What’s Happening to Chinatown?

chinatown

Image provided by Lillian Chan.

It’s been nearly a month since Maxim’s Coffee House served its last drop of hot coffee, its famous bun pastries flying off the shelves before the local bakery lost its lease and was forced to close its doors after 33 years in Chinatown. Yet artist Lillian Chan still finds sadness as she walks past the shuttered windows of the “iconic landmark” on the corner of Beach Street and Harrison Avenue. And neither she, nor the bakery, are alone.

As Chinatown’s development spikes with high-rise luxury apartments and new commercial chains surrounding the ethnic neighborhood, many residents, visitors and small business owners are wondering one thing: what’s happening to Chinatown?

“Just visually it’s kind of jarring to see all of these high-rise building structures popping up around Chinatown,” said Chan, a Boston resident who visits the neighborhood weekly. “It feels like it’s just closing in on it.”

Maxim’s isn’t the first of its kind — earlier this year another restaurant just down the street, Xinh Xinh, closed its doors for the last time, and prior to that Chinatown lost locally-owned grocery store Chung Wah Hong, along with many more local shops.

“The landscape definitely has changed,” Chan said. “One of the bakeries that was on one of the corners was kind of a landmark in a way, and so it was kind of shocking when I found out [Maxim’s] had closed. It’s just always been there and so you feel like it’s always going to be there. And I can only imagine that more of that is happening as more construction is being done.”

Craig Caplan, a small business owner who has worked within Downtown Crossing and Chinatown over the past 25 years, said small, locally owned businesses are threatened by luxury development. As expensive buildings go up, owners of other buildings in the neighborhood begin to believe that their spaces are more valuable and start to ask for higher rent.

“There’s sort of this delusion of grandeur going on, where somebody who has been getting $20 a square foot for the last 15 to 20 years now thinks the property is worth $150 a square foot merely because they’re a few blocks away from a beautiful high-rise,” Caplan said. “So what you are seeing happening is people’s leases are coming up for these commercial properties and they’re used to paying $4,000 a month for their store, and suddenly they’re finding that their landlords are starting to charge them $20,000 for the same exact space.”

As locally owned shops struggle to afford higher rents, larger chains move in — most notably franchise coffee shops and pharmacies — which Caplan said is detrimental to any neighborhood, but especially one as culturally rich as Chinatown.

Without the unique local amenities such as authentic cuisine and cultural shops that serve and represent the community, Caplan fears Chinatown will lose some of the appeal — both to residents and visitors — that helps it stand out against Boston’s other neighborhoods.

Chan agreed, saying many times she now finds herself traveling to what seems to be a relatively new Asian community in Quincy for Chinese cuisine, instead of heading into Chinatown.

“You can’t have a homogenized mall suburban type area in the inner city,” Caplan said. “People come to Chinatown for the culture, because of the neighborhood and the restaurants and the food and the people who are down there. If the whole area just turns into the same exact thing that people have out in the suburbs, then why come into into Boston?”

At-large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley said many times efforts to combat rapid and unorganized gentrification are focused on the affordable housing crisis, when this development unleashes a crisis on small business as well. Focusing in on Chinatown, Pressley said the displacement of local business due to high rents in the neighborhood would end up hurting all of Boston.

“It’s very sad because we have 22 very distinct neighborhoods in the city of Boston and what makes them distinct are the amenities that exist in each of them,” she said. “If all of our neighborhoods begin to look the same with franchise and box stores, all of our neighborhoods suffer because they’re not as culturally rich, they’re not as vibrant and they won’t see the same amount of foot traffic. It’s important that there is a commitment to keeping Chinatown Chinatown and to preserving cultural traditions, celebrating that history and to retaining iconic neighborhood institutions, like the bakery that was just lost.”

Pressley said building more commercial space along side streets in neighborhoods across Boston might be a valuable solution to consider – increasing the stock makes more space available and may be a key factor in helping to drive rents down. By focusing on side streets as well as the main streets of these areas, Pressley believes smaller districts more suitable for local business can develop and thrive.

But the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development said that the statistics show that Chinatown is thriving. With a 90-percent average occupancy rate throughout the roughly 300 street-level businesses in the neighborhood, Chinatown has one of the healthier commercial districts in Boston, according to Rafael Carbonell, deputy director of the DND’s Office of Business Development. The vast majority of those businesses are local or independently-owned, Carbonell said.

“We know over the last year that seven new businesses opened and they created just over 70 jobs,” he said. “So I think what we have is some natural turn in commercial districts, but sustaining that 90 percent occupancy rate on the ground level – that’s really strong. There’s a very strong network of business owners in Chinatown and that continues to be the case.”

Carbonell said that under Mayor Walsh’s direction, the city has been trying to increase assistance to small businesses while also encouraging residents to shop locally through several social-media campaigns throughout the year. The city has partnered with Chinatown Main Streets, a non-profit that promotes business development in Chinatown, to get a better understanding of how the city can help local businesses.

Last year, Mayor Walsh more than doubled funding for on-site business technical assistance, allowing for increased face-to-face contact with small business owners to discuss strategies for everything from marketing, store productivity and organization to hiring and staff retention, Carbonell said.

“Each business is very unique, and so really understanding the needs of that business given the situation its in, given the ownership, given its current conditions – that’s really important to help them address those needs in a really personalized way and that’s really been a big part of our business assistance,” he said.

However, Caplan said he is skeptical of the government’s true intentions based on what he has seen after 25 years in business. Instead of just talk, Caplan wants to see more effort into protections for local shops against property owners and high-priced commercial chains as gentrification moves in.

“You have to go by what it is you actually see happening,” Caplan said. “They say that they’re interested in making these changes, but I haven’t really seen much – I’ve seen a lot of talk but not a lot of action. It will be a shame for Boston when there’s not really a Chinatown anymore. It would be a shame if they can’t update it and preserve it at the same time.”

Chan said updating the neighborhood is necessary, but she wished the development in Chinatown was focused on more community-based buildings such as affordable housing units or a public library for the area. Chinatown is one of the few neighborhoods without its own BPL branch. Currently affordable housing makes up 36 percent of all units in Chinatown, but the DND said that number should rise to 40 percent once forthcoming development is complete.

But with pharmacies, franchise coffee shops and luxury condos moving in, Chan said it feels like Chinatown is “being swallowed up by all of the development versus what I see happening elsewhere.”

“Or maybe it’s more apparent because it’s just such an ethnic community and to see it so drastically changing is just alarming and jarring,” she added. “I don’t mind the city changing – it needs to. It needs to grow. But I think that there are other ways in getting that to happen.”

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