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In Boston's Chinatown, Longtime Residents Face An Uncertain Future

The Kensington apartments and Millenium Place condominiums, behind, tower over Chinatown at the intersection of Stuart, Kneeland and Washington streets. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The Kensington apartments and Millenium Place condominiums, behind, tower over Chinatown at the intersection of Stuart, Kneeland and Washington streets. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

BOSTON — Boston’s Chinatown was built on wasteland — tidal flats and landfill.

Over the decades, cheap rents made the neighborhood an attractive place for waves of immigrants — Irish, Italians and Jews. At one time the area was even called Syriatown.

But today, the neighborhood of low-rise buildings is in high demand. New luxury apartment buildings are driving up property values, and driving out longtime residents. They’re being displaced by a new wave of immigrants — wealthy entrepreneurs, from China.

‘Soon There Will Be No More Chinatown’

A pair of giant imperial stone lions guard Chinatown’s Beach Street entrance. The Chinese characters on the ceremonial gate translate to: “All under Heaven for the common good.”

The gate was erected in 1982, right next to land that was taken by the state for the common good — construction of the Massachusetts Turnpike and Central Artery decades earlier.

Karen Chen is too young to remember, but says you can still see the damage that was done.

The paifang at Chinatown’s Beach Street entrance, at sunrise (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The paifang at Chinatown’s Beach Street entrance, at sunrise (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“This building over there that says ‘Welcome to Chinatown,’ this building used to be twice as big,” she said. “But when they built the Expressway they chopped it in half. Urban renewal, right? Classic.”

Chen, the organizing director of the Chinese Progressive Association, says the roadway construction cut through the heart of Chinatown, displacing 300 families.

Boston’s Chinatown is the third-largest Chinatown in the nation. But the Chinese population has been steadily decreasing. Residents are moving to towns like nearby Malden, where the Chinese population has tripled, and Quincy, where it’s quadrupled.

Many, like Baoen Qiu, who lives in Randolph, regularly return to Chinatown to shop.

“I really want to move to Chinatown,” she said through Chen’s translation while at Happy Family Food Market on Hudson Street. “I live really far right now, so I would really love to move to Chinatown if I can.”

Right now, Qiu works at a restaurant. “I don’t get paid a lot,” she said. “For the amount of money I make, I won’t be able to afford to live in Chinatown.”

According to Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development, the average annual income for a family in Chinatown is only about $14,000. That’s less than any other Boston neighborhood.

As the social and cultural center for the region’s Chinese community, the pull of Chinatown is powerful.

Lisa Yu lives in Medford, but she’s a regular customer at Great BBQ on Hudson Street.

"We need to have a Chinatown where there are Chinese people who live here," said community activist Karen Chen. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“We need to have a Chinatown where there are Chinese people who live here,” said community activist Karen Chen. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“The Chinatown no more cheap house, because they build new building around in here,” she said. “Soon there will be no more Chinatown in here because they’re building a lot of expensive [residences].”

Cheap rents are a thing of the past in Chinatown. Over the last decade, construction of high-rise, high-end residential buildings along the periphery of the neighborhood has dramatically driven up property values and the cost of apartments.

“A lot of people are actually doubled up,” Chen said. “If it’s a two-bedroom unit, it could be two families, instead of one family. And you know the rents around here. It used to be, I would say, a range from $700-900 for like a one-bedroom. But now, if you talk about luxury towers, right, a one-bedroom could be like $3,000.”

Luxury Urbanism, And Affordable Housing Demand

Chinatown lies in the shadow of the new luxury tower Millennium Place, where a one-bedroom condo goes for $600,000 and a three-bedroom penthouse over $3 million.

Marketing consultant Nicole Yonke showed off the amenities at Millennium Place.

There’s the exclusive wine bar, garden and resident-only screening room. The tower has its own social network, La Vie, where you can sign up for special events featuring celebrity speakers. Millennium calls this luxury urbanism.

“You’re now in the relaxation room,” Yonke said as she continued her tour, “where guests will wait for their therapists for their facial or massage, and we also have a yoga room here.”

Millennium Place just opened, and nearly all of the condos have been sold.

