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A land squeeze in America's Chinatowns

In Boston, activists want to develop a site with affordable housing, but the city eyes offices and luxury condos.

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The empty lots, the tangle of highways above and below ground, and the power plant may not look like much. But everyone agrees it's prime real estate.

Residents of Chinatown next door see the 20 acres – called the "Chinatown Gateway" on zoning maps – as their best chance to develop much-needed affordable housing and alleviate a severe housing crunch.

But the city's redevelopment authority has dubbed the area "South Bay" and envisions a new downtown district with upscale apartments, hotels, and offices.

This struggle in Boston is the latest in a land squeeze that is changing the nature of Chinatowns across the United States. As America's downtowns become hip again, urban real estate is becoming so valuable that ethnic enclaves find it increasingly difficult to survive as the first stop for new immigrants, usually with few skills and no English.

Once a fixture in most major US cities, many Chinatowns have ceased to exist as magnets for new arrivals. San Diego's Chinatown is now a historic district. A coalition in Phoenix is trying to save the last remaining Chinatown structure from becoming a luxury apartment building. Four of the enclaves in the 10 largest cities – in Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia – are now commercial areas. Dallas, which never had a historic Chinatown, designated a retail center as "Chinatown" in the 1980s. Other Chinatowns in Seattle, Detroit, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., are today primarily tourist spots.

"Because it's very valuable downtown real estate, [developers] would love to dismantle the housing and just build hotels and office buildings," says Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

New York's Chinatown is one of the last historic enclaves to remain a thriving residential and commercial area, says Peter Kwong, coauthor of "Chinese America: The Untold Story of America's Oldest New Community." But it's also feeling squeezed.

Here in Boston, talks on developing the site could resume this fall. In theory, the city and Chinatown agree they want to create a mixed-income neighborhood with a park. But they'll have to do battle over the proportion of affordable versus market-rate housing.

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