The End of the American Chinatown

A shopper is silhouetted as he walks through a mall adorned with some Chinese lanterns in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles.

A shopper is silhouetted as he walks through a mall adorned with some Chinese lanterns in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles. AP Photo


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LOS ANGELES—As a new immigrant to the United States, Li Zhong Huang knew there was only one place he wanted to live: the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, where he could be surrounded by language, food, and people from his home province of Guangdong. In 2001, he found an apartment with a shared bathroom and kitchen for $390, and moved in, relishing the sunny weather and ample transportation options of his new neighborhood.

A decade after he arrived, though, the neighborhood started changing. Construction started on two new luxury apartment condos. One, Blossom Plaza, now offers two-bedroom apartments with amenities like a pool, a shuffleboard court, and a fitness center for $2,600 a month. The other, Jia Apartments, features a pool, spa, and black granite countertops, with two-bedrooms starting at $2,500.

At first, Huang liked these developments. These new complexes were clean and attractive, replacing buildings that were old and rundown. But then, two years ago, his landlord said he needed to renovate the apartment; after Huang and his wife left for a few weeks and stayed with friends, the landlord raised the rent to $1,600 and changed the locks, Huang told me through a translator. The change happened so quickly that Huang and his wife lived on the street outside their old apartment building for a few days, trying to get back in to collect their belongings.

For centuries, Chinatowns were neglected by outside investors. When legislation reduced the rights of Chinese residents in America, they moved into close-knit communities for protection, and stayed there for years as redlining and other restrictions made it hard to move elsewhere. Investment followed wealthy white families to the suburbs, but Chinese families were prevented from coming along.

But now, as Baby Boomers and Millennials move back into center cities, Chinatowns are some cities’ hottest neighborhoods. Sale prices in Boston’s Chinatown were among the fastest-growing in the city in 2017, increasing$285,000; one of New York City’s biggest condo projects is a $1.4 billion, 815-unit tower in Chinatown that features a 75-foot swimming pool, an “adult tree house,” and an outdoor tea pavilion. According to an analysis by the website Zumper, rents for a one-bedroom in the “historic cultural” neighborhood of Los Angeles, which includes Chinatown, were $2,350 in June of 2017—among the highest in Los Angeles, more than listings in popular neighborhoods like West Hollywood and Silver Lake. A Wall Street Journal analysis found that in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, prices are increasing faster in the ZIP codes including Chinatown than in other downtown neighborhoods.

As investors set their sights on Chinatowns across America, longtime residents are being displaced. “Once you have more luxury units, that starts demographic change, whether it’s Harlem or Chinatown—those signs for luxury housing are the beginning of the end,” Andrew Leong, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, told me. A 2013 study completed by Leong and other scholars for the Asian American Legal Defense Fund found that, between 1990 and 2010, Asians went from a majority to a minority of the residents of Chinatowns in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. D.C.’s Chinatown is down to about 300 Chinese residents, from the 3,000 who lived there at its peak.

Representatives from Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, a volunteer nonprofit in Los Angeles’s Chinatown that organizes residents (and which introduced me to Huang), told me they’re working with tenants in 10 different buildings in Chinatown to fight rent increases and proposed evictions. Katie Wang, one of CCED’s volunteers, told me that “a lot more tenants are talking about landlords harassing them, rent increases, and buildings being bought and sold.”

Some of this displacement is happening because of a lack of strong rent-control laws—Massachusetts voters passed an initiative prohibiting rent control in 1994; Pennsylvania has no state statute governing rent control. But even in places with rent control, Chinese residents don’t feel empowered to speak up when their rights are violated, often because they don’t feel like they truly belong in the larger community, said Jan Lin, a professor of sociology at Occidental College who has studied Chinatowns in Los Angeles and New York. Los Angeles law regulates the amount by which landlords can increase the rent of buildings constructed prior to 1978, but often, residents don’t know their rights, or are intimidated to push back because of their immigration status, said CCED’s Wang.

Alana Semuels is a Staff Writer at The Atlantic, which originally published this article. 

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