Anthony Pangaro says that Millennium Place is a great place to live. He’s a principal with the company that developed the building and two other luxury high rises near Chinatown.

“We’re also proud to be neighbors here,” he said. “We enjoy a terrific relationship with Chinatown, we have built affordable housing in Chinatown, and we welcome more.”

In Boston developers have to build some affordable housing to get their projects approved, or contribute money for affordable housing elsewhere.

But because incomes in Chinatown are so low, many residents can’t even afford affordable housing. Using the city’s formula, a family of four would need to make $67,000 a year to qualify for affordable housing. That’s about five times the average income in Chinatown, according Sheila Dillon, Boston’s director of neighborhood development.

“There’s a lot of pressure in Chinatown for affordable housing,” she said. “It’s a neighborhood in Boston that has one of the lowest-income populations. And it’s a very built environment. So while we’ve had a lot of affordable housing as a percentage in Chinatown, there’s not a lot of places to build affordable housing in Chinatown. So it’s a problem; it’s a challenge.”

Right now, Chinatown has more affordable housing, by percentage, than any other Boston neighborhood. But it’s also the densest neighborhood in the city, and with that many needy people, there’s a huge demand for more affordable housing. For example, Tai Tung Village, one of Chinatown’s largest housing projects, has an 18-year waiting list.

Wealth Created In China Is Returning To Boston

Along with affordable housing is the need for better-paying jobs, says community activist Chen. Developers are required to set aside half their construction jobs for local residents, but Chen says those short-term jobs are no replacement for long-term employment.

“For example in the Millenium building they should think about having a Chinese subcontractor to do the cleaning work because that’s a way people can get some good-paying, living-wage jobs,” she said.

There used to be lots of jobs in Chinatown; it was a center for textile manufacturing. But the industry, and its factories, have long gone overseas. Onetime area resident Lisa Yu witnessed the change.

“It’s very hard to find a job,” she said. “No more factory in here, you know? They move out, go to Vietnam, go to Hong Kong, go to Japan, go to China. No jobs in America.”

Those jobs that went overseas aren’t coming back, but the wealth that was created in Chinese factories is now returning to Boston. Chinese nouveau riche are investing their money in luxury real estate here in Chinatown.

“They have a lot of cash — a lot, a lot. So in other words, they don’t know where to spend,” said Patty Chen.

But Patty Chen knows. Her company, located in Wellesley, advises wealthy Chinese clients on how to get visas and move to Boston. She tells them to buy a home in an upscale suburb and then invest in luxury apartments downtown.

“They not only bought one, they bought two, three, four,” she said. “They can call their friends in China and say, ‘Hey, I have all the condos in the center of Boston. Whenever you go, you don’t need transportation. You can walk to everywhere. So convenient! Fresh air, safe foods, clean water. Boston is unique.’ ”

Boston developers are aggressively marketing to the new Chinese investors.

The websites for the luxury buildings are in Mandarin and Cantonese, and in their showrooms are small guardian lion statues, like the big ones protecting the Chinatown gate.

Developer Pangaro says that a quarter of the sales in his building are to international investors — the Chinese attracted to Boston’s high-quality schools and universities.

“We are seeing a number of international buyers, people who are sending their children here,” he said, “and they’re buying because they want a safe place where people can keep an eye on their kids for them.”

Boston’s Chinatown is undergoing a historic transformation. Over the last decade, as the percentage of Chinese living there has continued to decline, the white population has doubled. Small shops catering to Asian customers are closing and moving out. Compared to other Chinatowns in the nation, Boston’s has the largest percentage of chain stores.

“That’s why we’re fighting, to stabilize Chinatown,” Karen Chen said. “We need to have a Chinatown where there are Chinese people who live here. Because you know in [Washington] D.C., if you look at their Chinatown, it’s really sad because there are no Chinese people there. And there’s a lot of nice buildings, but Chinese people don’t live there. What we’re trying to do is preserve that.”

The challenge for Boston’s Chinatown is preserving its cultural presence while building a sustainable future. But the forces of progress are putting pressure on this once-undesirable neighborhood, and longtime residents wonder: is there a place for them?

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