The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

November 14, 2013

A hard look at the future of Chinatowns

PHILADELPHIA — People who stroll through Philadelphia’s Chinatown on Saturday nights bathe in the lights of intriguing new restaurants, hip tea shops and stylish lounges.

But moving beneath that shiny exterior, as strong and powerful as an underground river, is a torrent of forces that threaten the neighborhood’s very existence.

An influx of luxury housing, rising rents and land values, a soaring white population and slipping Asian population could mean the end of Chinatown’s 140-year role as a gateway for immigrants and a regional hub for culture and family.

That’s the conclusion of a new study by a civil rights and education group that examined two decades of property and demographic records in the three big eastern Chinatowns — New York’s, Boston’s and Philadelphia’s.

“Chinatowns on the East Coast,” the report said, “are on the verge of disappearing.”

That does not mean the buildings will vanish, or that the neighborhoods will empty of people. Far from it. It means that, if unchecked, market factors promise to turn vibrant communities into “ethnic Disneylands” where visitors come to dine.

For at least a decade, people have watched Philadelphia Chinatown grow more gentrified. The former Clarion Suites at 1010 Race St. is now Ten Ten Condominiums, and a parking lot became the site of Pearl Condominiums, where units sell for $250,000.

What’s new in the report by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) is the detail of the analysis — a block-by-block, lot-by-lot examination that reveals a level of change the report deems “staggering.”

The study, “Chinatown: Then & Now, Gentrification and Displacement on the East Coast,” relied on planning and urban-studies researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.

It showed that in Boston’s Chinatown, Asians have become a minority. New York’s Chinatown is saturated with hotels. In Philadelphia, the median price of a Chinatown home has nearly quadrupled in 20 years.

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