Atlantic Cities

Why Chinatowns Are Shrinking

Why Chinatowns Are Shrinking
Reuters

Over at The Atlantic, Bonnie Tsui has written a piece about Chinese immigrants who are being lured back to China by a more prosperous economy. This is having devastating effects on major cities’ Chinatowns, where new working-class immigrants tend to land. As the numbers of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. decreases, so will the value of the support system in these Chinatowns. As China grows, Tsui writes, Chinatowns will fall.

Smaller Chinatowns have been fading for years - just look at Washington, D.C., where Chinatown is down to a few blocks marked by an ornate welcome gate and populated mostly by chains like Starbucks and Hooters, with signs in Chinese. But now the Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York are depopulating, becoming less residential and more service-oriented. When the initial 2010 U.S. census results were released in March, they revealed drops in core areas of San Francisco’s Chinatown. In Manhattan, the census showed a decline in Chinatown’s population for the first time in recent memory - almost 9 percent overall, and a 14 percent decline in the Asian population.

The exodus from Chinatown is happening partly because the working class is getting priced out of this traditional community and heading to the “ethnoburbs”; development continues to push residents out of the neighborhood and into other, secondary enclaves like Flushing, Queens, in New York. But the influx of migrants who need the networks that Chinatown provides is itself slowing down. Notably, the percentage of foreign-born Chinese New Yorkers fell from about 75 percent in 2000 to 69 percent in 2009.

China's attractive economy is definitely one reason why Chinatowns are struggling. But the changing patterns of immigration in the U.S. is another likely factor. As we’ve previously noted, a recent report from the Brookings Institution shows that foreign-born populations in the U.S. are increasingly moving to small cities and suburbs within metropolitan areas. The age of big cities as entry point and holding tank for immigrants seems to be ending, if not over.

As Chinese immigrants become less concentrated, the conditions under which Chinatowns develop and sustain are disappearing. That's not to say that ethnic enclaves in U.S. cities are going away. But as these populations deconcentrate and spread into different cities and smaller suburban areas, it's likely that the Chinatowns we've known will become increasingly irrelevant. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, form in their place in the new suburban centers of immigration.

Photo credit: Luke MacGregor / Reuters

Keywords: Chinatown, Immigration

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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