San Francisco’s Chinatown grapples with gentrification

Mya Franklin, Reporter

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San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the oldest immigrant enclaves in the United States and has fostered a vibrant and bustling immigrant community as well as a cultural hub for Asian Americans and Chinese Americans in American society. Since its establishment in 1848, the Bay Area’s Chinatown has experienced various socioeconomic forces that have cultivated Asian American identities.

Gentrification, the renovation of low-income urban neighborhoods by the influx of affluent residents, increases rent and property values and eventually can cause a loss of cultural diversity.

Lauren Hiller, a housing rights community advocate for the Advancing Justice Asian Law Caucus, said that in lower income communities of color, the complex issue of gentrification is essentially a change in income, race and the cost of the neighborhood.

For San Francisco’s Chinatown, its economic success and increased vulnerability are intertwined. Although Chinatown has preserved some of its character, it is succumbing to gentrification.

“Chinatown is the last frontier [in America], which makes it a more vulnerable place,” Hiller said.

Gentrification in San Francisco has been linked to the tech boom, said Eddie Au, 70, a store owner on Grant Avenue since 1974.

“A lot people can buy on a website, you know, like Amazon, that kills a lot of [small] retail businesses,” Au said. “The young generation, especially, look for stuff on Ebay from big American department stores.”

Jessamyn Edra, staff attorney for the Advancing Justice Asian Law Caucus, says that attributing San Francisco’s booming tech industry is just half of the problem.

“Tech businesses are sometimes hyped up as the number one cause for gentrification,” Edra said.

She said that the heavy influence and presence of the financial district contributes to the displacement of lower-income immigrant communities and their local oriented businesses.

“[The tech industry] is too simple of an answer,” Edra said.

According to both Edra and Hiller, evictions among low income Chinese people are exacerbated due to language barriers. Single room occupancies (SRO’s) inhabited by an entire family in an eight by ten room represent economic prosperity for investors. These buildings are advertised as dorms to young professionals.

These young and typically affluent professionals are valuable for investors to get tenants out of their building, said Hiller and Edra.

“White, wealthy, young professionals [are] better behaved, less troublesome, and wealthier than a four person Chinese family,” said Edra.

Economically, gentrification results in an increase of rent and housing prices, number of evictions and an inundation of luxury housing. In a cultural aspect, economic investments from wealthier residents in poor neighborhoods often result in a gradual loss of their social network.

This multi-faceted issue of gentrification is not solely detrimental to communities. Gentrification, particularly in Chinatown, has had desirable effects for business and the booming economy.

“Yes, gentrification changes the neighborhood for good,” said Edra on behalf of her client, who is the midst of an ongoing case.

When they moved into Chinatown, there were drug dealers on the corner. According to Edra’s client, it was a “shady” neighborhood. After the establishment of their coffee business, it has helped the neighborhood’s economic prosperity.

“It’s great when a community becomes cleaner and has more investment,” Edra said. “However it’s frustrating when the only people who benefit is the wealthy.”

It is undisputed that neighborhoods with reduced crime, cleaner streets and an enclave for economic prosperity is pleasant.

“It is nicer to walk around,” Edra’s client said.

But, this raises the question about the subjectivity of “nice” in lower-income communities like Chinatown.

“We should question whether coffee shops and luxury restaurants mean nicer,” Hiller said.

For some tenants, trendy coffee shops and luxury businesses are appealing. For low-income immigrant residents, a loud, vibrant and traditional dim-sum restaurant is alluring, Hiller said.

In the 1970s, tourism in Chinatown was understood as an important economic component. As Chinatown developed a strong economy, tourism brought wealth and economic transformation.

“Business here is busy because of tourists,” Au said.

Although ongoing gentrified neighborhoods experience a significant boom in economic activity and an abundance of wealth, the distribution of this newfound economic prosperity is shared disproportionally between the new residents and the low-income people who have resided there for generations, said both Hiller and Edra.

“It can’t be all of Chinatown,” Edra said.

The tourism is more profitable because typically, tourists have more money than Chinatown residents.

Au said increasing touristic presence and high-end stores can have a negative effect on ethnic safe havens such as Chinatown that have been close-knit communities for immigrants for years.

Au also said that there used to be only one Chinatown in San Francisco — now, he said, it’s as if there are ten.

The spread of gentrified neighborhoods can be described as a snowballing effect, as more and more people occupy spaces that were once home to low-income immigrant families.

“It’s going downward,” Au said.

Tourist shops can offer a magnetic perspective on the bustling environment in Chinatown. Fans and floral Chinese garb in gift shop windows can be a window into local Chinese culture. At the same time, tourism can hinder the spread of Chinese immigrant culture in lower-income Chinatown.

“[Tourist businesses] are packaging their culture in a specific way,” Hiller said.

“Chinese people can feel frustrated and exploited if tourism is not satisfying,” Edra said.

Although rich in culture, economic profitability, and vitality, Chinatown may be another American example of a neighborhood being a victim of its success.

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Race from the eyes of this generation
San Francisco’s Chinatown grapples with gentrification