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Revitalizing Los Angeles Chinatown: The Politics and Meaning of Change in an Urban Ethnic Enclave

Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

Chinatowns are historic ethnic enclaves that have persisted as important neighborhoods in the urban landscape. They are evolving spaces of community belonging for Chinese Americans who do not always live there and vary across generation and immigration experiences. But Chinatowns have also been targets for urban revitalization efforts throughout their history and are now part of contemporary gentrification debates. These trends challenge how they evolve as ethnic enclaves and what control the community has in these changes.

Through a case study of Los Angeles Chinatown, I examine how ethnic communities engage in the politics of development in older urban ethnic enclaves and the implications of this engagement for the neighborhood and ethnic community identity. This research includes data collected from ethnographic fieldwork and draws from political economy, immigration, and race theories to analyze the transformation of community politics in ethnic enclaves and how an ethnic community maintains control over neighborhood change as they face urban revitalization pressures. The themes that emerged from this study show that the ethnic political engagement to assert community control was expressed through the formation of new organizations, participation in spaces for community representation, and framings of neighborhood change and identity. Yet, differences that were complicating and redefining the understandings of the Chinese American community since the 1965 Immigration Act, especially in regard to class, generation, immigration cohort, and geography, were also expressed in this engagement, which shaped the planning and land use conflicts that determined the housing, economic, and cultural development for the neighborhood.

The community conflict over development in Chinatown is a part of a rearticulation of a Chinese American community identity that demands recognition of their socioeconomic and cultural complexities in policymaking. This has also led to a questioning about the community’s ongoing relationship to Chinatown, particularly who has the right to represent Chinatown and benefit from its changes. The political dynamics in Chinatown show that older urban ethnic enclaves continue to matter for ethnic community formation and ethnic groups to assert a political voice; however, this rearticulation also reflects the limits and possibilities of community power in equitable development.

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