The Influence of Gentrification in Chinatown

Billie Chang, Writer

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In San Francisco’s Chinatown, tourists line the Ross Alley in excited anticipation of the famous Golden Gate Fortune Cookies. As they enter the factory—a cramped room occupied by tourist after tourist—chatter erupts. While they patiently wait for a taste of matcha-flavored, chocolate covered fortune cookies, they take pictures of their greatly underwhelming sight.

The fortune cookie factory is not the only place that attracts tourists to Chinatown. A few blocks down, Fashion, Bags & Gifts claim to sell authentic Chinese clothes. And on Waverly Place, Mister Jiu’s offers “high-end Chinese cuisine.”

As a rapid, new modernity hits Chinatown, residents struggle to stay afloat. For some, change can be seen as an unwelcome presence threatening the cultural integrity of the neighborhood and the traditional definition of Chinese culture.

Seen as a Chinese sanctuary for decades—one rich with a tradition and culture not offered anywhere else in San Francisco—some residents argue Chinatown’s integrity is being threatened by gentrification. According to the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Community Innovation (CCI), as of 2015, California began to implement “improved mobility, neighborhood revitalization and lower transportation costs.” Though a possible community benefit, these procedures put lower-income minorities at a severe disadvantage. CCI argues that the presence of public transit systems in a community directly predicts a neighborhood’s future susceptibility to gentrification.

Between 2000 and 2013, California’s poverty rate slightly increased from 13.7% to 16.8%, according to Statista. Yet, Chinatown’s poverty rate grew from 19% in 2000 to nearly 30% in 2013. It also detailed Chinatown’s falling median household incomes, since that, due to the 2008 recession, it became difficult for low-income homeowners to afford a living space.

Over the past years, housing prices in San Francisco have been increasing steadily, with median rent resting at $3,880 per month, according to a 2015 study by SRO Families United. Often lower minorities, residents of cultural neighborhoods tend to be at a disadvantage when it comes to external housing competition. This scenario leads many to live in single room occupancy hotels (SROs). In San Francisco, 74% of all SROs are situated in Chinatown, according to the Chinatown Community Development Center. For many Chinese immigrants in the U.S., the American Dream has been diminished to a single room.

“It’s a pretty grim situation,” confesses Jay Husson, the Coordinator of Chinatown YMCA’s Immigrant Support Center, an organization focused that provides resources to the local immigrant community. “Before the rising rent costs, there weren’t a lot of families living in SROs,” Husson states.

The Chinatown YMCA has established an array of resources, including an SRO Family Support Program. Created in 2014 to ensure SRO families have a “space as their ‘living room’ in a home away from home,” Husson admits that “before the rising rent costs, there weren’t as many families living in SROs.” He equates families who are able to move out of SROs as those who “win [the] lottery.”

As gentrification begins to threaten the cultural fabric of the community, organizations such as the YMCA provide a sanctuary within the confines of Chinatown. These programs aid Chinese immigrants by offering English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, as well as connections with mentors and programs for immigrants of ages.

For many, it is hard to conceive San Francisco without a Chinatown. The importance of this ethnic enclave is highlighted by the number of Chinese immigrants the community attracts. The neighborhood holds more than 50,000 residents per square mile. Yet, if the displacement of low-income residents continues, Chinatown’s culture may change to reflect the interests of gentrification.

Tourist Ben Barg from New York admits that “the existence of a Chinese community is important, as it’s distinct from American culture.” Shahar Kramer, also from New York, adds that Chinatown is “the best part of the city,” since “it’s the only part of the city that you can get lost in.”

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The Influence of Gentrification in Chinatown