The Unlikely Boom of Chicago’s Chinatown

As gentrification and changing cultural preferences wipe out urban Chinatowns across the U.S., a model for survival is being proven in the heartland.

Story by Anna Clark

Photography by Alyssa Schukar

Published on

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It is the kind of cold that burns the skin. But on a Tuesday morning in January, it’s bright and warm in the new branch library in Chicago’s Chinatown. Out the slim vertical windows, subway trains rush by on elevated tracks. Looking north, there is the illusion that the looming Willis Tower is close enough to touch.

In the periodicals corner, where the Chicago Tribune is shelved alongside China Daily, a young woman with long black hair and glasses watches a Chinese game show on a Dell computer, her headphones muting an animated host. A man wears the hood up on his navy North Face jacket as he reads a Chinese language newspaper. Another woman, her hair cropped short, bends her head over a thick textbook and inks notes onto a yellow pad.

Only open since August, the new library is a nexus for Chinatown. After school, kids overrun its sunlit rooms doing homework, reading paperbacks and giggling in corners while older women study language workbooks, preparing for English classes held in the library’s community room.

It was a surprise to many that Chicago invested $19 million to build the architecturally distinctive two-story library, a curving, glass-walled structure designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the same architects behind the sophisticated One World Trade Center in New York and the Centennial Tower in South San Francisco. The building — designed with feng shui principles in mind, in response to community input, the architects have said — replaced an aging structure farther from the train station. Constructed to achieve LEED Gold certification, it counts a green roof, a solar shading screen and in-ground thermal storage tanks among its sustainable features.

A new library branch aims to be a community center for Chinatown’s growing population.

Chicago has created a prominent showcase — with a landmark profile and prime location — for a neighborhood that defies national trends. Gentrification and changing cultural norms have all but killed off the traditional urban American Chinatown. Immigrants no longer pour into the Chinatowns in New York City and San Francisco the way they once did — but they still head to Chicago, home to one of the only Chinatowns in the country that is still growing with recent immigrants. Its population ballooned by 26 percent between 2000 and 2010, spilling out beyond its historic hub at the corner of Cermak Road and Wentworth Avenue and spiraling far enough outward for its two ends to be dubbed “Old Chinatown” and “New Chinatown.” Sixty-five percent of residents in Chinatown’s core are foreign-born, with nearly 10 percent arriving in the last three years.

Residents have their eye on a robust future too. Ping Tom Memorial Park, named for a prominent figure in Chinatown history, recently got a new state-of-the-art fieldhouse. Not far from the park, four bike-share stations were recently installed, better linking the neighborhood to the broader city. And that new library is seeing about 1,500 visitors a day. It has adapted to the community with a collection split between English and Chinese language books, tai chi classes and a cultural appreciation series on Cantonese opera.

Chinatown’s Ping Tom Memorial Park spans 17 acres.

These are the sorts of initiatives that align with the Chinatown Community Vision Plan, which Chinatown’s key stakeholders approved last May. Developed in partnership with the regional planning authority and the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, a local advocacy group, the plan can be seen as a call to action.

Going beyond recommendations for physical enhancements, the plan emphasizes improved relations with local police, who, it suggests, should be trained to affirm the rights of immigrants who are living there illegally. It urges Chicago to implement a language access policy, and prompts local officers to meet regularly with Chinatown leaders. The plan also calls for more green space, beyond the beloved but singular 17-acre Ping Tom park, leveraging the community’s nearness to Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. To date, Chinatown has only two parks, totaling 2 1/2 acres per 1,000 residents, about half of what the National Recreation and Park Association recommends. To compensate, the plan suggests treating the most well-trafficked public places in Chinatown — the streets — as if they were parks, using beautification techniques that invite people to linger.

Overall, the plan “is a vision of what the community would like to accomplish in the next 20, 30 years,” says Sharyne Tu, executive director of the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.

With its emphasis on civil rights, public safety and livability, the plan makes it clear that Chicago Chinatown wants to be a place that people call home — not just a tourist attraction, or a historic curiosity. But there is a fundamental tension in envisioning the polyglot Chinatown of the 21st century. In Chicago, New York City, San Francisco and other cities, Chinatowns are the direct result of racism. Segregationist housing practices pushed Chinese immigrants into isolated enclaves where they banded together in a society that enshrined its distaste for the Chinese in law. Whether it was in places of worship offering services in Mandarin and Cantonese, or community banks catering to immigrants, Chinatown was a place where day-to-day life wasn’t stunted by exclusion.

