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As developers turn to Baltimore’s historical Chinatown, Ethiopian residents worry about displacement while others worry about cultural commodification.
The remains of Baltimore’s once-thriving Chinatown are now so sparse that most who venture into the city might not realize it’s there. All but one Chinese restaurant along Park Avenue, the historic core of Chinatown, have closed, leaving behind deteriorating facades with the Eastern-architectural touches that have become synonymous with Chinatowns worldwide.
Yet after several decades of neglect, a renewed vibrancy has emerged: Many of the ornate facades have been supplemented with Ethiopian flags and Amharic lettering on storefront windows. A row of abandoned buildings is enveloped by a large mural of a Chinese dragon and an Ethiopian lion, signifying the neighborhood’s past and present communities. Over the course of a decade, Ethiopian businesses have proliferated along the 300 block of Park Avenue, revitalizing the neighborhood as well as building a space for the city’s Ethiopian community to converge.
At the Abinet Ethiopian Market, men gather to shop for goods from back home, and also to gossip and talk politics over strong Ethiopian coffee. After years of driving a cab, Teklu was finally able to save enough to open the store four years ago, and his shop has come to serve as a hub for the community. Teklu (who, like other Ethiopians who agreed to talk about the future of the area, was reluctant to have his last name used) acts almost like an informal mayor, helping people find jobs and settling disputes, according to others in the community. “If you come to Park Avenue you can find all your friends that you only see every once in a while,” Teklu says. “You see a bunch of Ethiopians unlike anywhere [else] in Baltimore. So for us, it’s kinda home.”
Baltimore’s Chinatown was never large. Chinese immigrants first began to settle in the city in the 1870s, just before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 became the first U.S. law to restrict immigration based on race. After the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, intense anti-Chinese sentiment led many migrants to flock east, even though the Geary Act, an 1892 law requiring Chinese laborers to carry identification proving their right to be in the country, was in effect nationwide. While concentration in what became known as Chinatowns provided Chinese immigrants more protections and freedom of movement, these areas also evolved out of necessity, as racism made it difficult for them to obtain housing elsewhere.
At first, the Chinese settled on the 200 block of Marion Street in downtown Baltimore, but after the 1904 Great Fire of Baltimore and the resulting rebuilding, the community relocated to its current location a few blocks away. According to Taunya Banks, professor of equality jurisprudence at the University of Maryland, the community at the turn of the 20th century was mostly transient, with the area serving as a way station for new immigrants headed someplace else. “At the time, ethnic Chinese from the Caribbean and the West Coast were being run out; they would come in from the port of Norfolk, and they would catch the train and get up to Baltimore, and then they would move on.”
When Baltimore began to lose population to neighboring suburbs during the 1960s, Chinatown was not immune. After the 1968 riots, many Chinese began to migrate to the suburbs, and by the 1980s, the city’s Chinatown effectively no longer existed. Now, the Chinatown Collective, a group of Asian-American artists, is hoping to revive it. On September 22, 2018, the Collective organized the first Charm City Night Market as a celebration of the neighborhood’s Asian-American legacy. Reports say nearly 12,000 people flocked to the neighborhood to enjoy an assortment of Asian snacks and shop for Asian-American art.
“Our ultimate goal was to always to resurrect an AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] presence in Chinatown,” Leandro Lagera of the Chinatown Collective told Baltimore Magazine. “The Night Market proved that there could be something there that is more permanent.”
In January, the Collective made an agreement with an group of non-Asian developers who are planning a $30 million redevelopment of Chinatown. One of the developers, Vitruvius Co., plans to build an 80,000-square-foot apartment building on a vacant lot in the 400 block of Park Avenue, and with partners, has purchased nearby properties, some with existing historical buildings, for future projects. While a low-income housing shortage has led the state and city to commit to adding affordable units in Baltimore’s downtown, most of the units at the Vitruvius building will be market rate, with only 10 percent earmarked for affordable housing.
The Chinatown Collective’s partnership with the developers has drawn criticism from some who view the collaboration as an attempt to use the Chinatown brand as an engine of displacement, since, as part of its relationship with the developers, the Collective will consult on the design of the complex’s street-level shops and restaurants, ensuring that they hew to the neighborhood’s historical character.
