Supporting Boston's Chinatown

Hear from two community organizations working to sustain this New England neighborhood.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is working to support the preservation of America's Chinatowns. Sign our petition today to commit to the cultural preservation of America’s Chinatowns for future generations.

1874 Atlas of Boston (1874) by G.M. Hopkins & Co. and State Library of Massachussetts, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0 DEEDNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Founding

Boston’s Chinatown formed on Harrison Avenue between Essex and Beach Street in the 1870s, as Chinese men migrated towards the East Coast due to  the rise in anti-Chinese violence in the west.

Laundry Ticket - Immigration History Trail, Family of Henry Wong, Chinatown Community Land Trust, From the collection of: National Trust for Historic Preservation
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This is a ticket printed by Shanghai Printing Press, a business started by Henry Wong who emigrated in 1928  to Boston's Chinatown. It was one of the oldest Chinese language printing companies until it closed in the 2010s. [From the Immigrant History Trail]

Community Protest Against a Parking Garage (1993) by Chinese Progressive AssociationNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Challenges

In its over 140 years, Boston’s Chinatown faced transformation, displacement, and change due  exclusion laws and later Urban Renewal projects—such as the expansion of the Tufts-New England Medical Center and the Massachusetts Turnpike, which destroyed homes and businesses.

In the 1970s, the city zoned an area adjacent to Chinatown for adult entertainment – a red light district that became known as the “Combat Zone.” Its impact on Chinatown continued until its decline in the 1990s.

Unofficial ground breaking at Parcel C in Boston's Chinatown (2002) by Chinese Progressive AssociationNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Current threats

Today Boston’s Chinatown faces continued encroachment by academic institutions, increased luxury housing stock which threatens displacement of Chinatown residents, and lingering ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several community organizations have worked to find a way to ensure Chinatown’s survival while also ensuring that it continues to serve current residents.

Hear about two of those organizations, Chinatown Main Street, and the Chinatown Community Land Trust and how they are supporting Boston’s Chinatown.

Chinatown Main Street

Debbie Ho by Boston Chinatown Main StreetNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Debbie Ho: Introduction
00:00

Introducing Debbie Ho

My name is Debbie Ho. I'm the executive director to the Chinatown Main Street organization here in Chinatown, Boston.

Founded in 1995, Chinatown Main Street has spent three decades supporting a diverse community of residents and visitors.

Mission

Chinatown Main Street's mission predominantly focuses on preservation of Chinatown's rich cultural heritage, with a strong emphasis on supporting and nurturing local businesses that are structural to this vibrant community.

Chinatown Main Street is a member of Main Street America, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, that leads an inclusive, impact-driven movement dedicated to reenergizing and strengthening older and historic downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts nationwide.

Lunar New Year Chinatown Main Street (2024-02) by Chinatown Main Street (Boston)National Trust for Historic Preservation

Programming

All of Chinatown Main Street's programs, ranging from food assistance to tax filing support, are provided free of charge. These initiatives are designed to uplift the low-income communities of Chinatown, offering crucial support to families in need.

Lion Dance in Boston by Chinatown Main StreetNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Debbie Ho: Why Preserve Chinatown.
00:00

Supporting Chinatown

"It is important to preserve Chinatown in many ways. It's been culturally Chinatown for over a hundred years. Other Chinatowns in other states have disappeared, and I don't want this Boston Chinatown to disappear."

"... like the ones that have disappeared in, for instance, Rhode Island or Maine. And you not only lose the culture, you lose your people who have made their way in through the immigrant world of coming here into the community, being safe here in the community as an immigrant, knowing that this was a safe place for Asian people."

Chinatown Boston (1905) by Historic New EnglandNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Debbie Ho: My Hope for Chinatown
00:00

My greatest hope is to be sure Chinatown stays Chinatown.

"I don't want to discourage people, the immigrant families or immigrant businesses, to think that they would have to move or relocate to an area where they're so unfamiliar with. And it's important that the history here  in Chinatown continues for the next hundred years."

Debbie Ho: What do I Love the Most
00:00

What do I love the most? Oh my goodness. The restaurants.

"Wherever I can eat, the different restaurants, because we're so culturally drawn to the different flavors here in Chinatown, both restaurants, it's a lot of fun. I mean, there's Taiwanese food, there's Szechuan food, there's Chinese American foods. So it's all that, all in one."

Chinatown Community Land Trust

Lydia Lowe by Social Innovation Forum and Chinatown Community Land TrustNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Lydia Lowe Introduction
00:00

Introducing Lydia Lowe

I am Lydia Lowe and I'm the executive director of the Chinatown Community Land Trust in Boston.

The Chinatown Community Land Trust was founded in 2015 by tenants, homeowners, former residents, small business owners, and activists who “shared a vision of a stable and healthy future for Chinatown, shaped and anchored by immigrant working class families and small businesses.” They decided to try the community land trust model.

Row House Garden by Kye Liang and Chinese Progressive AssociationNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Lydia Lowe: Opportunities for Boston's Chinatown
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On Affordable Housing

"We saw this as a new way for us to permanently preserve certain pieces of the community, whether it was for permanently affordable housing, permanent park space, which is so in need in a dense urban community like Chinatown..."

"...or to play kind of a broader planning role, which we found was very important so that we could preserve Chinatown as a whole as a historic and cultural district."

Garment Workers Meeting in Chinatown (1986) by Therese Feng and Chinese Progressive AssociationNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Lydia Lowe: CCLT Overarching Goals
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Our goals

"Well, the overarching goal is to ensure a healthy future for the Boston Chinatown community, both as a working-class family neighborhood, and as an important historic and cultural center for the greater Boston area. We see doing that through development without displacement."

Johnny Court in Boston by Arturo GossageNational Trust for Historic Preservation

Lydia Lowe: Affordable Housing
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Rallying the Community

"The community has rallied in many ways to build more affordable housing to preserve the housing that we have, and the community land trust particular role within that is preserving some of the most historic buildings, mostly built in the 19th century small brick row houses..."

"...but preserving not just the buildings for their historic value as buildings, but really the role of those buildings as anchor homes for immigrant working class families."

Lydia Lowe: Culture and Climate
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Culture and climate

"There's been kind of an awakening about the cultural significance of Chinatown, more arts and cultural programming, a number of public art projects, which I think are important. But I also think when we think about Chinatown, we have to think about climate & climate change..."

"...And Chinatown is very threatened by climate change. It's the hottest island, heat island in the city, and it's also threatened by flooding. So I think it's very important for us to think about how we make Chinatown a climate resilience neighborhood as well."

I have very high hopes for Boston Chinatown. I think that the combined efforts of many different community groups and small businesses and residents, I think that we are stabilizing Chinatown's future. - Lydia Lowe

More on the Chinatown Community Land Trust and the Chinatown Main Street in Boston. 

For more on the history of Boston’s Chinatown visit the Chinatown Atlas a collaborative project led by MIT Professor Emeritus Tunney Lee, David Chang, Randall Imai, Jonathan Wyss, Kelly Sandefer, Kye Liang, and the Chinese Historical Society of New England.  

Learn more about the National Trust for Historic Preservation's America's Chinatowns initiative.

About the author: Priya Chhaya is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Credits: Story

Immigrant History Trail (Chinese Community Land Trust)
Main Street America
Book: Forever Struggle: Activism, Identity, & Survival in Boston's Chinatown, 1880-2018 by Michael Liu
A Tale of Three Chinatowns (Film)  
How Chinatowns Nationwide Are Finding Ways to Thrive Into the Future (Preservation magazine)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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