The Gentrification of Los Angeles Chinatown: How Do We Talk About It?
Read the second of this series: “Behind LA Chinatown’s Hip Food Scene: Baos, Coffee, and Gentrification”
Walking down Broadway, I stop in front of the intersection at Ord Street. On one corner sits the aquarium I remember passing by during weekend trips to temple and Wing Hop Fung with family. Small single unit apartments line the upper floors of the building. Across the street sits the convenience store auntie used to buy lottery tickets at after she took me shopping at the swapmeets of Saigon Plaza. Images of plastic sandals and matching pajama sets appear. On another corner sits the gifts and souvenir shop where I like to buy sunhats and reusable grocery bags. Postcards, fake flowers, and toys spill over the tables.
On the last corner of Ord and Broadway, older aunties and uncles make their way through stacked boxes of produce that line the small grocery storefronts. A bundle of green onions gets picked up and put back down. Fingers run through open containers of grapes. Pluck! Bursts of Cantonese, Toisan, Spanish, English, Vietnamese, Teochew, or Mandarin can be heard at various moments. I see the 83 bus driving up and making its stop. More aunties and uncles join the crowd.
It’s a Sunday morning, but this scene could be any day of the week. If you’re lucky, the Toisan po po (grandma) will be selling homemade zongzi alongside other street vendors who line the streets with makeshift mats to hold the produce, soaps, and little knick knacks that they sell to often make ends meet. Sometimes the crowds simmer down as the day moves forward and a sweet quietness lingers.
These are some of the images, tastes, smells, and sounds that make up Los Angeles Chinatown for me. Growing up in San Gabriel Valley (SGV), I would often tag along with my family for weekend trips to eat and shop in Chinatown as a child. Auntie and I would hop on the 76 bus and ride it from El Monte’s Valley Mall all the way down Valley Boulevard, passing by some of SGV’s staple restaurants, markets, and businesses. By the time we reached Chinatown, there would be handfuls of Vietnamese and Chinese immigrant aunties, uncles, and seniors accompanying us as we got off at our stop.
As I grew older, our family trips to Chinatown became fewer. Auntie moved to Seattle, I went to college in Riverside, and Chinatown became a memory that I often didn’t think about. Weekends with family were spent in the SGV, where herbal shops, Chinese restaurants, and Asian groceries seemed to become just as abundant.
It wasn’t until I graduated and moved back home in the summer of 2014 that I started going to Chinatown again. It started off slow with me volunteering with Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), a 5 year-old multiethnic and intergenerational grassroots organization that fought against Walmart moving into the neighborhood in 2012 and continues to fight for the rights of low-income tenants and small businesses in the face of displacement, cultural erasure, and social and economic inequity.
Volunteering at one of CCED’s monthly outreach days was when I first began to realize the importance of Chinatown, not just as an aesthetic, historical place of the past, or symbol for social justice, but as a home for the people who live, work, and spend their time here. Each month, CCED volunteers walk the residential neighborhood and talk with tenants about housing issues and their rights. Outreach is an essential part of building the power and self-efficacy of residents to collectively fight for the Chinatown they envision. As I talked with residents more, I heard their joys of living in the community and their fears about losing their homes to rising rents and evictions. The neighborhood provided them a sense of familiarity and comfort, being able to run into friends on the street, buy groceries nearby, and talk with neighbors, service providers, teachers, and restaurant workers in their primary languages.
Slowly, I reconnected with Chinatown. I carved out time over the weekends to be in the neighborhood. I would hop on the SilverStreak bus from El Monte Station to Union Station and walk towards Broadway.
Weekday evening meetings to plan events and discuss our politics, hard conversations with my parents and friends about the classist and racist harassment of poor elders and black and brown homeless individuals, building relationships with residents through dim sum socials, intentionally supporting longtime local businesses — these are forms of organizing that aren’t always visible or loud, but I’ve learned that they work together to fuel the larger fight for social justice and a stronger resistance against gentrification across cities such as Los Angeles.
