On May 1, tenants of 81 Bowery in New York City released a black and white banner from the top of their apartment building that said “Rent Strike!” in both English and Chinese. They joined thousands of tenants across the city and country who are demanding that landlords cancel rent. This action comes in the midst of the economic crises working-class tenants face during the pandemic, and as a resistance against growing gentrification in Chinatown.
“The situation is severe. We have no income and no way to work,” said Chen Qi Yang, a tenant leader at Bowery and an organizer with CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities. “I work in construction building homes, but now my company is closed. There is no way for me to find a job. I have no income and I need to eat. How can I keep food in my stomach and pay rent at the same time?”
The 81 Bowery tenants join thousands of residents who not only find themselves suddenly without paid work during the pandemic, but are also continuing to face the brunt of rising rents and displacement in their communities. Like residents in New York City, residents in other Chinatowns including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. have faced drastic rent increases, evictions, and displacement.
A 2013 study published by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund found that across Chinatowns in New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston, the white population has grown faster in the last decade than it has in the entire city. The white population doubled in Chinatowns in Boston and Philadelphia, while the overall number of Asian residents has decreased drastically. New York City holds the largest Chinatown in the United States, yet the neighborhood has lost more than 15,000 units of rent-regulated apartments in the last 15 years. Residents have consistently had to fight sudden displacement.
In March, right before the public alarm on COVID-19 peaked and stay-at-home orders began, residents and community organizers from Chinatowns across North America held a rally to demand affordable housing outside the offices of national development firm Atlas Capital Group in Manhattan. This rally was the culminating action of a weekend-long gathering of dozens of community organizers and residents from Chinatowns in Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York City, Vancouver, and Toronto. Hosted by Coast to Coast Chinatowns Against Displacement (C2C), an international coalition of grassroots community organizers from Chinatowns across North America, the convening united communities fought to resist the physical and cultural displacement of Chinatowns. They gathered to share lessons learned, build solidarity, and strengthen their network. The gathering was filled with panels and workshops that connected gentrification in their local cities to other pressing issues in the community, such as sex work criminalization and prison expansion.
C2C gathered during a time when Chinatown restaurants were shuttering their doors across major cities in the U.S. Even before cities began to announce shutdowns because of COVID-19, Chinatown businesses were already in severe decline because of growing anti-Asian sentiments and associations of the coronavirus with the diaspora. As the economic instability of the neighborhood grows, Chinatown residents continue to mobilize and unite their power against gentrification during the pandemic.
“It is a human right for us to have a roof over our head,” Leslie Hernandez, tenant leader of the Hillside Villa Association in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, said at the rally. “My old Chinatown is changing a lot. It’s changing for the worse. We already have a crisis of homelessness. We don’t need any more.”
From protests against luxury development from Los Angeles to New York City, residents in Chinatowns nationwide worry large-scale buildings will permanently shift the neighborhood to attract high-end businesses and wealthy residents, which could gut the cultural richness of their neighborhoods. In Los Angeles, Hernandez is fighting to remain in her home at Hillside Villa, a 124-unit affordable housing development. Over the next five years, agreements that govern this building and more than 12,000 affordable units in the city are set to expire, leaving seniors and working-class tenants vulnerable to homelessness.
Chinatowns were born out of a need for community amid the racism that displaced Chinese immigrants starting as early as the 1800s. These neighborhoods became community-created safe havens where residents could speak the dialects from their homelands and access the food, services, work, and culture that they often couldn’t find in other parts of the city. Over the centuries, it became home. Today, after immigrant residents built up the areas, developers are looking at their prime location near city centers to gentrify and capitalize on the land once deemed dirty and undesirable.
“People think that gentrification is this thing that’s invisible, but it’s actually already happening. The violence is happening at this very moment,” said Annie Shaw, an organizer with CCED. “In Los Angeles, Atlas Capital and developers like them are not only developing in Chinatown, but all over Los Angeles in low-income communities, Black communities in South Central and Latinx communities in Boyle Heights are all facing these predatory developers.”
