Chinatown Fights For Its Future

Chinatown has long been Boston’s thriving immigrant enclave, attracting tourists and locals alike with lantern festivals, sidewalk markets, and authentic dim sum. But as affordable housing units are replaced by luxury high-rise buildings, some residents wonder whether the neighborhood will be able to survive.

Chinese immigrants first came to Boston in 1890, and were drawn to Chinatown for what it has been known for since: plenty of affordable housing. A 2010 census classified 47 percent of Chinatown’s housing as affordable, but that number is expected to drop to 36 percent with construction underway.

As Asian residents are being forced out due to increasing rent prices, some organizations have taken to the streets. The Chinese Progressive Association has played a central role in gathering residents for protests to “remain, reclaim, and rebuild their community,” according to resident Kim Situ.

“Chinatown has been here for 150 years and the residents helped build this into a vibrant neighborhood,” Situ said. “Now residents are being pushed out because they can no longer afford to live here.”

The Boston Housing Plan identified gentrification as a concern in 12 of Boston’s 15 neighborhoods this year. Loss-of-lease signs in storefronts are becoming increasingly common, and many residents have relocated to Asian-populated neighborhoods in Quincy and Brighton.

Lydia Lowe, Executive Director of the CPA, facilitated the organization’s monthly meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 2. As she read current buyer proposals aloud to members, Lowe called on luxury housing developers to “be more involved in our community” by presenting their City-mandated affordable housing plans at CPA meetings.

“There is $5.9 million that Millennium Partners needs to pay, which can be used to help purchase and fix up the [abandoned building on Harrison Ave.] for low-income housing,” Lowe said.

While some organizations are pushing for reform, others do not believe gentrification is a threat to Chinatown.

Courtney Ho, Executive Director of the Chinatown Main Streets Initiative, argues that the recent business turnover is a good thing.

“People are seeing a trend in businesses closing, but it also means new businesses are coming in,” Ho said. “Leases are aging out. Some people are retiring. The new businesses that are coming in are still Asian-owned, and they are owned by and targeting a younger crowd which means they may stay longer.”

Ho did not comment on current housing reform movements.
Mike Weiss, owner of the new Jaho Coffee & Wine Bar at the base of The Kensington luxury apartments, is not an Asian or Asian-American owner, but certainly appeals to the young crowd Ho discussed. Jaho is a Japanese-themed bar, featuring boba tea and Japanese siphon coffee, as well as waving Chinese Zhao Fu cats for decoration. Weiss believes the neighborhood needs higher end shops and storefronts to keep it afloat.

“Ten years ago you couldn’t walk down [Washington Street] without getting shot. It was called the Combat Zone,” Weiss said. “A lot of people are happy the neighborhood is changing, and we have no intent to push out the locals.”

The Combat Zone was a term coined in 1974 by the Boston Zoning Commission to begin the rezoning of lower Washington Street, which was formerly known as an “adult entertainment district.”

Many residents believe Jaho took the place of the neighborhood’s beloved Maxim Coffee House, which closed in early September of this year after posting a sign that read: “Loss of lease. Closed after 33 years.”

When asked about hiring Asian immigrants or Asian-Americans at his shop, Weiss responded with, “What? Do they own this neighborhood?”

According to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Asians made up 77 percent of Chinatown’s 4,400 residents in 2010. Lydia Lowe of the CPA says that number has been on a steady decline the past five years.

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