Reconnecting with Chinatown and organizing with CCED the past few years has shaped much of my politics and passions. It’s taught me to look beyond myself — to think of myself in relation to ideals of community and collectivity. Through residents building their confidence and coming together to fight against the disrespect and injustices they face day-to-day from landlords, city officials, and developers, I’ve seen the immense power in grassroots organizing. From learning more about Chinatown’s history to listening to the stories of people connected to the neighborhood, I’ve fostered a deep and genuine love for this community. This love is what I believe makes it all the more important for me to stay critical of the changes happening in Chinatown and to question who these changes benefit and who they leave out.
A Gentrifying Los Angeles Chinatown
Gentrification threatens Chinatown’s existence as a working-class immigrant ethnic enclave.
Chinatown where it stands today is a historical ethnic enclave that the Chinese American community (re)built in the 1930s after Union Station displaced it from its original 1880s location. In a rapidly industrializing Los Angeles in the 1930s, the construction of a railroad terminal came at the expense of the “old Chinatown” community. In a rapidly gentrifying Los Angeles today, the development of market-rate projects, rent increases, and evictions threaten to displace Chinatown’s working-class population and their community spaces. The displacement happening in Chinatown today is not new but reflects a history of racist and classist policies that have oppressed and segregated communities of color. While acknowledging the histories of displacement that many communities of color continue to face, it’s especially important to recognize that government policies rooted in settler colonialism have displaced Native Americans from their lands. Chinatown and the rest of Los Angeles rests on unceded Tongva territory.
Geographically bounded by the Interstate 110 Arroyo Seco Freeway (I-110), the Los Angeles River, and Dodger Stadium, Chinatown today is a multiethnic, multigenerational commercial and residential neighborhood. Over the years, it has grown to house a large population of multiethnic working-class immigrants (64% foreign born, of which 82% are Asian and 17% are Latinx¹), seniors (20%¹), and tenants (95%¹).
Chinatown has experienced a history of disinvestment and marginalization from the city, but it has recently been marked a prime location for real estate speculation and increased investment from wealthy developers due to its proximity to the urban center of Downtown Los Angeles. With an influx of middle-to-upper class residents and development projects that cater to them, rising commercial and residential rents, and displacement of working-class residents, Chinatown is being gentrified.
Rooted in a History of Exclusion
Gentrification’s threat to Los Angeles Chinatown is not a “random event” but a “systematic process”² rooted in a history of exclusionary laws and policies that specifically targeted Asians from immigration and naturalization. The first of its kind, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act legally barred skilled and unskilled Chinese laborers from immigrating into the United States. Decades following, this changed when a quota system based on nationalities and regions was established in 1943 to allow 105 Chinese immigrants to enter the country every year. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 ended blanket exclusions against immigration from Asia since the 1870s but continued to uphold quotas. It wasn’t until 1965 that this national origin quota system was abolished by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This opened the doors for immigration from Asian countries through two pathways: 1) family reunification of the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents and 2) occupational preference for skilled workers to fill labor shortages in the United States.
Yet, anti-Asian racism still existed in institutions and other laws. Racially restrictive covenants prohibited people of color, particularly black communities and non-citizens, from purchasing or leasing homes. On the federal level, the 1930s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and homeowner programs of the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration explicitly used race to determine where they would approve mortgages.⁹ HOLC redlined almost every majority-black neighborhood in the United States, preventing them from receiving loans.⁹ Through racist planning policies, the federal government deliberately created suburbs for the white and wealthy and disinvested from “dense, mixed-use, and diverse”⁹ inner cities deemed undesirable such as Chinatown.
What Does Gentrification Do and Who Does It Benefit?
Gentrification does not serve to benefit or prioritize low-income communities of color.
