San Francisco’s Chinatown seeks to withstand gentrification

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

San Francisco’s Chinatown, the country’s oldest and second-largest Chinese-American community, has faced a range of gentrification threats over the years, ranging from the expensive real estate market to criticism of the look of businesses in the area.

Driving the news: Last month, dozens of small businesses in San Francisco’s Chinatown received subpoenas from the city’s building inspectorate for not having the necessary permits for their awnings, which many have had for decades, NBC Bay Area reports.

  • However, the businesses under attack could potentially get some reprieve from city leaders who are drafting legislation to create an “amnesty program” for businesses with existing awnings, reports the San Francisco Standard.

Why it matters: Chinatowns have served as ethnic and cultural markers since Chinese immigrants first arrived in the United States

  • But many are shrinking or disappearing altogether as cities develop and gentrify, as cities seek to maximize profits in their inner cities.

The big picture: San Francisco’s expensive real estate market, redevelopments, natural disasters and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic have threatened the city’s Chinatown, Malcolm Yeung, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, told Axios San Francisco.

  • One-room buildings, which often cater to low-income people, became inaccessible to seniors in 2015, Yeung said.
  • Last October, eight tenants in a one-bedroom building in Chinatown won a $618,000 settlement in a tenant rights lawsuit after arguing they were discriminated against by the building owner in an attempt to get them to move.

What you say: The lawsuit’s outcome thwarted efforts to “get rid of the old, low-paying tenants” and attract people willing to pay higher rents to be within walking distance of new restaurants and upscale clubs, said Tom Drohan, a lawyer with legal assistance for the elderly, said 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 can”.

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

  • The city deemed Chinatown’s real estate “too valuable” for a non-white community, Yeung said.
  • Chinatown community members responded by rebuilding the area “faster than virtually any other community in the city and doing it in a way that I think left a very distinct physical impression that you are entering Chinatown.” Yeung said.

In the 1960s and 70sSan Francisco’s Chinatown faced the threat of a redevelopment that decimated the predominantly black Fillmore neighborhood.

  • In what was then called Manilatown, redevelopment involved one-bedroom buildings in what is now the Financial District “systematically demolished and replaced” and those buildings replaced with high-rises, he said.
  • They “went to the limit of Chinatown, so as a community we’re incredibly aware that redevelopment could essentially wipe out that community,” Yeung said.

The final result: Yeung said that while the city works to revitalize a downtown area that has recovered from the pandemic, Chinatown must resist efforts that “potentially gentrify Chinatown away from Chinatown.”

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