Saving Chinatown 

As ethnic enclaves around the country grapple with displacement and gentrification, activists and business leaders offer competing visions for the future of Oakland Chinatown.

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As other historic Chinatowns have been practically wiped out as a result of changing demographics and unchecked development, it's worth asking: What's the best way to save Oakland Chinatown?

Gentrification is often associated with socio-demographic shifts in which white newcomers displace longtime Black and Latino residents, but all around the country, ethnic enclaves similar to Oakland Chinatown are also in danger of being gentrified out of existence — or, at the very least, becoming a shadow of their former selves.

In Boston, an influx of luxury condominiums caused what had traditionally been a working class and predominantly Asian Chinatown to become increasingly affluent and white, according to a 2013 report on the gentrification of Chinatowns published by the Asian American Legal Defense Fund. In Washington, DC, the situation is even more dire: According to a Washington Post story published in July, only three hundred Chinese Americans are left in all of that city's Chinatown, down from a high of 3,000 — and many of those who remain are embroiled in a protracted legal battle to prevent their landlord from demolishing their Section 8 building to make way for more luxury condos.

click to enlarge Lailan Huen runs a national anti-displacement initiative. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Lailan Huen runs a national anti-displacement initiative.

Lailan Huen, who runs a national anti-displacement initiative for the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (whose West Coast office is located in Oakland), recently completed a nationwide tour of historic Chinatowns. In an interview, Huen said it's overly simplistic to say that a Chinatown is "dying" just because some white people have moved in. But she confirmed that while a number of Chinatowns around the nation continue to thrive, the danger of displacement is very real.

DC's Chinatown, she said, was "pretty much the worst" example. Once comparable in size to Oakland's Chinatown, it now consists of about two city blocks — and even those are dotted with chain stores whose only connection to the old neighborhood are their architecture and signage. As the Washington Post story put it, "The historic Chinatown Garden restaurant shares a block with Panera Bread. The Chinese Community Church stands across from new high-rises."

Huen explained that the Chinatowns, Little Tokyos, and other similar ethnic enclaves have always been vulnerable because of their proximity to downtown areas, where rents and property values tend to skyrocket during boom times. Over the years, Oakland's Chinatown has also been impacted by these kinds of external pressures: Large sections of the old neighborhood were torn down in 1950 to make way for Interstate 880, and then again in the Sixties when the Webster Tube and Lake Merritt BART Station were built. Chinatown residents moved and rebuilt their community to adjust to each of these changes. And, for now, despite the occasional empty storefront, the neighborhood remains a mostly vibrant, bustling place — and one that's still overwhelmingly Asian.

What's frightening, though, is how quickly it can all fall apart — a matter of ten or fifteen years in the case of DC's Chinatown, which began to change rapidly following the construction of a sports arena, the Verizon Center, in 1997.

And if the last vestige of Chinese residents really do get pushed out of DC's Chinatown — or Oakland's, for that matter — Huen fears that what remains won't be much of a Chinatown at all. "You can have restaurants there, but it's not real," she said. "It's basically like Disneyland for the gentrifiers."

For those advocating to protect the cultural legacy of Oakland Chinatown, part of the problem is that the neighborhood is largely an enigma to members of the general public who aren't involved in its day-to-day life — who know it as an occasional dim sum destination, perhaps, but nothing more.

It doesn't help that, in recent months, the neighborhood has become a sort of token that gets trotted out whenever local media outlets decide to run stories critical of Oakland's recent minimum wage increase. Inevitably, a shopkeeper or restaurant owner from Chinatown is the one quoted saying that he or she is "dying" as a result of the wage hike, or opining, ominously, that workers won't benefit if all the businesses in the neighborhood shut down. (Four of the first ten results from a recent Google search for news stories about Oakland Chinatown were articles about the minimum wage.)

This is no coincidence — in part because, by most accounts, the transition to the higher wage has been difficult for many of the neighborhood's small businesses. In addition, the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce has been an outspoken critic of Measure FF, the ballot measure responsible for raising the minimum wage — from $9 to $12.25 an hour — this past March. In one memorable headline-grabbing example, former chamber president and current board member Carl Chan described the minimum wage as the "final nail to the coffin."

Chan, more than any other individual, is the public face of Oakland Chinatown. Emcee of this year's StreetFest, consummate hobnobber, and wearer of innumerable hats, he's known to many by his longstanding nickname: "the mayor of Chinatown." In addition to his day job running Claremont Development (an East Bay real estate company), Chan is the chair of the Chinatown crime prevention council, chair of the board of directors for the nonprofit Asian Health Services, a board member of Visit Oakland, and a member or chairperson of a half-dozen other assorted committees in Oakland.


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