A multifaceted process resting on the notions of urban redevelopment and economic growth, gentrification spatially and economically restructures communities of color that have experienced disinvestment from developers and governments but are now found to be profitable. Where land is perceived as cheap and buildings are underfunded or declining, developers believe they will have the biggest potential for profit.⁹ In other words, wealthy developers buy property at lower values and sell them for more, all the while displacing working-class residents and small businesses on the way. According to Peter Moskowitz, it is “a system that places the needs of capital (both in terms of city budget and in terms of real estate profits) above the needs of people.” Cities transform from being spaces that provide for the poor and middle classes and into spaces that generate capital for the rich.⁹
The process of gentrification pushes out poor, immigrant, and elderly people of color in favor of corporations and the rich. It is an extension of racist and classist structures that work in tandem with individuals, such as real estate developers, upper-class Chinese Americans who participate in both state and market processes that drive gentrification, and a demographic of upwardly mobile professionals, artists, and consumers, to restructure Chinatown. As “the spatial expression of economic inequality,”³ it disrupts “existing social structures of support and exchange within communities, most dramatically among people such as the elderly, the poor and non-white racial and ethnic groups.”² These groups are not only at risk of losing their physical homes but also the support networks that give them a sense of community. Ultimately, gentrification is unfettered privatization of land that threatens Chinatown’s existence as an ethnic enclave that serves and sustains its predominantly working-class immigrant population.
While the city’s privileged and powerful profit from investments in market-rate developments and a rebranding of Chinatown, the community’s most marginalized face illegal rent increases, poor housing conditions, and the loss of important community institutions such as its oldest and only hospital. But, which story gets heard and centered in conversations and planning processes? Chinatown’s low-income immigrant residents are often ignored by developers, politicians, and community leaders. This is reflected in more development proposals for market-rate housing than for low-income senior housing, in more mainstream media coverage on Chinatown’s rising hip food scene than on the longtime family-owned restaurants hustling to serve noodle soups and stay in business or the aunties and uncles being served eviction notices and rent increases from landlords (see: how majority senior low-income residents are fighting to stay in their apartments at 651 Broadway).
Rooted in Neoliberalism
According to Grace Kyungwon Hong, neoliberalism is foremost “an epistemological structure of disavowal, a means of claiming that racial and gendered violences are things of the past.”⁴ With neoliberalism comes the defunding of social programs that serve poor people of color, the deregulation of market forces that enable rich interests and corporations to flourish, and the increased commodification and dehumanization of people and places. Gentrification is a form of neoliberal economic development that erases the violence that oppressive systems direct towards poor people of color.
Through neoliberalism, the state extends recognition and protection to a select few at the exclusion and expense of many. This is done by ascribing value to certain groups of people while rendering others as devalued. Affluent East Asian property owners, developers, and young professionals make up some of these groups who now have “access to capital… in ways that were previously unimaginable.”⁴ This ranges from property owners and developers who serve on the board of directors for the Chinatown Business Improvement District to middle-to-upper class entrepreneurs opening up artisanal coffee shops in the neighborhood.
Gentrification works within a neoliberal framework to disavow the social, economic, and geopolitical violence it enacts on poor bodies of color and their physical and social constructions of space in favor of whiter and (financially) wealthier bodies and spaces. It literally and figuratively erases the bodies, community spaces, and narratives of working-class people of color.
Displacement through Gentrification
Rising commercial and residential property costs spatially and economically exclude working-class residents and small businesses who cannot afford to participate in a city’s economic growth. The poor and their community spaces are seen as deviant and invaluable for their inability to be productive or profitable. Our system of capitalism prioritizes profits over people.
There is a growing economic and social divide between the working-class community members and the new wealthier, and often white, professionals and artists in Chinatown. This speaks to the ways in which governments and government-like private and public institutions, such as the non-profit Chinatown Business Improvement District, render some people visible (and valuable) and others invisible (and not valuable) through the promotion of gentrification. Business Improvement Districts are often a tool of gentrification, participating in the increasing criminalization and privatization of urban cities. Working closely with both local governments and private investors, they play a large role in the decision-making processes of urban redevelopment. With property owners sitting on their boards and a lack of engagement with working-class residents, are they truly representative or accountable to the needs and wants of the rest of the neighborhood?
