The ornate, colorful welcome gate at the entrance to Washington D.C.’s Chinatown once marked a thriving immigrant neighborhood. Like Chinatowns in big cities around the U.S., the neighborhood helped working-class Chinese immigrants find a job, a place to live, and a community that would accept them.
Now, D.C.’s Chinatown is a shell of its former self. As the Washington Post reported on Friday, there are only about 300 Chinese-Americans still living there today, down from a high of 3,000. About 150 of those people live in a building scheduled to be demolished later this year.
While D.C. is an extreme example, Chinese-Americans have left Chinatowns nationwide, being pushed out by gentrification and skyrocketing real estate prices. It’s a trend that threatens to erase communities that have given generations of working-class immigrants a shot at the American dream.
Chinatowns were crucial to helping early immigrants get a foothold in big cities like New York and San Francisco—home to the largest Chinatown outside of Asia—as well as smaller ones like Cleveland and Portland. But they were also created by discriminatory housing policies keeping Chinese immigrants in certain areas, and shaped by the violence of racist mobs.
“You couldn’t buy houses, most areas you couldn’t rent apartments, so you’d end up in ghettos,” said Peter Kwong, a Hunter College professor who’s written a book on Chinatowns. “It was segregation, just like with blacks.”
After the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act lifted quotas on Chinese immigrants, Chinatowns across the country saw a growth spurt. As manufacturing businesses shipped jobs overseas, the small, immigrant-led garment factories in many Chinatowns flourished. The neighborhoods also became major tourist destinations.
The gentrification in Chinatowns has to do with the larger trend of people moving back to cities. For decades, Chinatowns were seen as unattractive areas to live in, and locals had to put up with poor city services and housing quality, not to mention discrimination and racism. Now, the same characteristics that made Chinatowns unappealing real estate markets in the past are suddenly attractive: high density, locations close to downtown, walkable streets and good transit access. Developers are replacing old tenement buildings with high-end condos, and more non-Chinese people are moving in.
According to a 2013 study of Chinatowns in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, the percent of Chinese people living in each Chinatown decreased between 2000 and 2010, while white populations grew quickly. Real estate prices in all three neighborhoods went up, and new luxury housing rose above the streets. “Gentrification is really at an accelerated, turbocharged rate,” Bethany Li, a Yale lecturer and one of the study’s authors, told Fusion.
In Boston’s Chinatown, Asians are a minority for the first time, and the neighborhood’s character has been transformed by apartment towers. “We’re slowly being gentrified out of existence,” Andrew Leong, a University of Massachusetts-Boston professor, told the Boston Globe.
In addition to the change in racial statistics, the study also found changes in how people lived. There are fewer multi-generational family households and households with children under age 17 in all three Chinatowns, suggesting fewer families and more college students and young professionals.
These kinds of changes are especially drastic in D.C. Half of the tiny Chinese community that’s still left in the neighborhood lives in a single apartment building, supported by affordable housing vouchers. The residents of the building are currently locked in a court battle with their Virginia landlord, which wants to tear the building down for new development.
“Rich people would never have lived here before, but we’ve set down our roots,” Jianhong Wang, a 77-year-old resident of the neighborhood, told the Post. “Now that circumstances are better, they’re trying to buy everything.”
As Chinese-Americans are pushed out of Chinatowns, more are moving to suburbs or exurban communities, centered now around malls and food courts instead of neighborhood shops. In the country’s 52 largest metro areas, the Asian population grew 66.2% in suburbs and only 34.9% in cities between 2000 and 2012, according to demographer Joel Kotkin. Other immigrants are going back to China, where they see more opportunities for success.
What can be done to help Chinese people stay in Chinatowns? The answer is keeping housing prices down, a major challenge in neighborhoods across big cities, not just Chinatowns. In New York, Chinatown residents have advocated for a rezoning plan that would limit luxury development in the area and incentivize affordable housing. But in other cities like D.C., it may already be too late.
“Gentrification is absolutely going to displace residents if you don’t have countering policies that help keep low income people who have been living there,” Li said. “Cities aren’t accounting for the residents who will be displaced.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.