“The ‘rebuilding’ of a Baltimore Chinatown would be an artificial attempt to conjure up some Orientalist exotic and Disneyfied fragment of what a true Chinatown community is,” said Andrew Leong, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who studies urban Chinatowns. As he views it, any attempt to rebuild Chinatown is inherently exclusionary of the Ethiopian community that currently exists. “The best way to honor what was Baltimore Chinatown is to allow for the growth, nurture, and protection of the current Ethiopian community. While there might remain certain markers of an earlier community, there might be now a new community that is worthy of fighting for its own existence.”
Stephanie Hsu, an organizer with the Chinatown Collective, doesn’t believe that the developments are negating the Ethiopian community’s claim to the space. She says that the ethnic transition of the area is in keeping with the history of Chinatowns: “The legacy of Chinatown is that they make space for more immigrant communities. We don’t like to say that Chinatown is dying or needs to be revitalized; there is very much an exciting commerce community that exists right now. Our effort to highlight the history of the space is by no means a statement of erasure of the community that exists there now.”
As to the Collective’s work with the developers, Hsu refused to define the relationship as consulting, saying that their role is only to ensure the project is in keeping with the Chinatown legacy. “We are not consulting. Consulting work would be if we got paid. What we are trying to do is find businesses that are culturally appropriate with the area.”
But Hsu also hopes that the Collective’s work will help to expand conversations about race in Baltimore. “The way we think about our place and our work here is largely in relation to the city: What does it mean to be not black and not white in a city that sees race in a very binary way?” she said. “I think it’s important to say that the conversations we hope to have are ones that … would add to the conversation and not detract from [it]. When we think about our future work in the city, what we are really thinking about is the sense of belonging, a sense of legacy in picking up where our elders left off.”
Since the development plans were announced, some of the Ethiopian business owners are feeling uneasy. Teklu is unsure how long his grocery store will be able to last. “When before, I first opened my store, the rent was $1,000; now it’s $1,200. Now I even hear that my landlord might sell the building.”
Yonis, a 29-year-old Ethiopian who owns a hookah lounge on Park Avenue, immigrated to Baltimore with his family when he was 16. He says he is proud of how the neighborhood has transformed in the past few years from a virtual ghost town to what it is today. However, Yonis can’t help but resent the recent development plans because as he sees it, it was his community that revived the neighborhood first. “Back in 2009, there was nothing here. You could not even walk out at night. We came through and opened businesses and fixed houses. So, I don’t know, but maybe now when they see what we have done they want to take it back and rebuild again.”
Councilman Eric Costello, who represents the Baltimore district that includes Chinatown, downplayed the worries about gentrification expressed by Ethiopian business owners, telling CityLab: “I can’t speak to that. There have been a number of Ethiopian business owners who have done some exciting things and I’m supportive of revitalizing the area. I’m going to be supportive of Ethiopian folks who are doing the work that they are doing and I’m also supportive of the work of the Chinatown Collective.”
When asked whether he was concerned that the project includes so few affordable housing units, Costello replied: “It doesn’t concern me at all, considering there is a plethora of affordable housing that has been recently delivered or is in the hopper in that larger geographic area. We need mixed-income communities and that’s what we’re building in downtown’s west side.”
To critics, the entire redevelopment seems like an overt attempt to cash in on the Chinatown “experience.“ “The problem here is that Chinatown is being monetized for primarily affluent whites who want the authentic experience, and it’s a faux experience,” said Banks. “Most of the old buildings have been destroyed. God knows what they’re going to build, some kind of fake stuff, like a Chinatown gate?”
As Leong describes it: “Let’s string Chinese lanterns all over the street, and dragons to adorn the mailroom, and don’t forget the elevators could now have floor numbers in English and Chinese … how quaint and cultural. That will bring in all the hipsters and empty nesters since they, too, now can say that they are so cool that they are living in Chinatown.”
The gentrification happening in Baltimore’s Chinatown is not unique. Chinatowns across the country are under pressure from developers who exploit such neighborhoods’ rich cultural history as a marketing strategy, often resulting in the loss of either old or new communities. Yet, historians say, community support and strength were the elements that made Chinatowns so important in the fight against legalized anti-Asian racism and discrimination, and in the maintenance of Chinese immigrants’ beleaguered cultural heritage.
“The bottom line is that most gentrification battles taking place either in Chinatowns across the U.S. or other ethnic communities pits the developers, city hall, and gentrifiers on one side against the rights of those occupying that same space currently,” said Leong. “Food and music alone will not substitute for what was lost. Those two things are only superficial markers, since a true community speaks of and is defined by membership, belonging, and cultural celebration in all its forms.”
Amir Khafagy is a New York City-based journalist.