Before starting the Urban Institute program, my main perception of Chinatown was that it is a dying community, historically created by segregation but now facing increased pressure to change and be developed, due to both both gentrification and proponents of assimilation. My main contact with Chinatown was through my grandparents (and extended family), as well as only going there to enjoy various authentic foods not easily found elsewhere in the Bay Area. Moreover, I have heard of and read about numerous stories of young people moving out of Chinatown to find opportunities elsewhere, but not the other way around, which is what led to the idea that it is a dying neighborhood.
However, since starting the program, I have learned that although it is true that many people are moving out, it is not simply because they do not want to live in Chinatown, but instead is largely due to the unaffordability of the area and lack of financial support from the city of San Francisco. The principal surprise was learning from Malcolm Collier about the thousands of people who apply to live in the various units and huge demand even for SROs. Moreover, there are multiple schools in the area and many young people who are still born and raised in Chinatown. Despite the pressure by surrounding tech and industry, Chinatown remains a vibrant community. It has additionally been fascinating to see the differences between Grant and Stockton, as I did not know that there was a tourist street and a local street. Although I knew that Chinatown was rebuilt after the earthquake and fire of 1906 using fake Chinese architecture, I did not realize just how intentional it was in order to attract tourists and ensure that Chinatown was not completely taken over by outsiders due to its valuable land location. I have also appreciated hearing about the importance of the various associations in maintaining Chinatown and helping its residents survive in an otherwise hostile environment.
Another learning experience has been about the vast poverty that exists in the neighborhood. Although I knew that it was not a well-off community, I did not know the extreme extent to which so many people are forced to live, especially the seniors and elders. Plus, I now understand why there are so many people connecting in the parks, especially Portsmouth Square, since they do not have living space of their own in which to gather and hang out. I was also extremely appreciative of being able to meet with and learn from Mrs. Lee because of her long history as a community activist. Especially through hearing from Norman Fong, one of my most prevalent takeaways from the first two weeks is the passion that people who are involved with CCDC use to invigorate their work. It is encouraging to meet with people who have been working for social justice in Chinatown for decades and decades who care as deeply as these people do and have not given up despite significant obstacles and difficulties. It has also been interesting to see that it is not just Chinatown residents who care about Chinatown, but outsiders as well who deeply care about the flourishing and well-being of the neighborhood and its people. This seems to indicate the importance of the affordability issue not just to people who are personally affected by it, but as a justice issue that should be important to all.
However, after the first two weeks my biggest question remains why Chinatown has decided to keep the heights of the buildings as low as they are by zoning down. Although I understand that it was to stop the spread of the Financial District and other communities from infringing upon Chinatown, this seems like a short-term solution to the affordable housing problem and the low supply of housing generally raises the cost of housing. It would be helpful to discuss more in depth why it is not possible to build higher residential buildings designated specifically as affordable housing for Chinatown residents. Although I understand that it is also not desirable to displace people already living in the units, it still seems like a better long-term solution to be able to build higher buildings in order to house more people. I am sure there are reasons still unknown to me, which is why it would be great to learn more about this. Furthermore, there has been research done on the issues surrounding having exclusively affordable housing projects, and I would be curious to know if CCDC plans to build/operate mixed-income spaces.