WASHINGTON – Faced with a proliferation of luxury housing and chain stores, America’s Chinatowns risk extinction as new immigrants are priced out of city centers, an advocacy group said Wednesday.
A study found that foreign-born residents have become a minority in the Chinatowns of New York, Boston and Philadelphia. The number of white residents has grown in all three neighborhoods since 1990 even as the white populations in all the cities as a whole declined.
“For many Asian Americans, Chinatown is an essential part of our heritage and history. But Chinatowns on the East Coast are on the verge of disappearing,” said the report by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
City planners have contributed to Asian flight by encouraging high-end accommodation and outside retailers who have helped make the neighborhoods trendy, the study said.
The report did not assess the large Chinese-American communities on the West Coast, although they have witnessed broadly similar trends with a Wal-Mart controversially opening last month in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.
Gentrification is a highly controversial force in many large cities of the United States, with advocates pointing to benefits that include expanding tax bases, increasing convenience for wealthier residents and, in some cases, reducing crime.
Throughout U.S. history, immigrant groups have gradually dispersed from concentrated neighborhoods. Some of the Greektowns and Little Italys that once dotted U.S. cities are now barely distinguishable from surrounding areas.
But the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund argued that Chinatowns, which date from the mid-19th century, hold historical and cultural significance worthy of preservation and offered unique benefits to immigrants in terms of housing, food and employment.
“There is still a very real need for the neighborhoods in terms of the resources and the networks that they offer both for new and older Asian immigrants,” said Bethany Li, a staff attorney at the fund.
Li said that historic Chinatowns remained a magnet for new immigrants to learn about job opportunities, even if they eventually live elsewhere.
“The need is still there. The difference is that they can’t live there,” she said.