Today, though, many urbanists, community activists, business leaders and others are dedicated to dismantling the architecture of segregation. The interest in cultivating cities that are not only diverse, but integrated is now mainstream. At the same time, immigrants today have more freedom to choose where they live, whether it is a quiet suburban street, or in the heart of downtown, or in a rural town with a good school district. Census numbers show that immigrants are taking advantage of those choices and fanning outward.

These changing preferences can seem at odds with the 21st-century Chinatown, a neighborhood bound by ethnic culture in an era where a community’s survival no longer demands it. But at the same time, the dissolution of Chinatowns is an aching loss — especially to those who have found a beloved community within them.

That’s what makes Chicago Chinatown so significant. It stands apart from what seems like an excruciating contradiction. Even as Chinese-Americans are integrated throughout the city and region, this is a modern-day ethnic enclave that has found a way to thrive.

A Neighborhood for Every Generation

Chinese immigration in the U.S. dates back centuries, with heavy rises in the desperate aftermath of the Opium Wars and the Qing dynasty in the mid-19th century. Between 1853 and 1873, the height of westward expansion, nearly 14 million Chinese laborers teemed into the United States. Racism festered. In newspapers and magazines, on political pedestals and on barstools, Chinese people were described in the language of animals and disease: “rats” and “yellow peril.” Emerging trade unions blamed Chinese workers for pushing down wages; labor leader Denis Kearney dubbed them “almond-eyed lepers.” In the largest mass lynching in American history, 17 Chinese men were hung in Los Angeles by a mob of 500 people. In the 1870s and 1880s, there were no fewer than 153 anti-Chinese riots across the American West, including in Seattle, Tacoma, Denver and Rock Springs, Wyoming. “Chinese catchers” showed up on the Mexican border to chase down America’s first “illegal immigrants.”

The U.S. passed a law in 1924 that denied admission to the country to most non-white people, with immigration from Asia wholly excluded. Those already in the States teetered in exile — neither here nor there. They often didn’t have means to return to China, but they were also banished from the economic, residential and cultural mainstream of America. For survival, they gathered in urban clusters — tenuous enclaves that shifted with the whims of development and public pressure. In Washington, D.C., for example, Chinatown only came to the blocks between G Street and Massachusetts Avenue in 1931, after federal development displaced residents from another neighborhood. The area was then dominated by German and Jewish immigrants living in flat-roofed pre-Civil War buildings. As one of the oldest mixed-use neighborhoods in the city, it suited the needs of the Chinese community. The family association that searched for a new Chinatown began by leasing commercial space for its member businesses, and by purchasing a double building that it renovated with a Chinese facade to serve as a community anchor. Five years later, the District’s Chinatown was home to 800 people who had already launched Chinese schools, churches and social service organizations.

D.C.’s Chinatown was prospering a generation later when, in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act, eliminating racial quotas and loosening immigration restrictions. The hard-won reform catalyzed Asian life and culture in the U.S. Between 1960 and 1985, the Chinese population in America quadrupled. Around the same time, garment and other industrial sectors moved into Chinatowns across the country in search of cheap labor, which spurred economic growth, including the rise of the Chinese restaurant industry. These neighborhoods, once viewed as “depraved colonies of prostitutes, gamblers and opium addicts,” were soon being marketed by Chinese residents as family-friendly tourist destinations.

But while their appeal as a weekend destination was growing, Chinatowns were seeing the start of a residential exodus. Prompted by urban unrest in the 1960s and ’70s and corresponding white flight, many Chinese people chose to move to the suburbs — or to the “ethnoburbs,” as some have dubbed them. D.C. residents moved into Maryland and Virginia. In New York, Chinese families shifted to the outer boroughs, especially Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Los Angeles residents headed to the San Gabriel Valley, which today is home to eight of the 10 cities with the highest proportion of Chinese-Americans. Monterey Park is believed to be the first suburban Chinatown. Another complicating factor is the emergence of China as an economic powerhouse. The overall number of immigrants to the U.S. is declining, and many who do arrive here are lured back home after getting an American degree and learning English.

Sharyne Tu, executive director of the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, grew up visiting Chinatown with her family.

Sharyne Tu’s family illustrates some of this fluidity. Both of her parents came to Chicago from China. Tu was born on the South Side and grew up in her father’s laundry in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood.

“Every Sunday afternoon, our family would travel to Chinatown for our weekly outing to eat, buy groceries and visit friends,” Tu says. “My father and mother worked six-and-a-half days a week, so this was their only form of social activity.” Her father is also past president of the Moy’s Family Association, which played an influential role in Chinatown’s development.

In 1971, her father’s failing health prompted a move into Chinatown. Her family stayed there for nine years before moving north to Rogers Park, where Tu lives today. She reconnected with Chinatown after starting a job at the Chamber in June 2013.

