Mar 2, 2023 - Business

San Francisco's Chinatown resists gentrification

The Dragon Gate in San Francisco's Chinatown. Photo: Wu Xiaoling/Xinhua via Getty Images

San Francisco's Chinatown, the oldest and second-largest Chinese American community in the nation, has faced a number of gentrification threats over the years, ranging from the expensive real estate market to criticisms of how businesses in the area look.

Driving the news: Last month, dozens of small businesses in San Francisco's Chinatown received citations from the city's Department of Building Inspection for not having the required permits for their awnings, which many have had for decades, NBC Bay Area reports.

  • The businesses targeted, however, may have some reprieve coming from city leaders, who are drafting legislation to create an "amnesty program" for businesses with existing awnings, the San Francisco Standard reports.

Why it matters: Chinatowns have served as an ethnic and cultural marker since Chinese immigrants first arrived in the U.S.

  • But many are decreasing in size — or completely disappearing — amid urban development and gentrification as cities look to maximize profit in their downtown centers.

The big picture: San Francisco's pricey real estate market, redevelopment, natural disasters and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic have all posed threats to the city's Chinatown, Malcolm Yeung, executive director at the Chinatown Community Development Center, told Axios San Francisco.

  • Single-room-occupancy buildings, which are often geared toward people with low incomes, started to become out of reach for seniors in 2015, Yeung said.
  • Last October, eight renters in a single-room-occupancy building in Chinatown won a $618,000 settlement in a tenants' rights lawsuit after they argued that they faced discrimination by the building owner in an effort to get them to move.

What they're saying: The outcome of the lawsuit prevented an effort to "get rid of the old, low-paying tenants" and draw in people who were willing to pay higher rents to be within walking distance to new restaurants and exclusive clubs, Tom Drohan, a lawyer with Legal Assistance to the Elderly, told Axios San Francisco.

  • Wing Hoo Leung, president of the Community Tenants Association, told Axios via email that Chinatown is a place where Chinese immigrants "are understood, where we can feel at home, and where we can better adjust to a new life."

Flashback: After the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco leaders wanted to move Chinatown to the southern outskirts of the city, Yeung said.

  • The city deemed that Chinatown's real estate was "too valuable" for a non-white community, Yeung said.
  • Chinatown community members responded by rebuilding the area "quicker than virtually any other community in the city, and doing it in a way that I think left a very distinct sort of physical impression that you're entering Chinatown," Yeung said.

In the 1960s and '70s, San Francisco's Chinatown faced the threat of redevelopment, which decimated the predominantly Black neighborhood of the Fillmore.

  • In what was then called Manilatown, redevelopment "systematically demolished and replaced" single-room-occupancy buildings in what is now the Financial District and replaced those buildings with high rises, he said.
  • They "went right up to the border of Chinatown, so as a community, we are incredibly cognizant of the fact that redevelopment could essentially erase this community," Yeung said.

The bottom line: Yeung said that as the city works to revitalize a downtown that has struggled to recover from the pandemic, Chinatown will have to resist efforts that "can potentially gentrify Chinatown away from it being Chinatown."


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