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  • Writer's pictureSophia Rebolledo

Is The 78 the End of Chicago’s Chinatown?

Updated: Jan 25, 2022

How renewed interest in downtown living threatens ethnic and cultural neighborhoods that have long acted as the first stop for new immigrants.

Change to communities, neighborhoods, and cities is inevitable, and with the latest tide of change, gentrification forces have reached our Chinatown gates.

Every year, thousands of immigrants travel to the United States from their respective countries and look for communities surrounded by language, food, and people for that innate sense of familiarity and belonging. However, across America, because of gentrification, upscale property developments threaten to encroach on reverenced ethnic enclaves that happen to be placed in precious real estate areas due to historic city landscapes and figurations. The nationwide pattern and phenomenon of gentrification are contentious—some believe that its effects are wholely positive, while others argue that gentrification brings about harmful consequences.

Gentrification occurs when “communities experience an influx of capital and concomitant goods and services in locales where those resources were previously non-existent or denied.” Usually, gentrification occurs when wealthy investors move to or begin development in historically less affluent neighborhoods, such as taking advantage of prices in low-income areas, developing new buildings, and increasing the average rent range of the area. Like other ethnic-centered communities and neighborhoods, gentrification is killing Chinatowns.

Due to negatively impactful housing laws, non-white communities (including the AAPI community) were involuntarily forced into legally designated “ghettos.” These now rescinded laws still affect residents repeatedly having inequitable access and abundance to resources available in more wealthy neighborhoods. Even when the living spaces in a gentrifying area remain residential, developers often strategically attract residents of high incomes than the range of income of current residents with services and amenities that increase the overall property value and cost of living.

Instead of community integration, developers conduct selective enforcement of distinction between their advancing developments and original constructions. Moreover, when developers do build residential housing, they are not building to cater to or assist the present low-income families and instead effectively exclude people of color and low-income individuals. The influx and amalgamation of “spatialized privilege” residents with current residents put pressure on the housing market of inflated rates that effectively displace low-income residents. Now, neighborhoods like Chinatown are prime targets for real estate developers.

While Chinatown gentrification in some ways repeats a pattern played out in other ethnic- and minority-dominated neighborhoods, Chinatowns differentiate themselves by their history of racialization, ceaseless transformations, and symbolic and cultural importance. Chicago’s 78 is a tech hub designed for wealthy elites is aiming to spring up just two blocks north of Chinatown. According to a recent Chicago census, 48% have Chinatown resident households hold incomes of less than $25,000, compared to 27.9% of the citywide Chicagoans.

Some argue that gentrification is beneficial since the gentrification process creates “support of projects related to consumption and entertainment” and rapid economic investment. While these effects may be considered beneficial economically, the process of gentrification essentially forces original residents to leave their neighborhoods through exponentially increasing “property prices, coercion, or buyouts.” This pattern of gentrification often leads to negative impacts such as forced displacement, “a fostering of discriminatory behavior by people in power.” The very “otherness” that once forced Chinese and other AAPI immigrants into these self-sustaining and cultural enclaves has been rebranded to wealthy investors as economic value—often at the expense of Chicago’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.

Without local-community involvement, representation, and advocacy, Chinatowns are at risk of becoming historical remnants. Chicago Chinatown’s survival today hinges on characteristics that have shaped it throughout its history: “expansive co-ethnic networks, self-sufficiency, and a genius for reinvention.” Yet, from Chinatown’s origins as a refugee for AAPI immigrants facing discrimination, the neighborhood of supposed community and solace has been defined by the encroachments and interests of outsiders. Today, that pattern continues as Chinatown residents get little say in the direction and character of economic development in their areas and has no signs of slowing down.

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