“It was a transition for me to work in the Chinatown community because I was not involved much with the neighborhood,” she says. “I visited, ate, shopped and watched the Lunar New Year parade each year. It has been great to become more involved with the community and learn or re-live customs and traditions of our culture. … I think my parents would be proud that I am representing the community.”

A dancer poses after performing in Chinatown’s Lunar New Year parade on February 14.

Tu is tasked with promoting the neighborhood to tourists, businesses and residents. By all indications, her work is paying off. But whether it’s because of discrimination, sky-high real estate costs or changing settlement patterns, Chinatowns in other cities haven’t fared nearly as well. Some have been wiped clean off the map.

Detroit’s Chinatown, forced to move in the 1960s by urban renewal, gave its final exhale when the last restaurant closed in 2000. In Walla Walla, Washington, a non-Chinese business owner bought property and eliminated housing, a move that cut off the local Chinese community. In New Orleans, a Chinatown rose and fell within about 50 years, leaving only a few photographs in its wake. The St. Louis Chinatown was traded for Busch Stadium. Los Angeles’ was razed in 1933 for the construction of Union Station; archeologists excavated its remnants in 1987. Back in Washington, D.C., the downtown enclave is hanging by a thread. The traditional Chinese arched gate that’s marked the neighborhood since the 1980s now stands incongruously against a backdrop dominated by luxury condos, chain franchises and the Verizon Center, a 20,000-seat sports and entertainment complex that opened in 1997. Although local law requires businesses to post signs in both Chinese and English, to preserve character, Chinatown’s population has fallen from 3,000 to about 300 residents. Pending demolition of an apartment complex threatens to displace another 150; the owner plans to build a luxury development. Tenants are challenging it in court, but the outlook is grim.

Despite these losses, Chicago’s Chinatown is hardly the first to map out a vision for a flourishing future. Stephen Ostrander, a senior planner for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, says that the team that worked on the vision plan studied similar efforts from Boston, San Francisco and New York. Each of these plans share a common interest in creating affordable housing, supporting local businesses and preserving cultural heritage so that working Chinese families can continue to live in these historic communities. Honolulu also developed a Chinatown plan last summer, which prioritizes walkability and safety.

But moving from plan to reality is never easy, especially when the vision involves fragile demographic and economic dynamics. In San Francisco, zoning rules designed to keep Financial District businesses from spilling into Chinatown have backfired, with Chinese-American entrepreneurs arguing that the regulations unfairly limit what they do can do in their community. Business leaders in Vancouver, B.C.’s Chinatown tried to address a lack of economic vitality by rezoning the area, newly allowing for buildings as high as 17 stories along Main Street. That led to the swift development of several condo projects and the eviction of seven retailers, alarming residents about the future of the community. Chinatown in Boston is dubbed the city’s last immigrant enclave, but the population of white people in the neighborhood has grown significantly. Asians now account for only about 46 percent of residents. To mitigate the further dissolution of the community during a construction boom, a new Chinese-led land trust is trying to buy rowhouses in the neighborhood and hold them for working families. “We cannot let [the community] just disappear like other cities,” Suzanne Lee, a land trust board member told the Boston Globe in April.

For its part, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund has criticized leaders in New York, Boston and Philadelphia for pushing policies that accelerate “the gutting of Chinatowns.” In New York, the 2010 Census marked a 14 percent decline in Asian-Americans living in Chinatown, and a 6 percent drop in the city’s foreign-born Chinese population.

“Government policies have changed these traditionally working-class, Asian, family household neighborhoods into communities that are now composed of more affluent, White and non-family households,” the AALDEF wrote in a recent report.

Intentional Integration

In the heart of the Midwest, though, it’s a different story. The Chinese are the fastest-growing immigrant group in Chicago, and the city’s third largest overall. The Chinatown on the South Side is its second location, established after the first Chinatown in The Loop — founded by Chinese people fleeing racism on the West Coast — was pushed out by mounting discrimination, overcrowding and economic pressure. But in its present location, Chinatown is a bustling center of services and commerce. It’s also home to 8,000 residents, a number that has risen even as the overall population of Chicago has fallen. Residents are also increasingly arriving from different regions of China, bringing with them new-to-Chicago traditions and foods. (Chinatown is also home to Strings, frequently dubbed the best ramen restaurant in Chicago; its menu makes a point to note that many believe the popular Japanese dish originated in China, with ramen being the Japanese mispronunciation of lamian, the Chinese name for pulled noodles. At lunchtime, young adults crowd the stylish restaurant, sweating over bowls of the spicy noodle soup.)

