The changing Chinatowns in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston

Chinatowns were created in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because of the forced segregation and zoning laws partly related to the Chinese Exclusion Act. This law restricted immigration of low-wage Chinese laborers who arrived in the United States during the Gold Rush and helped to build the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.

Today, the landscapes of Chinatowns along the East Coast are evolving with the influx of new real estate development and gentrification that could change the neighborhoods’ role as a cultural and social hub.

A study led by Domenic Vitiello, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at PennDesign, finds that the Chinatowns in Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston “are on the verge of disappearing.”

In Boston and New York City, Vitiello found that university and medical center development is the main culprit eroding each city’s Chinatown. In Philadelphia, the new construction mostly involves condominiums, as well as some office building projects in the area north of Vine Street. 

“We have a new era of people, particularly affluent people [who aren’t Asian immigrants] moving into the city, which are vitally important to the revitalization of downtowns in the United States,” Vitiello says. “But for Chinatowns, this is sort of the next chapter in their development.”

Vitiello, who studies migration and community development in the context of planning and urban development, says the Chinatowns of Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston are all located on prime real estate in the center of the city. The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund heard of his previous research on migrant communities and suggested that he study Chinatowns.

Since the 1950s and '60s, federal urban renewal plans had targeted all three Chinatowns for destruction in favor of highways and downtown development.

Vitiello says strong community-based institutions may help Chinatown neighborhoods survive.

“Merchants associations, or family associations, or ethnic or regional associations have very substantial investments, at least of energy, if not property,” says Vitiello. “And, some of them do have substantial investments in property in Chinatown.”