A key and inherent element of gentrification is the displacement of low-income people of color and homeless communities through increased rents, evictions, and criminalization and aggressive policing, the latter of which disproportionately impacts black and brown folks. In Chinatown, gentrification threatens to indirectly and directly displace existing informal economies, small family-owned businesses, cultural institutions, and the significant population of seniors, tenants, and immigrants. More than 41% of the population lives in poverty,⁷ but more spaces are made inaccessible and unaffordable for residential and commercial tenants, forcing them to leave Chinatown because of rising rents. Public spaces are increasingly being policed by private security who are hired by the Chinatown Business Improvement District. They have harassed street vendors, musicians, and homeless individuals who make up the community.
In Chinatown, gentrification takes place in the form of wine bars and micro hotels (with nightly rates of $1,199) to new proposals for microbreweries and mixed-use complexes such as the 770-unit College Station Project by Altas Capital Group and the 920-unit Elysian Park Lofts by Lincoln Property and S&R Partners that all appear to be 100% market-rate housing. This disregards the livelihoods of existing working-class immigrant residents and the needs and demands for culturally appropriate health and social services, community gathering spaces, grocery markets, and quality low-income housing. When residential projects and new businesses are developed solely to attract and cater to “a younger, more privileged and upwardly mobile demographic,”¹ gentrification is economic investment in a new demographic of affluent individuals and businesses at the exclusion of the existing poor community.
When We Say “Change is Inevitable”
Oftentimes, the changes associated with gentrification and displacement are framed as inevitable, especially in order for a city to grow and progress. When we simplify gentrification as the “revitalization” of a low-income neighborhood, who is this revitalization for? If we frame it as a naturally occurring process of urban development and just the economic market doing its thing, we fail to recognize and hold accountable the powerful players and systems of oppression that drive racism, classism, and social and economic inequity. We fall complicit to the functions of the neoliberal state which 1) literally and figuratively erases gendered and racialized bodies, spaces, and narratives and 2) denies any recognition or accountability for the violent impacts that gentrification has on working-class communities of color.
Framing gentrification as an inevitable process in our everyday discourse reinforces the oppressive structures entwined in race and class that enable it to thrive and displace. Gentrification is “reproduced on a daily basis through the lived experiences of those within the neighborhood and the discourse about the neighborhood.”² It is “not a naturally occurring process, but the result of highly politicized and racialized origins”² and inequitable decision-making.
If we change the way we talk about Chinatown and gentrification, what individual actions, policy making, and collective grassroots organizing could this manifest into materially? From boycotting new art galleries to demanding stronger rent control (see: the initiative to repeal Costa Hawkins) to fighting wealthy white landlords attempting to increase rents and evict mariachis, organizations and collectives across Los Angeles, such as Defend Boyle Heights, Los Angeles Tenants Union, and Chinatown Community for Equitable Development challenge gentrification through direct actions and tenant organizing. They imagine and fight for communities where housing is respected as a human right and working-class communities of color continue to exist and thrive.
Gentrification is not inevitable. It is a process that can be interrupted.²
Literal Erasure: Who Are These Spaces For?
Gentrification creates spaces inaccessible to working-class residents of color, literally erasing their bodies by limiting their ability to afford, feel welcomed, or exist in these spaces.