The gentrification of Chinatowns not only affects Chinese residents, but also Southeast Asian, Black, and Latino families who all make up the neighborhood in different cities. Just last fall, Southeast Asian elders and families at an apartment building on 920 Everett Street in Los Angeles fought for months to protest a sudden eviction after the building had been sold to a developer. As working-class Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Thai refugees in a neighborhood with rampantly rising rents and scarce access to affordable housing, they had nowhere to go. It was only after residents mobilized online and held in-person protests with CCED outside of the landlord’s house that they were told the eviction was off the table. Yet when the landlord sold the building, they faced an eviction once again, a repeated pattern all too common across communities of color. Even when developers are pushed to commit a percentage of new buildings’ units to affordable housing, their threshold for affordability usually cites a median income significantly higher than the average Chinatown family’s median income.
The impact of gentrification extends beyond housing and business. When longtime residents of a particular racial or ethnic group are pushed out from the very communities they built, the result is also cultural displacement. A neighborhood’s essence is gutted when families are evicted with their belongings out on the streets and beloved family-run businesses permanently shutter their doors. School closures can also occur if new residents—who are usually white—decide not to send their children to local schools because of racist assumptions about school quality based on the race of the students. Increased police presence and surveillance in these areas can also happen when gentrifiers call the police on Black residents living their everyday lives. The gentrification in Chinatowns parallels the displacement happening in Black and Latino neighborhoods in major cities across the country.
There is always resistance, and organizers are sure to make that known. C2C is uniting Chinatowns in five cities across the U.S. and Canada to resist the evictions, displacement, and cultural loss of their communities. In Montreal, organizers are fundraising to repair the Buddhist Temple and Chinatown gates that were vandalized in a series of racist incidents against the community in March. In Seattle, coalition members led a luminary lantern procession of bikes and cars to symbolize carrying “love, light, [and] safety” through the neighborhood. In Toronto, members are hosting digital direct actions with Butterfly: Asian Migrant Sex Workers Support Network to amplify the demands of their newly published report, which found over 40% of the 100 sex workers surveyed are being left behind in financial relief and other social support because of the criminalization of sex work. Through these actions and more, C2C is shedding light on the violence, redlining, and exclusionary city policies designed to keep communities of color marginalized.
In New York and San Francisco, the fruits of a new project are also emerging: Love Letters to Chinatown. The W.O.W. Project, a community initiative using art and activism to grow and protect New York City’s Chinatown, spearheaded this project to collect love letters to individuals, businesses, and institutions in the neighborhood. Poems, illustrations, and handwritten letters are beginning to fill the neighborhood each week to instill hope and love in response to the community devastations that have worsened during COVID-19. The effort has now reached groups in Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle, who are collecting and sharing their letters as well.
“Love Letters to Chinatown uplifts our community in its darkest time,” said Mei Lum, founder and director of The W.O.W Project. “It helps remind our community we are resilient. Love Letters actively resists the false narratives about Chinatown and its connections to the pandemic by celebrating our neighborhood’s strengths and our community’s vibrancy.”
Where gentrification looms and may seem inevitable, local residents always resist, even during global crises. While public protests and lawsuits often get more attention, resistance also looks like the small business owner in New York City getting up at dawn to prepare online orders as the family store transitions to a digital platform during the pandemic. It looks like youth visiting the flowers they planted in their community garden in Boston. It looks like elders gathering in San Francisco’s parks to pass time together while maintaining social distancing. It looks like all of the mutual aid efforts that have sprung up as community members look to support each other. As the pandemic and its long-lasting effects continue to unfold, residents unite to respond to the crises at hand and fortify their visions for their thriving communities to come.
Huiying B. Chan is a writer, cultural organizer, and facilitator from Lenapehoking (New York City). Their work centers race, diaspora, intergenerational and ancestral resilience, love, and liberation. Chan has received fellowships and awards from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, VONA/Voices, Kundiman, and the Kairos Network. They received a B.A. in Ethnic Studies and Education from Wellesley College where they were the first to graduate with an Ethnic Studies major since the college’s inception. They have performed and presented their work globally.