the internet, and generational change, law enforcement, and redevelopment shifted the activity there. Meanwhile, urban renewal and institutional expansion from Tufts University and the New England Medical Center tore through Chinatown. A once undesirable area became high-value real estate, and luxury developments began to eat at the edges of the ethnic enclave. A parcel of land reclaimed after conclusion of the Central Artery Tunnel Project in 2007 was promptly renamed from Chinatown to South Bay, and the South Bay Tower proposed for the site, if completed, would be Boston’s tallest skyscraper. Chinatown now is hemmed in all around.

Now, “the Chinese population of Boston is growing, but Chinatown is not—it has no place to grow,” Lee says. Rents are rising, and growth in the white population of Chinatown outpaces the increase of the Asian population. Still, the City of Boston proclaims a commitment to preserving Chinatown, hoping to save its historic rowhouses.

Through Chinatown Atlas, Lee and his collaborators preserve the neighborhood’s heritage by doing justice to a history that is often neglected. Maps detail the expansion of Boston’s Chinatown over the course of the last century; newspaper clippings illustrate the changing public perception of Chinatown and the Chinese; stories told from the perspective of the street itself describe the moments that shook the neighborhood. Chinatown Atlas looks beneath the surface—past the colorful restaurant awnings and souvenir shops outsiders see—to examine the role of Chinatown in a changing city.

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