give it up already...Chinatown? bleh, it aint working!
BACKSTORY: Area’s future may not include those who built it
By Peter Korn
On first glance, the Pacific Tower, at the corner of Northwest Fourth Avenue and Flanders Street, looks like most other apartment buildings. A little less glass, a little more brick than some of its neighbors a few blocks to the west and north, in the Pearl District.
A closer look makes the building more intriguing. Little bits of design — Chinese letters inscribed on an outside wall, bamboo in the upstairs garden — reveal a building leaning toward an Asian motif. Nothing dramatic, just a hint that some not-so-obvious intention went into the design of this building.
And since the Pacific Tower stands 16 stories tall in Chinatown, a block away from the Portland Classical Chinese Garden, the design starts to make sense.
The tenants, at least most of them, were supposed to be Asian. The developers of the Pacific Tower, working with public officials who helped subsidize the building’s construction, intended a building that would induce elderly Chinese to live in Chinatown.
But stick around and watch the front door of the Pacific Tower open and close. The people coming in and out of the apartments are not Asian. Most are young, in their 20s or 30s. And they’re not wealthy young— the building received public money to provide affordable housing.
Jimmie Luey, a retired architect and longtime Chinatown activist who was part of a citizens advisory board that advised the Pacific Tower’s developers, smiles when asked why the Chinese seniors failed to come live in this Chinatown building designed for them. “That’s a good question,” Luey says.
Suenn Ho, an urban designer who also consulted on the building, says, “I personally walked 120 seniors into Pacific Tower when it opened (in 2003) and they all asked for applications.” Asked for an explanation of why they didn’t take residence, Ho says, “I don’t know. People were excited about it. There were a slew of reasons.”
Among those reasons are a lack of parking in the neighborhood, fear of crime in the streets due to the abundance of social service agencies in the area, and the absence of an Asian grocery store.
Some Chinatown leaders say the apartments weren’t priced right to appeal to Chinese residents. None of those conditions changed, however, from when construction started on the Pacific Tower.
If the Pacific Tower is any indication, Chinese people don’t appear interested in living in Chinatown. Despite a clamor for public investment to reinvigorate the area, the majority of property owners in Chinatown aren’t spending their own money to fix up their properties.
That doesn’t mean Chinatown doesn’t have a revitalized future. It just may not be a Chinese future.
In the end, neighborhood leaders and others say, Chinatown may never again have a heavy Chinese population for one primary reason: People — not developers, not community activists, not urban designers — decide where and how they want to live.
Garden losing visitors
In September, the Under the Autumn Moon festival brought more people to Chinatown than any event in decades, upward of 35,000, according to festival organizers.
The festival was held to celebrate the opening of Chinatown’s two new festival streets, Northwest Third and Fourth avenues between Burnside and Glisan streets, along with sculptures and landscaping that cost the Portland Development Commission $5.4 million.
In the eyes of many Chinatown leaders, the festival and the new street designs would herald a new beginning in their neighborhood.
That PDC investment was on top of the more than $6 million the city collected through local improvement district taxes to help build the Portland Classical Chinese Garden, the one Chinatown attraction that, since its 2000 opening, is drawing both tourists and local residents. But even at the garden, attendance has declined each year, from 285,000 visits in 2001 to 127,000 last year.
Gloria Lee, the garden’s executive director, says she wishes the garden had more of a following among local Chinese, but she is heartened by the fact that one in four of the garden’s volunteers are Asian, compared to one in 20 five years ago.
Those Asian volunteers have to drive or take public transit to the garden. “Nobody lives in Chinatown anymore. It’s a business district,” says Michael Cheng, past president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, a Chinatown-based organization that for more than a century has represented the interests of the Chinese community.
Nearly three months after the Autumn Moon festival, a resurgent Chinese influence is hard to find in Chinatown. Three key businesses have left the Fourth Avenue core recently — including Hung Far Low restaurant, a neighborhood institution.
Vacant storefronts along Fourth Avenue speak of a continued decline rather than rebirth. But some Chinese community leaders say revitalization may yet occur if they can get more help. There are others who wonder if all the help in the world will be enough.
Searching for an identity
Tom Carrollo, president of the Old Town/Chinatown Neighborhood Association, says there are plenty more people like those who live in the Pacific Tower ready to move into the Chinatown neighborhood, even with the atmosphere created by the social service agencies and the lack of parking.
“The creative class is enamored with our neighborhood,” Carrollo says, referring to educated young adults. “They like us the way we are, and they accept us the way we are. A little gritty is OK with them.”
And attracting residents, Carrollo says, is the key to stabilizing the Chinatown neighborhood. “Chinatown needs more people living there,” he says. Only permanent residents with disposable income will support the shops of a vibrant neighborhood, Carrollo says.
Carrollo, who is not Asian, says he thinks the next few years should determine what kind of development takes place in Chinatown. But Carrollo isn’t sure how much faith members of the Chinese community are showing in an Asian-based Chinatown.
“There are buildings’ owners, absentee Asians, who seem willing to let buildings stay empty. That creates blight and takes away from the environment,” Carrollo says.
Carrollo says he doesn’t know what shape Chinatown will take in the future, but he is certain the development commission and Chinatown leaders won’t have the final say.
