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DTLA’s building boom has by-passed Chinatown, until now

By Hayley Fox
Published: Friday, July 05, 2013, at 07:51AM
Mae Ryan/KPCC

A family waits outside of a store in L.A.'s Chinatown.



Downtown L.A.’s population has exploded by about 40 percent over the last ten years. Long time Angelenos and new residents have filled loft after loft in neighborhoods like the Arts District and the Historic Core. But amid all this growth, one neighborhood has remained largely the same: Chinatown.

George Yu is the executive director of the Business Improvement District (BID) in the area. He said that many of Chinatown's longtime property owners have had their businesses since the 50s or 60s.

And this represents a large portion of the area's population: Older folks or families who continue to live in the neighborhood thats been home for decades. But Yu said many Angelenos don’t think of Chinatown as a viable place to live.

“People don’t realize that Chinatown is an actual community versus just a commercial strip on Broadway and Hill Street,” said Yu.

But Shirley Zhang did. She made a conscious choice to move to Chinatown because of its culture and proximity to freeways and transit stops. Originally from China, the former Miss Chinatown has lived there for three years. She says it is the community's older generation who are most concerned with keeping the area “Chinese.”

“For example when we have the new apartment buildings that come in they want to know: 'Well, what aspect of the architecture is going to be Chinese? What’s different from this building in Chinatown versus a building in Little Tokyo?” said Zhang.

Chinatown just celebrated its 75th anniversary, and in a lot of ways, the neighborhood hasn’t changed much. In 1938, a group of Chinese Americans moved into the neighborhood that was then known as Little Italy – and turned it into what is now Chinatown.

Weathered signs displaying Chinese characters and identifying traditional outposts, are evidence of the restaurants and shops that have been there for decades. Many times, you even hear residents on the street speaking their native tongue.

Yu said the growth of Chinatown's economy has gone much slower than he anticipated. He attributes this largely to a lack of market rate housing. He said as of now, there are not many places for the average Joe to live. Many of the apartment complexes are for senior citizens or Section 8.

“The city has tried to balance their affordable housing stock solely in Chinatown. You know the definition of balance is 50/50, over the last 30 years there’s been well over 2,000 units of affordable housing built in Chinatown," he said.

Yu hopes incoming market-rate housing options will help attract a different demographic. Like the Jia Apartments being built on Cesar Chavez and Broadway, and the Blossom Plaza project along College Avenue. These two housing units alone will add more than 500 new apartments to the Chinatown landscape.

The Blossom Plaza project is finally moving forward after years of false starts due largely to a lack of funding. Scott Johnson is the architect on it, and said the mixed-use project will combine housing with retail, and help jump-start Chinatown’s economy.

“So it creates people who need things like food, clothing, whatever groceries and it activates the ground plane, improves the ground plane, helps the merchants on the street have more active retail establishments," said Johnson.

But a few shiny new housing complexes may not be enough to spur a mass move to the area. George Yu says that many of the longtime property owners in Chinatown have held their businesses since the 50s or 60s. Four of the eight original merchants who set up shop in Chinatown 75 years ago are still there.

And Zhang added that many of the other properties in the area are owned by generations of families, who have already paid off their mortgages and have little motivation to rent their spaces or take a chance in developing something new.

One of Chinatown's most successful forays into the world of the young and hip has been its art and gallery scene.

The neighborhood is slowly adding new bars as well. A recent addition is Melody Lounge. What was once a bare bones karaoke bar, is now a lushly decorated craft beer joint, with a DJ spinning records and specialty brews on tap.

Manager Ted Liscinski the new bar and said new businesses have to be aware of Chinatown’s old guard.

“There’s a lot of older families that have been here for decades and they really care about this space and if you’re coming in and you’re not in one of those families you’re an unfamiliar they need to know that you’re going to elevate the community a little bit by contributing,” he said.

Zhang, who also works for the Chinatown BID, added that many stakeholders want to attract business owners who have a passion for the area, and wont just swoop in to try and make money and leave soon after. Zhang said that while it’s important to remember Chinatown’s history, the parameters of what is “Chinese” is constantly changing – and development should reflect that.

“There must be a respect for culture and there must be a respect for history but on the other side we have to be careful that Chinatown isn’t turned into Disneyland, or a caricature of a community because we are a real community and people are living here,” she said.

And this summer, new residents are set to move in when the Jia apartments open at the end of the month.

The map below is based on the Los Angeles Times neighborhood mapping project. There is much debate around what the perimeters of Chinatown are and everyone has their own interpretation. What do you think the perimeter of the neighborhood is? Tell us in the comments below.

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