From the ARCADE Issue 34.2 feature, “Architectures of Migration: A Survey of Displacements, Routes, and Arrivals.” Articles from the issue will release online over the following weeks. Subscribe to receive ARCADE in print.

Chinatown Shaolu Yu

Standing on the Manhattan Bridge, looking toward the New York Municipal Building on Chinatown’s western border. Photo: Shaolu Yu

For a Chinese student abroad in the US, Chinatown feels like a home away from home. Tourists may find these neighborhoods exotic, but Chinatowns are sacred to me—they’re extensions of my home country in a foreign land. I vividly remember the first time I visited New York’s Chinatown. Surrounded by Chinese-looking people, familiar Chinese characters, and smells of foods from my childhood, I thought to myself, “Wow, I am back in China now!”

Standing at the intersection of Mott and Bayard, I was overwhelmed with questions about the neighborhood—in particular, when and why did my ancestors carve out their own space in the middle of Manhattan and how has Chinatown changed over time? Through mapping the area and tracing its history, I’ve seen that the evolving boundaries of Manhattan’s Chinatown reveal a story of Chinese immigration on the East Coast and urban change in the US.

Chinatown emerged as a shelter for Chinese immigrants faced with racial discrimination and marginalization in the 19th century. The neighborhood started in the Lower East Side around Pell, Doyers, and Mott Streets. The anti-Chinese campaign on the West Coast drove large waves of Chinese immigrants toward the eastern US. Despite the decline of the Chinese population in the nation due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese population in New York City was on the rise. The boundaries of Chinatown consequently expanded.

In 1958, scholar Cheng-Tsu Wu set out to quantitatively delimit Chinatown. For Wu, the meaning of Chinatown is more cultural than residential; as he wrote in his dissertation, Chinese People and Chinatown in New York City, “Chinatown, in essence, is a region of exclusively Chinese cultural phenomenon in New York City.” Through measuring the cultural landscape, in part by determining what percentage of stores and institutions are Chinese on each street, Wu defined Chinatown’s core area as 10 blocks. Bounded by Canal, Bowery, Baxter, and Worth Streets, the area was almost twice as large as in the early 1900s.

Chinatown Shaolu Yu Lucia Marquand

The redelineation of Chinatown’s boundaries. Map and research by Shaolu Yu. Design by Lucia|Marquand.

The dramatic expansion of Chinatown did not occur until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act brought both human and capital resources to the community, leading to an economic boom and real estate development. The influx of Chinese immigrants coincided with the increasing mobility among immigrants from Europe. As early European immigrants mobilized and assimilated into mainstream society, they began to leave their ethnic enclaves, contributing to Chinatown's expansion into neighborhoods that were once predominately Italian and Jewish.

In 2010, as part of my academic research, I redelineated Chinatown’s boundaries using the same measurements as Wu did over 50 years ago (see above). The new boundaries demonstrate the drastic expansion of Chinatown to the north and southeast. In the north, the neighborhood has expanded along Mulberry and Elizabeth Streets to Delancey; Little Italy, which used to take up much of that area, has been largely enveloped, left with only two blocks of tourist-oriented restaurants and gift shops. In the southeast, Chinatown’s expansion along East Broadway and Division Street was driven by an influx of Fujianese, who are culturally distinct from Chinatown’s original settlers from Guangzhou and Hong Kong. The southeast expansion engulfed the Jewish neighborhood there, and a former synagogue is now surrounded by Chinese stores and restaurants.

In the late 1990s, skyrocketing land values began pushing residents and garment industries out from Chinatown. The neighborhood’s location has made it a top target for gentrification, similar to other Chinatowns in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia. Chinatown’s decline is also driven by the decentralization of later generations of Chinese Americans and new Chinese immigrants. The September 11 attacks and Hurricane Sandy both traumatized businesses and decreased job opportunities in the area. The boundaries of Chinatown are beginning to retreat, as the Chinese stores that used to provide ethnic goods and services for local residents are displaced by upscale bars, clubs, and restaurants, and tenements are renovated into luxury condos and hotels.

Assimilation theory, which dominated studies of US immigration for decades, predicted that ethnic communities such as Chinatown will eventually diminish or decline into cultural symbols as immigrants assimilate into mainstream society. Indeed, many cities in the US have witnessed the decline, disappearance, or Disneyfication of their Chinatowns. Nevertheless, Manhattan’s Chinatown still continues to function today as the major gateway for new Chinese immigrants, as well as the economic, social, and political center for those already in the region. For tourists, it is a place to visit, but for Chinatownians, it is a place to memorialize, dwell in, and call home.