Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Chinatown's New Reach Expands Its Old Borders by Antonio Olivo and Oscar Avila
New condominiums and townhouses rose along the edges of Chinatown during the 1990s, surrounding the pungent fish markets and pagoda-shaped restaurants that long made the South Side neighborhood seem like a living museum.
Suburban professionals and retirees with money moved in. Property values soared, as they have through much of the city.
But the growth that continues to remake Chinatown is unlike that in any other Chicago neighborhood.
The newcomers have names like Chin or Tang, speak Mandarin or Cantonese and, in many cases, have been here before. Community activists say they are at the heart of a Chinese explosion going on south of Roosevelt Road, a transformation that sets Chicago's Chinatown apart from its peers on both coasts.
What was once an enclave isolated from the rest of the city by rail yards, expressways and public housing has spread beyond those boundaries, infused with new energy, new money and new faces.
What was once a community that avoided the limelight is now opening itself--and marketing itself--to the rest of the city in new ways. And some advocates are pushing for a new political voice.
"We need to broaden the definition of Chinatown," said Chun-Wah Chan, chairman of the Coalition for a Better Chinatown, a political advocacy group. "The old, historic definition is no longer true."
The new Chinatown is on display Tuesday nights inside Ping Tom Memorial Park, where Chinese residents from the adjacent Santa Fe Gardens condominiums and townhouses watch movies such as "Spider-Man" or "The Wizard of Oz," with non-Chinese visitors from other neighborhoods.
And, it spills block by block into the South Loop, Back of the Yards and other surrounding communities, where Chinese families unpack groceries, attend church and walk their children to school.
It extends south into nearby Bridgeport--now home to more Asians than Chinatown itself--where Chinese restaurants, acupuncture clinics and travel agencies flourish among the Italian ice stands and Irish pubs on West 31st Street.
This expansion has created tension among Asians and longtime residents in some neighborhoods, especially Bridgeport.
But despite bumps along the way, community leaders believe they are entering an era of new influence in the life of the city.
Seeking `bigger voice'
With the number of Asians in Chinatown and Bridgeport alone more than doubling to about 17,000 since 1990, "we're going to be more concentrated in the city and we'll have a bigger voice," predicted Eric Chang, a principal of U.S. Asia Group Inc., among several Asian development firms building new homes.
There has never been a Chinese alderman in Chicago. Chinatown is part of the 25th Ward, along with heavily Latino Pilsen. Bridgeport is part of the 11th Ward, with McKinley Park and sections of New City.
Chang and other local community leaders are making the case for a new predominantly Chinese ward, five years before any serious citywide discussion on political redistricting is expected to occur. It would stretch from Chinatown about two miles south to Pershing Road in Wentworth Gardens and another three miles west to Ashland Avenue in McKinley Park.
"We want to get our agenda heard," Chang said.
Those political ambitions were galvanized in May by a City Council decision that excluded Asians from automatic eligibility in its minority set-aside program for construction contracts. Aldermen contended that Asians should not be included because they did not face the same discrimination as other minorities, a position that developer Raymond Chin called a political slap in the face.
"We're not very sophisticated politically, but we're fast learners," Chin said. "It's our nature not to be confrontational. But, at the same time, as our younger, more educated generation comes up, we'll realize that's the way you get things done."
Such talk is out of character for a community that for decades has "kept its head down and worked," said Chin, owner of the R.M. Chin & Associates development firm and co-owner of Phoenix, one of several Chinatown restaurants and clubs that now cater to a younger crowd at night.
Old safe haven
Dating to the early 20th Century, the eight-block neighborhood near Cermak Road and Wentworth Avenue functioned mostly as a safe haven for Chinese immigrants.
Many Cantonese-speaking newcomers had stayed in Chicago after the transcontinental railroad was built or arrived to work in laundries and restaurants, creating a Chinatown at Clark and Van Buren Streets. But after about a generation, they were forced to relocate to the South Side to make way for government and commercial building downtown.
By the 1950s, the new Chinatown had developed into a pocket of chop suey restaurants and tiny apartments where "tong" gangs fought turf battles. At the same time, Mandarin-speaking families arrived in flight from the Communist Revolution in China.
The neighborhood was hemmed in during that period by the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway to the west and the Stevenson Expressway to the south. Rows of junked cars and Santa Fe railroad debris near the Chicago River bordered the neighborhood to the north. The Archer Courts public housing complex just south of downtown prevented expansion to the east.
With housing in the neighborhood growing increasingly dense and dilapidated, families that could afford to leave moved to suburban towns such as Naperville, Skokie or Evanston. They avoided the shorter move to predominantly white areas such as Bridgeport, described in Mike Royko's landmark 1971 book "Boss" as a place of fierce insularity, "a suspicious neighborhood, a blend of Irish, Lithuanian, Italian, Polish, German, and all white. In the bars, heads turn when a stranger comes in."
Then, during the late 1980s, a group of Chinatown business leaders bought 32 acres of Archer Avenue property from the railroad and eventually built Chinatown Square, a two-level mall full of restaurants, beauty salons and law offices, flanked by 21 new townhouses. That paved the way for additional residential construction, most notably Santa Fe Gardens, a 600-unit village of townhouses, condominiums and single-family homes still under construction on formerly industrial land to the north.
With a new stream of Taiwanese and Fujian immigrants also flooding into the area, the population of Chinatown grew 22 percent during the 1990s to about 8,300, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
New residents, strong ties
Mike Chin, a vice president at Harris Bank, said he and his wife Sybil recently moved to Chinatown from Schaumburg.
Chin, 36, said their condominium in the Santa Fe Gardens complex is a short drive or "L" train ride from his downtown office and convenient to most other areas of the city. Plus, they are close to Sybil's parents, who have lived in Chinatown for years and revel in spending time with the couple's 7-month-old daughter, Ardyn.
