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Yuppie Condos Destroying Chinatowns?


We're going to spend the next part of the program talking about struggles for land and community. We're going to head to an island off the coast of Georgia that generations of African-Americans have called home, but rising property taxes and a lack of services are making their lives more difficult. We'll hear more about that in a few minutes. But first, we are going to go to Chinatown, and if you've been to a Chinatown lately in a number of east coast cities like New York or Boston or even Philadelphia, you might have noticed something - they're getting less, well, Chinese.

In Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown, for example, you can find the Caps playing hockey, a FedEx store and a couple of Starbucks, but just one Chinese grocery store. A new report out today shows it's not just the buildings, the residents of Chinatown are also changing. Asian immigrants are moving out as luxury buildings attract wealthier residents of a number of other demographics. Bethany Li is with us now. She's the author of that report. It's out from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. And she's a staff attorney with that organization. Bethany Li, welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

BETHANY LI: Thanks for having us join you.

MARTIN: You took a deep look at Chinatowns in New York, Boston and Philadelphia - why did you pick those and what did you find?

LI: Well, they're the three largest Chinatowns on the East Coast and there are still actually a very vibrant, viable, residential (inaudible) community, but we have seen that, based on three decades of census data, that the demographics in the neighborhood are changing. For example, Asians no longer make up more than half the neighborhood. And white populations in each Chinatown are fast outpacing the population in the city overall.

The increase is pretty drastic particularly in Boston and Philadelphia where you see that population doubling just between 2000 and 2010. Another significant factor in terms of gentrification is that the neighborhoods are changing from family households to nonfamily households, and Chinatowns have traditionally been neighborhoods filled with families.

MARTIN: Why is this significant? Why do you feel that this is a subject that people need to be concerned about?

LI: Chinatowns are still communities that have really important infrastructure and network for both the new and older immigrants. Some older immigrants have been living in Chinatowns for years and they rely on the everyday goods that are affordable, and services that are both culturally and linguistically appropriate for them. And then it's still important for newer immigrants coming into the United States now where Chinatown still represent places where they can find jobs, there are employment centers based in these neighborhood, much more so than in even some of the satellite ethnic enclaves.

MARTIN: OK, but let's look at it another way. I mean, a lot of people would see these places as a ghetto. Many people will be familiar with the fact that there are Chinese or Asian groups moving to the suburbs and that people have - I think you used the term satellite ethnic enclaves - in the suburbs. Many people will find that these communities have more space. Many people might think that they have better schools. What's wrong with that?

LI: There are definite advantages and disadvantages to, you know, more communities having more Asian immigrants, for example. But there's a difference between, you know, what I call these satellite enclaves in suburbs and even the outer boroughs in New York, and in Center City, Chinatown, because the infrastructure for both new and older immigrants just isn't there.

MARTIN: Your report cites city government policies, what policies are you saying? You're saying that their government policies are in fact responsible, or is it mostly responsible, or completely responsible for how the demographics of these communities are changing? How so, I mean, I think some people might argue it's personal preference?

LI: The market is definitely playing a hand in all of this, but the government policies, for example, allowing for stadiums to cite in these Chinatowns, but then there are also policies that some people think of as a good thing, like inclusionary zoning policies, which do help to promote affordable housing. But the way local governments have been using it is to use it almost as a red herring to say that they are bringing affordable housing to the community but in fact there's very little affordable housing that's brought in. For example, maybe 15 - 20 percent in one building and the rest of that would be luxury. So that actually significantly impacts a neighborhood even though there is some affordable housing being brought.

MARTIN: The question I think that a lot of people might have is that, you know, it is the - population mobility is the hallmark of American life, you know, dating back centuries. I mean, Harlem in New York was Harlem because it was originally a Dutch neighborhood and then it became predominantly African-American, and now it's a lot more diverse and it's also very - there are a lot more people of Latino heritage there, and so forth.

So population mobility is something that is a fact of life in the United States and some people consider it a good thing that when people don't have the ability to move according to their sort of desires and needs, that it's a static society. So I guess the question I would have for you is do you feel there's some shared social interest in preserving these communities as predominantly Chinese or predominantly Asian? And if so, why?

LI: At the very least, there's a definite advantage in preserving these communities as predominantly immigrant because these communities are the places where new immigrants and old immigrants really are able to survive and thrive. Outside of these communities - for example, a woman that I know, she got public housing that ended up being an hour and a half away by subway from Chinatown. And she ultimately felt like she couldn't move there because her doctor, you know, her family, her other friends that she relies on for childcare support, they all are in Chinatown and she's able to communicate in that area.

MARTIN: What do you feel should happen now? What is your group proposing?

LI: We'd like to take a closer look at policies like the one I mentioned - like inclusionary zoning policies, and make sure that these aren't the types of policies that are promoted when it actually - the result is that it brings much more luxury housing into the neighborhood. There's still public land and public funds, resources, available in each of these neighborhoods. Manhattan's Chinatown, for example, has one of the largest public lands still available that used to have low-income housing on it. These are the types of spaces that - where we should be building more low-income housing.

MARTIN: Bethany Li is a staff attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. She was with us via Skype from New York. Bethany Li, thank you for speaking with us.

LI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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