More than 30,000 attendees crowded Chicago’s Chinatown for the Lunar New Year Parade on February 14.

Growth, however, isn’t a silver bullet. Chinatown’s challenges run the gamut from routine urban concerns about litter to deeper issues that come when a community speaks a different language than its representative government. Most of the neighborhood’s residents speak Chinese at home, and about three-quarters say they are not comfortable with their English skills. Recently, high rates of robbery and car break-ins have led to fewer people out at night. But not many crimes are reported because of an uneasy relationship between residents and local police. That’s partly a language barrier. Esther Wong, executive director of the Chinese American Service League, says that from the perspective of the Chicago Police, Chinatown is a low priority. The most serious crimes, like homicide, are unusual so officers don’t understand why residents don’t feel safe, Wong says. Grassroots programs are helping to bridge the gap, though, including a youth-run effort to count all the security lights in the neighborhood and to map the safest routes, tested by seniors for walkability.

One of the most potentially transformational — and difficult — recommendations in the community vision plan is creating a better high school option. David Wu, executive director of Pui Tak Center, says that the nearest secondary school is poor and “almost no one goes” to it. Some attend selective schools, but not every kid gets into them. Those who are left behind don’t have many choices, Wu says. “Immigrants come here so their kids can have an opportunity and a chance. They’ve really put their hope in education.”

Interestingly, the vision plan imagines a Chinatown that, in part, hinges on greater integration into the region. It calls for partnerships to diversify the neighborhood’s businesses and promote them across Chicagoland. It also emphasizes the need for new infrastructure to connect the neighborhood to other parts of the region, including a smaller Chinatown established uptown in the 1970s and suburban areas with large Chinese populations.

In 1963, D.Y. Yuan wrote an academic article that tracked the segregation in New York’s Chinatown from “involuntary choice” to “defensive insulation” to “voluntary segregation.”

“The strong prejudice against the Chinese strengthens the ‘we-feeling’ among them,” Yuan wrote. “They realize that they must help each other in an alien country to which originally they did not belong.” Cities were the best places for the immigrants to gather because they were increasingly shifting into the laundry, restaurant and gift shop businesses, which are most easily sustained in large cosmopolitan communities.

A few shoppers brave Chicago’s cold January weather.

Ultimately, though, Yuan predicted the gradual assimilation of Chinatown residents. He saw voluntary segregation as a “temporary ‘safety zone,’” until hostility toward the Chinese diminished. At that has happened in modern American cities, the need for the community to contain themselves in a single urban neighborhood has declined. Even when Yuan wrote his article, two years before the Immigration and Nationality Act passed, he noted that “the great majority of the Chinese (in New York) are living outside Chinatown, scattered all over the metropolitan area.” Chinatown still existed, though, because of the “‘institutionalization’ of the voluntary segregation” — that is, for business purposes. “Chinatown will continue to exist as a ‘symbol’ of voluntary segregation because it will become a commercial district in which not many Chinese will remain as residents,” he wrote. Complete assimilation was only held back, he suggested, by the era’s resistance to intermarriage.

Yuan proved prescient. Most modern Chinatowns are serving less as a singular manifestation of Chinese-American life than as a central gathering place for people to experience Chinese culture — whether or not they have a Chinese heritage. And indeed, Chinatowns themselves were often built on the ground of former ethnic enclaves that had organically dissolved; the one in Manhattan has previous incarnations as the Irish Five Points and Little Italy.

But as Chicago’s Chinatown demonstrates, this is not a predictable story. More than a hundred years after its founding, the neighborhood has a dynamism that can’t be neatly scripted.

“Chicago Chinatown is the only one in the country that has not been gentrified and also has been expanding,” says Wong, of the Chinese American Service League. And its development is orchestrated not only by leaders at the top of influential organizations, but also by the personal choices of people on the ground.

Wong says residents are much more involved in the community too. Older residents who once were isolated are now active, for example, in the seniors program at CASL. They take calligraphy classes, and travel together to San Francisco and Yellowstone National Park.

Wong was part of the group that founded CASL more than 30 years ago. She remembers that in one of their first programs, it was a milestone when they took Chinese seniors on a field trip to The Loop. That’s just three miles north.

“Even though they lived in Chicago a long time, they didn’t know what Chicago looks like,” Wong said. “They only knew Cermak and Wentworth. They were scared to go beyond that.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in Elle Magazine, the New York Times, Politico, the Columbia Journalism Review, Next City and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book. She has been a Fulbright fellow in Nairobi, Kenya and a Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is also the author of THE POISONED CITY: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books in 2018.

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