The Future of Chinatown

As skyscrapers rise and universities expand, it's up to Chinatown's longstanding community to preserve the neighborhood's historical charm.

Chinatown Gate Boston

A gift from the government of Taiwan, the Chinatown Gate features characters that translate to “A World Shared by All.” / Toan Trinh

When Brian Moy was growing up in Chinatown, washing dishes and cleaning tables at his father’s restaurant, he remembers seeing lots of families in the neighborhood. New immigrants carried groceries home from the supermarket, babies in tow. Children played in the streets. The color palette of the neighborhood was red and brown, a product of the old brick buildings lining the streets.

Flash-forward 20-plus years, and the neighborhood of Moy’s childhood is virtually unrecognizable. Massive luxury condos such as the Kensington and Radian cast shadows over historical buildings from the mid-1800s. Tufts Medical Center developments over the decades have brought a stream of students and young professionals in scrubs. And the neighborhood’s rents have skyrocketed, with the median apartment now going for around $2,850 per month.

With those kinds of prices, it’s no wonder longtime residents and recent immigrants alike are fleeing in search of less-expensive enclaves: Asians now make up less than 50 percent of Chinatown’s residents, while the number of white residents living in the neighborhood increased faster than the number of Asians from 2000 to 2010. In sum, says Moy, who today owns the popular restaurants Shōjō, BLR, and Ruckus, “I don’t see that many Chinese people living in Chinatown anymore.”

In fact, as developers continue to vie for land during Boston’s great building boom, Chinatown—the real Chinatown that’s traditionally welcomed immigrants with affordable housing and community services, not a Disneyfied version—is facing a battle for its very existence. The outcome will determine who can stay in Chinatown—and, ultimately, whether Boston even has a Chinatown at all.

The neighborhood was established in the 1870s and 1880s, when Chinese immigrants arrived in Boston and pitched tents in Ping-On Alley (aka the Alley of Peace and Security), today bordered by an Essex Street parking lot. Over time, with help from a nascent garment-manufacturing industry, they built a working-class community centered on modest brick-red row houses, laundromats, and an outdoor roasting oven for all to share. Soon, even more businesses sprung up to make residents feel at home: grocery stores, restaurants, barbershops, even gambling joints. The increase in families beginning in 1900 led to the formation of civic associations and youth programs. Around the same time, the Roaring Twenties fueled Chinatown’s bar and nightclub scene, attracting visitors from other parts of town.

The status quo remained for the better part of a century, save for some housing loss during the Mass. Pike expansion in the ’50s and ’60s. But starting around the mid-1990s, a new kind of construction jolted Chinatown. Nearby academic institutions Emerson College and Suffolk University began encroaching on its borders, redeveloping theaters and other buildings to create more dormitories; at the same time, Tufts commenced its expansion into the area with new buildings. Noticing Chinatown’s prime location—nestled next to the Financial District and DTX to the north and the Theater District and the Common to the west—developers also got in on the action, and block by block, began to transform the neighborhood by replacing tenement buildings with market-rate condos.

Faced with a tidal wave of gentrification, the community isn’t just sitting on its hands. The Asian Community Development Corporation, for instance, has focused on creating affordable housing on publicly owned land, recently working with Millennium Partners and other developers to obtain rights for a 30-story tower featuring rentals for low- and middle-income residents on the site of a parking lot. The Chinatown Community Land Trust, meanwhile, is using a collective-ownership model to acquire and preserve as much affordable housing as possible. “If all of the non-subsidized housing becomes luxury or short-term rentals,” says director Lydia Lowe, “Chinatown will increasingly feel like the South End, where you have a lot of low-income people living, but it just doesn’t feel like their community anymore.”

Then there’s the Chinese Progressive Association, which is fighting back by protecting Chinatown’s blue-collar community, organizing workers and also making sure residents have their voices heard in elections (they even secured bilingual Chinese and Vietnamese ballots in a voting-rights settlement). “Historically, a lot of Chinese immigrants don’t really have a voice in the community,” says Karen Chen, the organization’s executive director.

Of course, when residents step outside of their homes and onto Chinatown’s streets, they need fresh restaurants, bars, and cultural offerings to thrive. But even just a few years ago, Moy says, “There was no real bar scene, there was no craft-cocktail scene, there was no ramen-noodle place, no modern Chinese-food concepts. You had a [bunch] of restaurants that basically had 100-item menus, but everybody’s serving the same thing.” The restaurateur, whose family owns China Pearl, is now filling the void with concepts that emphasize ambiance, entertainment, and, of course, modern takes on traditional fare. Moy is also encouraging collaboration and camaraderie among neighborhood business owners with the creation of the Chinatown Business Association, a move that can only bolster the line of defense against deep-pocketed developers.

Sisters Gloria and Emily Chin have followed Moy’s lead with their own funky Chinatown spot, Double Chin, which melds American and Asian cuisines (see: their over-the-top cube toast, piled high with green tea ice cream and chocolate syrup). Open till 4 a.m. on weekends, Double Chin has quickly become a favorite late-night hang. “Our vibe definitely draws in a younger crowd, people who are down to have fun,” Gloria says. There’s also plenty of fun to be had at the summertime Films at the Gate Festival, organized by ACDC, which last summer screened films like the action movie Chasing the Dragon.

Despite Chinatown’s changing face, the old heart of the neighborhood persists. Residents still shop for groceries at Jia Ho Supermarket, the one they went to with their families years ago when it was a Cmart. Groups still gather near the Chinatown Gate for games of chess. Far from ripping the fabric of the community to shreds, aggressive development has actually caused generations to unite in the fight to keep Chinatown in the right hands. “My hope…is that those who need Chinatown the most have a strong voice in the future of Chinatown,” Chen says, “and not just let investors take over the neighborhood, because Chinatown is not for sale.”

This story is part of The Ultimate Guide to Chinatown, from the February 2019 issue of Boston magazine.