Chinatown Gentrification: advancement or displacement?

By Quanzi Wan, Marimar Gutierrez and Myles Franklin-Bey

Gentrification is a phenomenon that has been impacting urban cities since the 1970s.

Janet Smith, the co-director of the Nathalie P. Voorhees for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at the University of Illinois in Chicago, said gentrification is directly connected with displacement or the forcing out of these lower-income residents. 

“We look at it from the perspective of displacement. Gentrification is usually seen as a sort of upscaling of a neighborhood, higher-end housing, more expensive overall, and usually replacement of lower-cost housing.” 

Smith continued, “But, the reason we talk about displacement is [that we] can improve a neighborhood, by putting in higher-end housing, without displacing people, you could just be building in housing and [selling]. But, displacement refers to people who are living in the neighborhood but can’t afford to stay there,” 

“So it’s the pushing out of people that becomes most important, but how that happens is through the upscaling… We want improvements, we always do, that’s generally what we always strive for, but if we can do development without displacement then that’s what we should strive for.”

Gentrification is described on as the buying and renovation of houses and stores in urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals. This, in turn, raises property values but often displaces low-income families and small businesses.

While this may seem like a great business move that could increase the economic value of a neighborhood, the main problem of this aspect is the forcing out of lower-income residents that reside in these newly gentrified neighborhoods. 

Location is one of the factors that contribute to the gentrification of many neighborhoods, and for Chinatown, this is no different. Downtown Chicago can be quickly accessed by train to and from Chinatown.  Gentrification has manifested in Chinatown through the expansion of investors. 

Here is a 360 view of the Chinatown Square, popular destination for chinatown visitors.

Smith said: “There is a deliberate investment by Chinese investors both local and from afar.” She explains that the people moving to Chinatown are also representative of new money from China in contrast to older generations of Chinese immigrants. 

Some Chinatown owners do not see the harm in the changes happening in the neighborhood. 

 “Ten years ago it would have been inconceivable that we had a library, huge parking lot, and we even had two Chinatowns in Chicago,” said Pei Zhao, owner of Pop KTV,karaoke bar located in Chinatowna karaoke bar located in Chinatown. 

Currently one of Chinatown’s main draw ins for potential move-in residents is the affordability of their housing. 

Francisco Castro, a communications student at the University of Illinois, expresses that when he moved from Florida to Chicago his biggest challenge in finding an apartment was finding an affordable one, which is why he contemplated Chinatown as his new home 

“Near Winchester street some rents were affordable…about $1,100 to $1,500 a month.” He also mentioned that the neighborhood seemed friendly overall. 

Pei Zhao also commented on the demographic diversity increasing  in Chinatown. “We are welcome [to] all Chinese immigrants that move to our neighborhood because it will improve economics for Chinatown. We also hope other races open businesses in Chinatown, it will improve the diversity and attract more people.” 

However, a looming shadow over the activism for maintaining affordable housing in Chinatown is the construction of an upcoming neighborhood project; Project 78. A project aimed at developing the 78th Chicago neighborhood along the Chicago River and the outskirts of many neighborhoods including Chinatown. 

When asked about the potential impact that the 78th project will have on its adjacent neighborhoods such as Chinatown, Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th Ward) spoke to both the opportunities and challenges the 78th project will present.

“It will have a huge impact” Byron stated “It potentially creates new CTA transportation improvements. It obviously provides new amenities, almost direct access to the South Loop. Obviously, the new project will come with opportunities and challenges. 

“[We’re hoping] Chinatown can participate, be apart of it, benefit from it from different angles… We potentially can mitigate the effect of having a large project of this nature. The challenge will be to make sure the social fabric of the community doesn’t change as bigger investors come in that have the ability to pay higher prices, pay higher rents, or worse. People will not be able to keep up.”

Janet Smith was also asked for her input of the looming 78th project, and she provided a perspective from a person who lives relatively close to where the neighborhood is being developed.

“It will have a profound effect. People may think it is an empty space so [you won’t] displace anyone. No, but it will attract investors who will capitalize on that [empty space].”

This Juxtapose shows the rapid change that Chinatown experienced  from 2010 to 2019.

Smith added that investor will likely want to invest in neighborhoods adjacent to the78 project, however she presumes it unclear to know weather gentrification in these neighborhood would be at its max before the completion of project 78

“We can anticipate that having an effect on Pilsen, going south, going into Chinatown, also going into Bronzeville… It will have an effect, but the question is will the gentrification [of these neighborhoods] have already taken place [by then].”

Smith also spoke to the work that the 25th Ward Alderman is doing to pressure the developers of the 78th to do more affordable housing in their project. And so with their names appearing so frequently, we reached out to those at Project 78 for a comment on this subject. Unfortunately, we never received a reply from their team.

The fight against the gentrification of Chinatown and its adjacent neighborhoods seems to stem from the fight to maintain a balance between a neighborhood having economic gain and still keeping its cultural integrity. Longtime residents of neighborhoods do not want to belittle the culture that they grew up in, or raised families in, while new developers are trying to attract new residents, tourists, and investors in an attempt to make the most money possible. 

But there is still a glimmer of hope for low-income residents of these neighborhoods. 

Ald. Sigcho-Lopez (25th ward) gave a call to action for those residents who want to make a difference in this battle. For these residents, he gave a very simple solution, “I think it’s important to participate, attend committee meetings, be a part of it. We have different committees in the 25th ward… participate in these committees, joining us, and participating in shaping a community plan so that we can create proposals and good policy. This is a global trend and so it will take a village [to challenge it]”

Smith added that there are other ways of combating gentrification.

“When you’re doing development the city of Chicago requires that if you have 10 units of housing, 1-3 have to be affordable housing… [You can also] encourage homeowners to stay in the neighborhood rather than to sell to investors, by giving a tax break and other incentives to encourage the development of affordable housing.”


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