“I don’t think you can force anything,” Carrollo says. “You don’t want to Disney-fy a Chinatown. You can create the environment that is conducive to Chinatown doing well. From there it goes out to the street level, safety issues and livability issues. But beyond that the free market has to have a play.”
Neighborhoods change their identities all the time. Northwest Portland was low-rent, now it’s high-end. North Mississippi Avenue 10 years ago was forlorn; now it’s up and coming. The heart of Chinatown, Third and Fourth avenues between Burnside and Glisan streets, didn’t become the heart of the Chinese community in Portland until World War II, and it has been steadily losing its Chinese residents for three decades.
Voting with their feet
Today an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people of Chinese heritage live in the Portland area — many of them in outer Southeast Portland. Pieces of Southeast 82nd Avenue have more Asian establishments than all of Chinatown, including Fubonn, a large Asian supermarket that anchors a mall full of Asian shops. Some are wondering if 82nd Avenue has become the new Chinatown.
Luey, who has been on the board of directors of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association for more than 30 years, says leaders of the Chinatown neighborhood bear much of the responsibility for the area’s inability to improve. And Luey doesn’t think more public money is what’s needed to reinvigorate Chinatown.
“Twenty-five years ago we hoped to get this built up but instead it’s deteriorated,” Luey says. “I don’t think anything the city can do will make this happen. It takes a change in mentality of the people in charge of the associations, including the CCBA. CCBA as a group had its head in the sand. We don’t have proper leadership in the community. They’re all narrow-minded and selfish.”
Luey says the Chinese community leaders who want Chinatown to reflect its Chinese heritage need to start by taking action on their own rather than ask for help from outside investors or the city to take on the risk of putting money into a decaying neighborhood.
“They would need to have to set examples,” Luey says. “Get their own buildings improved, get back to living down here. That’s the way to attract people down here.”
Luey can list building after building where he says the owners had the opportunity to redevelop but refused. Luey says grand plans were considered for community buildings and low-cost housing. But the faith in Chinatown’s potential, he says, always has vanished when it came time for the Chinese property owners to invest their money.
“The owners don’t want to spend the time and money to develop them,” Luey says. “This is the mentality. They don’t think long-term.”
But it would take long-term thinking to invest in some of the abandoned Chinatown properties. Fred Fong is part owner of a rooming house that he says was built in the 1880s. The building, at the corner of Northwest Third Avenue and Davis Street, has been unused for years because, Fong says, it would take a complete overhaul to make it habitable. And, Fong says, the building’s historic designation puts restrictions on any renovation the owners might attempt.
“It’s a historic building, so you can’t do anything with it,” Fong says. “If you can find someone with the bucks to turn it inside out, something could happen,” Fong says.
For now, the building remains deserted.
Other Chinatown property owners say that they simply are not sure that renovating their properties will lure tenants, given how many businesses have closed in the neighborhood recently.
Dreams of a ranch in the city
The more optimistic among the Chinese community have different takes on what would restore Chinatown, but most agree that the starting point should be one big attraction that could lure Asians into Chinatown on the weekends.
Lee, executive director of the Chinese garden, says an Asian supermarket would be the answer. “A grocery store in the Chinese community is a social center,” Lee says. “Your outing for the day.”
Portland has two Asian supermarkets — Uwajimaya on Southwest Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway and Fubonn on Southeast 82nd Avenue.
Betty Jean Lee, a longtime Chinatown activist, is even more precise. “It can’t be just an Asian grocery store,” Lee says. “It’s got to be Ranch 99.”
Chinatown activists speak about Ranch 99, or 99 Ranch Market, in the way immigrants from China spoke about mythic Golden Mountain — referring to faraway California — 150 years ago. Ninety-nine Ranch has stores that specifically target the needs of Chinese customers at stores in California and Kent, Wash. And two years ago, Omar Lee, a shopping mall developer who includes 99 Ranch Market in his multistore Asian shopping centers, came to visit Portland’s Chinatown two years ago. Lee says he even considered a site at the time.
But no longer. Lee says that after his visit he just wasn’t convinced that he wanted to try to lead a turnaround in Chinatown.
“I told the folks at the time it’s more than just a couple or three gung-ho developers,” Lee says. “It takes a village, a community to make this thing happen.”
“It was like a puzzle and all the pieces didn’t fit,” Lee says. “We were drafting on pure enthusiasm without any specific assurances from any group.”
Developer Lee says he would consider looking at Portland again for one of his Asian centers, but “I’d better not be the pioneer.”
Michael Liu, whose family opened Fubonn a year ago, says they never considered opening their Asian supermarket in Chinatown, even though he recognizes the positive force such a move might have created.
“Parking, that’s the main issue keeping people from going down there,” Liu says. On Southeast 82nd Avenue, Fubonn has acres of free parking.
Chinatown parking — or the lack of it — isn’t an issue, however, for part-time student Natalie Schaefer. She’s happy with all the street improvements in Chinatown and relishes how the rooftop garden at Pacific Tower, where she rents a one-bedroom apartment for $660, looks right down into the Classical Chinese Garden.
Parking? So close to downtown and the transit mall, Schaefer just needs a car once a week when she drives up West Burnside Street to Fred Meyer for groceries.
Chinatown isn’t dying as far as the 27-year-old Schaefer is concerned.
“Diversity is the way to go,” she says. “You can’t just say only Chinese can live in Chinatown.”