In Chinatown, gentrification most visibly manifests as residential and commercial projects that range from luxury mixed-use apartment buildings to art galleries to hip coffee shops and eateries. From Jia Apartments on Broadway to the isolated galleries on Chung King Road to the chef-driven restaurants in Far East Plaza, these projects all function together to drive and sustain gentrification by catering primarily, if not solely, to the younger, upwardly mobile demographic of professionals and artists that developers, such as Tom Gilmore and Izek Shomof (some of Los Angeles’s biggest gentrifiers), market to and profit from. These are the commercial spaces that line developers’ visions of trendy urban destinations and the people who can afford market-rate studios and goods that are too expensive for the majority of Chinatown’s residents. As both the executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District and vice president of Macco Investments Corp. (the investment company that owns Far East Plaza) George Yu is oftentimes credited for bringing these new businesses into Chinatown.⁸
Despite increasing demands for quality low-income housing and senior housing, more developers seek to build projects in Chinatown that the majority of residents cannot afford to live in. Jia Apartments and Blossom Plaza are two luxury mixed-use (retail and commercial) buildings with monthly rents starting at $1,929 and $1,845 for 571 square feet⁵ and 436 square feet⁶ studios, respectively. As an attempt to fit within the neighborhood, these buildings feature facades with red accents, lanterns, and names (Jia means “home” in Mandarin) to evoke an exotified Chinatown aesthetic. Yet, in Chinatown, where the median household income is $18,657 and 95% of the population are renters,¹ who can afford to call these places home?
A significant number of residents already struggle with paying rents that fall far below those of Jia Apartments and Blossom Apartments. In 2013, 47% to 57% of residents were rent burdened,⁷ spending more than 30% of their household income on rent. From 2007 to 2011, 21% of Chinatown’s residents paid between $100 and $499 in gross rent while 46% paid between $500 and $999.⁷ The degree of feeling rent burdened and the percentage of those who are rent burdened can be expected to rise as incomes continue to stay low and rents continue to rise with the influx of unaffordable housing projects associated with real estate speculation. These luxury apartments are not built to house people, especially the poor, but to generate capital.
Figurative Erasure: How Do We Talk About Chinatown?
Gentrification sustains itself through everyday discourse and functions to figuratively erase the stories and experiences of working-class residents.
In mainstream social media, narratives on Chinatown often center the so-called revitalization of the community and most recently, its changing food scene. From Eddie Kim’s “How an Aging Chinatown Mall Became a Hipster Food Haven” to well-known food writer Jonathan Gold’s “Chinatown Emerging as LA’s Hottest Restaurant Destination”, these articles mirror a deep history of Orientalism that has defined Asians and ethnic enclaves such as Chinatown against the standards of Western racial and gender norms so that they are both feared as perpetually foreign and hypersexualized as exotic.
Today, Chinatown’s existence as an immigrant ethnic enclave is often described as fading, dying, or aging, contrasting with a parallel description of it as trending, hip, and revitalizing. These descriptions are extensions of Orientalist narratives that dehumanize and hypersexualize Chinatown as a dirty and backwards yet captivating tourist destination. This frames the neighborhood as something that can then be exploited, conquered, and controlled.
By centering narratives of chef-driven eateries and coffee shops and their upwardly mobile entrepreneurs and clientele, these frameworks decenter and erase the narratives of those most threatened by gentrification: the existing small businesses and working-class residents.
Chinatown is a community that continues to bustle with traditional Cantonese and Vietnamese restaurants serving house special chow mein and bún riêu, longstanding Chinese family associations that serve as political and social support systems for immigrants, and informal economies such as the street vendor aunties that sell produce on Broadway. People live here. Community spaces important to them, such as Alpine Park, gardens, temples, churches, and herbal shops, still exist. To remember the community’s strengths is just as important as recognizing its needs and issues of inequality. There exists an inequitable distribution of resources, inaccessibility of residential and commercial spaces, and a growing income gap, all of which gentrification worsens.
When do we include the narratives of Chinatown’s residents and community spaces? Do we only remember them when what is perceived as “Chinatown culture” can be exotified and commodified such as in case of the art galleries, Jia Apartments, and Blossom Plaza? Chinatown’s relevancy should not be dependent on how “up-and-coming” it is for developers and young professionals. Chinatown’s significance should not rest on its ability to be profitable.
When the dominant narratives we hear in everyday conversations, mainstream media, and decision-making processes regarding the future of Chinatown are those that primarily, or solely, highlight the new residential and commercial projects, rather than the needs or history of the existing community, gentrification is both centered and disavowed. Centering the narratives and livelihoods of the working-class immigrant community can enable us to imagine the possibilities of an equitable Chinatown, one where people are prioritized over profits. One way to get there is to look at alternative economic development models such as community land trusts and business and housing cooperatives that are driven by working-class communities.
