By Lori Lee
NDG Contributing Writer
As large-scale developments push through cities across the country, central neighborhoods suffer, neighborhoods like San Francisco’s historically Black Bay View Hunter’s Point and Chinatowns in major cities.
Chinatowns, which historically developed due to labor and housing discrimination, isolated the populations within their own neighborhoods, explained Sissy Trinh, executive director of the Southeast Asian Community Alliance in Los Angeles. A hundred years ago, these neighborhoods were very undesirable, but now, they are near industrial districts, often converted to high-end lofts, she said.
Though people have fought hard for these communities, they have been hurt by disinvestment. Long-term residents have pushed, as developers build on these sought-after sites and as rents rise. Restaurants that have served the neighborhood for decades are being replaced with uses that fall short of serving their communities, explains landscape architect Ernie Wong.
In Philadelphia, three major real estate developers have been working together to build an arena in the city’s core at Chinatown’s backdoor. Neeta Patel heads up a grass-roots organization that is pushing back to preserve the irreplaceable neighborhood.
The Philadelphia Chinatown neighborhood is a thriving place of living, worshiping and celebrating, said Patel, a community that has survived 150 years because people have fought for it.
Asian American United is helping the community to fight the displacement model that is disrupting cultures and communities across the world, said Patel, interim executive director of the organization.
The developer’s model has a tendency to fail to benefit the people living in these neighborhoods, said Patel. It commodifies lives. Though the model does extract value from the community, it does so for monetary gain, while failing to recognize community as representing value.
These places, homes and communities matter to people. They have value, said Patel. We create value that is beyond money,” she said. “We give it life. We make it go. We put down memories.”
Patels warns, the developers’ model will disrupt the places where people come together and erase the culture of families and neighbors.
Vibrant areas with diversity have become a desirable amenity, as developers recognize the benefits they can offer. Being near a Chinatown is almost like lakefront property,” explained Wong, and there is the risk that Chinatown will become like a tourist destination.
As these places cater to outsiders, residents can no longer afford to frequent neighborhood establishments, and as this happens, the neighborhood starts to lose its appeal. Patel explains that when developers build facilities like malls that don’t meet the needs of the existing residents, they not only displace people, but they are also taking away the places that people want to be.
And this is not just about Chinatown, said Patel. The development will impact the entire regional community, destroying the diversity that makes the city interesting and which draws people to the core.
The City of Philadelphia is not at all involved in the private development, explained Patel, so there are none of the levers or control mechanisms that would have been involved in a public or semi-public development.
The organization has been working with young volunteers, which cross the generations to get the word out. It is a communications strategy that has been successful, said Patel, but the billionaires are pushing back. Recently, stories coming out of the community have been blocked from the media.
Patel’s story of Philadelphia’s Chinatown demonstrates that low-income, non-English speaking communities can band together with multiracial allies to form a front-line and defend their communities from large scale developments that threaten them.
A number of organizations support the Asian community in helping them to overcome some challenges of being in the minority. Dianara Rivera, with Asian American Resource Workshop, is a Pilipino, Puerto Rican woman committed to building community power in Asian American communities.
Asking for help is always political and has everything to do with the world around you, said Rivera, but healing can be collective. Their organization provides workshops that help Asian populations tell their stories and find healing. Using the written word and photos, the organization helps people in marginalized communities make sense of the world. Using an interpreter, they sort through issues and find antidotes to barriers like the fear that comes with being marginalized and helping participants get away from a capitalist mindset. Their narratives are archived at aarw.org.
Through these workshops, younger generations have been able to connect with elders and come to better understand how cultural and political struggles have affected them.
Jessica Eckerstorfer is a 2nd generation, Filipina-American who grew up in the twin cities, home to over 100,000 diaspora members stemming from the Vietnam war. Her work has recently focused on telling the stories of elders and connecting younger Asian generations to their histories and traditions.
A key part of this effort comes in book launchings that tell of their rare experiences. Her organization worked with 17 story collectors, who were able to understand the ins and outs of story collecting. They used programming to bring in aspects of the elder’s childhoods outside what they would normally discuss. They also collaborated with six local community partners to use memory mapping to learn about the elders, while navigating moments of highs and lows, such as the pandemic.
Their process builds trust in the first-generation, important because this age group is not always comfortable with traditional systems like government and education. Therefore, using programming in nontraditional spaces helps them bridge the gap between second and third generations who are active on social media.
Kalani Tonga-Tukuafu, director of Pasifika Enriching Arts of Utah (PEAU), tells a similar story, illustrating how they have used a lense that considers systemic oppression to avoid conflicts. Grounding our people in our own traditions has been very healing, she explained.
Benny Lai, executive manager for National Asian Pacific Center on Aging has also been working to help the Asian community.
Their website offers a snapshot into what caregiving is like for a South Asian family in Cedar Park, Texas and a Tai family in Addison, New Jersey. Their organization wants to bring awareness about the needs that exist in these communities. Their stories and more information can be found at napca.org.
Lori Lee holds a Ph.D. in Urban Planning and Public Policy from the University of Texas in Arlington, with work focused on neighborhood revitalization, sociability, and environmental management.