Changing Times in Chinatown

The Ai Hoa Market on Hill Street has been part of Chinatown for 40 years.

When does a neighborhood lose its identity? That’s something many residents in Chinatown are wondering as the area is primed for a major tonal shift as Downtown’s boom hits it.

Last week Los Angeles Downtown News wrote about the changing neighborhood, including the long-running local Ai Hoa Market, which is winding down operations to fully relocate to South El Monte. The grocery staple has been a part of the area since the 1970s, providing low-cost food and hard-to-find specialty Asian items. Its departure would be the latest blow to the area, which also lost a hospital in 2017 and other markets and businesses in recent years. And that comes as new, mixed-use and market-rate developments are in construction or planned around Chinatown.

All neighborhoods and cities evolve. That’s just the natural way of a living, breathing city. But it should progress in a way that doesn’t displace existing communities or wipe out an important and vital part of Los Angeles’ history.

Chinatown is an area where the median income sits around $20,000 and the population is largely comprised of seniors and migrants. New development and high-end attractions are becoming more frequent, albeit geared toward a new crop of potential residents, often wealthier than the existing and longstanding Chinatown population.

This is not the first time this has happened, and likely not the last. The first iteration of Downtown’s Chinatown was forced out of its original location in the 1930s so that Union Station could be constructed. It would open in 1939. The community relocated to the former Little Italy, where it has been located since. There is now decades of history and families with settled roots in Chinatown’s current home. That kind of upheaval, again, would be devastating, without proper focus.

Similarly, the development of the Civic Center and growth of the Arts District in the 1970s and 1980s saw Little Tokyo encroached upon, shrinking the historic neighborhood into a fraction of its former size. Little Tokyo still is there, in large part due to strong local activism and investment, but with a smaller footprint.

There are positive signs. Community groups have been very active in organizing Chinatown residents and the wider Downtown to help local businesses and residents. Cultural events in the neighborhood’s plazas such as Chinatown Summer Nights help the area while attracting larger crowds. Los Angeles State Historic Park, among its wider programming, does community events and free classes, and this fall a second-generation student of Bruce Lee’s started teaching classes in Lee’s old studio from half a century ago.

This is not to say that Chinatown shouldn’t grow. Downtown is booming with new residents and projects, and as the region struggles to combat homelessness, places like Chinatown should welcome new housing projects and amenities. But growth must respect an existing community, and anyone with their sights set on a plot of land in Chinatown should do their due diligence to understand the area and its residents.