Sitting with Feelings of Discomfort: A Call for Self-Critique
What realities are possible if we see cities, particularly gentrifying low-income neighborhoods of color, as more than just destinations, properties with real estate value, or places for the consumption of cold brew, trendy foods, colorful brick walls, and aesthetic Instagram photos — but communities with history, tension, and cultural wealth? As developers, corporations, and local governments aim to restructure communities similar to Chinatown for the rich at the expense of the poor, we have a responsibility towards the people and spaces that exist here. By seeing ourselves as more than just consumers but as active members in a community, we open up the artistic, grassroots, economic, and political possibilities for us to challenge the structural and political forces that make cities inequitable.
The coffee shops, boutiques, art galleries, and hip eateries that we often associate with gentrification and the upwardly mobile professionals and creatives they attract are actors in a larger system that makes gentrification possible. This system is one rooted in capitalism, prioritizing profits over people. It is one that is oppressive to black and brown, Muslim, immigrant, queer and trans, disabled, and indigenous communities. It is one that is inequitable and unsustainable.
Until working-class residents are driving the decision-making processes of what happens to their neighborhood and their economic and social needs are met, we need to hold gentrifiers accountable to the community that their presence threatens and disrupts. How are they critically self-examining and proactively challenging their role in gentrification? As long as there is a lack of low-income housing, grocery stores with fresh and affordable produce, community centers, stronger housing regulation, accessible healthcare services, and a stop to evictions and drastic rent increases, we should be critical of any “revitalization” of this low-income neighborhood of color that functions to displace or render working-class residents invisible.
Chinatowns, such as the one in Los Angeles, were the products of historical racial segregation. Yet, they served as spaces to foster community and agency, while preserving culture and identity for immigrants facing racial discrimination. They continue to be homes for the poor, elderly, and people of color but gentrification threatens this.
Gentrification is not inevitable. It is an intentional process of redevelopment and displacement driven by rich, powerful interests who poor communities of color have the collective power to challenge and keep accountable. From joining existing efforts that demand equitable development and stronger housing policies to getting to know our neighbors to changing the way we talk about Chinatown, how will you fight for working-class residents of color and a Chinatown that continues to support their existence?
*Elysian Park Lofts — that 920-unit residential and commercial project mentioned in this piece — is accepting written comments on its potential environmental impacts until January 31st. It’s one of the largest development proposals in Chinatown and currently has zero mention of housing that is truly affordable for the majority of the community’s residents. Learn more and send in your comments here. *EDIT: Community stakeholders have been demanding better outreach and engagement with Chinatown residents from the city and developer regarding this project. The deadline to send comments has been extended to February 28th.
*Check out Chinatown Community for Equitable Development’s newsletter to read more about their organizing work in Chinatown.
*This piece is dedicated to communities organizing against gentrification, Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, and the working-class seniors of Chinatown who I’m deeply grateful to be able to learn from.
- Chung, Wendy. “One Chinatown.” 2016.
- Havlik, Brooke J. “Eating in Urban Frontiers: Alternative Food and Gentrification in Chicago.” 2013.
- “What We Don’t Understand about Gentrification.” Stacy Sutton, YouTube, TEDx Talks, 15 Jan. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqogaDX48nI.
- Grace Hong. Death Beyond Disavowal: The Impossible Politics of Difference. 2015.
- “Jia Apartments.” Equity Apartments, http://www.equityapartments.com/los-angeles/chinatown/jia-apartments##bedroom-type-section-0
- “Floor Plans.” Blossom Plaza Apartments, http://www.blossomplazala.com/floor-plans/.
- Mai, Randy, and Bonnie Chen. “The State of Los Angeles Chinatown.” 2013.
- Spiers, Katherine. “Chinatown’s Far East Plaza Is a Dining Destination Thanks to George Yu.” 2017.
- Moskowitz, Peter. “How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood.” 2017.