"You've got all the restaurants, the shops, the culture," he said. "It's a blast. We like to walk around the neighborhood with the baby and the dog."
Increased home ownership, along with a mix of businesses and income levels, gives Chicago an unusual opportunity for growth among the nation's Chinese enclaves, said Jerome Krase, a professor emeritus of sociology at the City University of New York's Brooklyn College who has studied Chinatowns around the world.
In lower Manhattan's Chinatown, for instance, the dependence on tourism led to a sharp economic downturn after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Krase said.
For young Chinese professionals, "Chinatown isn't just restaurants and curio shops but professional offices and businesses and arts," Krase said.
And while other Chinatowns nationwide are geographically hamstrung because adjacent neighborhoods are too expensive, the situation in Chicago is now the opposite, Krase said.
During the last eight years, home prices have doubled in Chinatown, to about $285,000 for an average townhouse or condominium, real estate agents say. A similar Bridgeport condominium sells for about $210,000.
Chinatown prices have frustrated Mylinh Tang, a single mother living in Romeoville who would like to move closer to her work and culture. So she expanded her search for a new house to a wider arc of South Side neighborhoods.
"It's getting ridiculous," said Tang, 30, a social worker for elderly immigrants in Chinatown, who wants her 9-year-old daughter Serina to learn more about her heritage.
During the 1990s, Bridgeport's Asian population increased 74 percent to 8,800--making up more than a quarter of that community--with Latinos also increasing, census figures show. Asians in McKinley Park, another rapidly growing Chinese destination, more than tripled that decade to about 1,100 in 2000.
A list of 2004 Bridgeport deed transfers details the continuing advance: Ryan Li bought Patrick Fitzpatrick's sunny brown bungalow. So Yin Ng moved into Beverly King's one-story house with light blue siding, Shan Le Chen acquired Rosemary Morrison's beige brick two-flat.
"Even though we're leaving Chinatown, it's like we're not leaving," said Sharon Wong, 25, an accountant whose family recently moved from Chinatown to Bridgeport, near a cluster of Chinese restaurants and businesses that has sprung up on West 31st Street.
Ethnic tensions arise
However, the changeover has also led to ethnic resentment, particularly in Bridgeport. In 2000, Ran Yu saw its flames licking at the back of her South Halsted Street restaurant, where vandals lit her back door afire. A few weeks ago, someone shattered the windows of her Toyota van.
Yu believes the crimes are racially motivated. They have made her fearful for the safety of her daughter Olivia, 4. Last year, she and her husband moved out of their Bridgeport home after six years and took Olivia to suburban Riverside.
"I'm just trying to understand why people would do this," said Yu, inside her restaurant, Ed's Pot Sticker House.
There was a similar mistrust in a musty Veterans of Foreign Wars bar on nearby Wallace Street. There, a group of men and women recently talked about their Chinese neighbors over cigarettes and cans of beer.
Chinese immigrants in the area keep to themselves too much, shopping only in their stores and speaking only in their language, they said.
"They build condos but only Chinese live there," said Lynn Elizondo, 55, calling some of her Chinese neighbors arrogant. "I don't know what their problem is."
Others joked about the increased prevalence around Bridgeport of tai chi, a slow, meditative exercise meant to achieve relaxation, balance and harmony with one's surroundings.
But in Chinatown itself, there are signs of a new harmony between Chinese residents, their non-Chinese neighbors and visitors from around the area.
Jimmy Lee, president of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, is trying to carve a space for such encounters in Ping Tom Memorial Park, a strip of former industrial land along the Chicago River that serves as Chinatown's only green space.
With a mixture of Bach, Harry Potter and free popcorn, the chamber has sought to mainstream Chinatown -- and, in doing so, ease the community's growth in the South Side--through a new "Summer Fun in Chinatown" series of movies and concerts at the park.
It is part of a larger effort to attract non-Asian businesses and shoppers to the area and "realize what kind of market is growing out here," said Lee, 26, who worked as an aide to former Gov. George Ryan. "We want to create a family atmosphere in Chinatown, not just for the Chinese but for the whole city. A lot of people don't know what Chinatown is."
Communication breaks walls
Dwayne Brewer, 35, who grew up in the Far South Side's Pullman neighborhood, figured Chinatown had nothing to offer him. Brewer, who is African-American, long considered the enclave as "their own little community, having nothing to do with me."
But, intrigued by an ad, he recently found himself lounging with his fiance Lavonne Whitlock inside Ping Tom Park, waiting to catch "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."
Near them, Chinese-American families from Santa Fe Gardens chatted over the rumble of an industrial freight train passing on the river's opposite bank while a group of white women from Wheaton picnicked in beach chairs and several interracial couples stretched on blankets.
"I never thought I'd be part of something like this," Brewer said. "Chinatown is getting to be really nice."
Jerry Masterson, a Chicago police officer, says integrating Chinese-Americans with the rest of the city is simply a matter of communication.
"If you get past ignorance, we'd live very good together," Masterson said.
He learned that over a plate of Mongolian beef, the only dish a Chinese waitress inside a Bridgeport restaurant knew how to pronounce in English when he asked for a lunch recommendation.
The waitress, Bi Xiao Yan, persuaded Masterson to help her with more English words each time he came around. They were married in 2002.
Co-owners of Windy City Hardware on South Halsted Street, the couple displays a "Proud to be an American" sign inside their store. Above it hangs a banner with a saying in Mandarin wishing customers a comfortable, happy and fortunate life.
This article appears in the Chicago Tribune.
Antonio Olivo and Oscar Avila
Wednesday, December 28, 2005