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Neighborhood Spotlight – Chinatown

Monday, 19 Feb 2018 at 06:30 pm



Chinatown in Chicago, such an eclectic and wonderful neighborhood to live in and visit. Chinatown is located on the Near South Side of the city in the neighborhood community Armour Square. Situated between 18th Street and 26th Street, and roughly Wentworth Ave. to the river, Chinatown is very centered around the original denseness of the neighborhood shops and restaurants. Once you step onto Wentworth Avenue you will immediately feel like you've walking down one of the bustling streets in China. It is incredibly unique and freeing – to be transplanted into an atmosphere that is unlike what you know, yet it is in your city. Energetic shops and businesses line both sides of the street with people running in and out, fancy pagodas and incredibly architecture and building facades. Our Chinatown is a perfect example of an Americanized Chinatown or "ethnic-Chinese" neighborhood.

At the heart of Chinatown's lively business district is Cermak and Wentworth Avenue. Here you will find a plethora of shops, cafes, restaurants, gathering places and teahouses. The Chinatown Square outdoor mall has similar attractions. The Chinese-American Museum has exhibits about the history of the neighborhood. And the Nine-Dragon Wall is a reproduction of the 15th-century mural of the same name in Beijing.

At the time of the 2000 Census, Chicago's primary statistical area had over 68,000 Chinese population. As of the 2010 Census, including suburbs of Chicago, close to 100,000 people were of Chinese descent. Chicago is the second oldest settlement of Chinese in America after the Chinese fled California. Looking to escape the anti-Chinese violence that had broken out on the west coast, the first wave of Chinese arrived in Chicago in 1869 via railroad. By the late 1800's, 25% of Chicago's Chinese residents settled in the Loop. In 1912, they began moving south to Armour Square. The move to the New South Side Chinatown was led by the On Leong Merchants Association. The OLMA had a building constructed on what was then 22nd Street that was large enough for 15 stores, 30 apartments and the Association's headquarters.

In the 1920s, community leaders secured close to 50 ten-year leases on properties in the newly developing Chinatown. The director of the OLMA then decided that a Chinese-style building should be constructed as a strong visual announcement of the Chinese community's new presence in this area. Chicago-born architects Michaelsen and Rognstad were asked to design the new building in 1926. Michaelsen and Rognstad's drew their final design after studying texts on Chinese architecture. When the building opened in 1928 at a cost of $1,000,000 it was the finest Chinese-style structure in any North American Chinatown. The On Leong Association allowed the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association to put its headquarters in the new building and also used it as an immigrant assistance center, a school, a shrine, a meeting hall, and office space for the Association itself. In 1928, Michaelsen and Rognstad designed two other buildings in the area—Won Kow Restaurant (Chinatown's oldest restaurant) and the Moy Shee D.K Association Building. Won Kow is very important to me, as for years after caroling at Christmas time, my music troupe would come to Chinatown and enjoy Christmas Eve or Christmas Day dinner together around a massive table….and a fantastic drink called the Volcano!

During the late 1980s, a group of Chinatown business leaders bought 32 acres property north of Archer Avenue to build Chinatown Square - a two-level mall consisting of restaurants, beauty salons and law offices, flanked by 21 new townhouses. Additional residential construction, such as the Santa Fe Gardens, a 600-unit village of townhouses, condominiums and single-family homes still under construction on formerly industrial land to the north. In my opinion, one of the most outstanding was the creation of Ping Tom Memorial Park in 1999; located on the Chicago River, the park features a Chinese-style pavilion that many including myself consider to be the most beautiful in the Midwest.

Chinatown has flourished from a community that was partially Chinese where residents mostly spoke English into one today where many can easily communicate in Chinese. Most businesses, restaurants and agencies operate bilingually, since the majority of residents speak a Chinese dialect, and nearly 65 percent are foreign-born. Over a time when traditional urban Chinatowns such as Manhattan, San Francisco, Boston and Philadelphia were fading due to gentrification and changing cultural landscapes, Chicago's Chinatown is growing larger — becoming what experts say ‘could be a model for Chinatown survival in the U.S.' In Chicago, where several neighborhoods are no longer defined by the immigrant or ethnic groups that once occupied them, Chinatown is an exception, having anchored this area since 1912. Locals say it has avoided gentrification because Chinese-Americans value a sense of belonging and choose to stay in the neighborhood. Few Chinese move out, and if they do, they sell their homes back to other Chinese.

Between 2000 and 2010, Chinatown's population increased 24% and its Asian population increased 30%. Asians make up nearly 90 percent of the neighborhood's population. It's unlikely Chicago's Chinatown will succumb to national trends, some experts say, and projections show the greater Chinatown area growing. Some bordering neighborhoods have seen an steady flow of Asian families moving in: Between 2009 and 2013, Bridgeport's Asian-American population grew from 26 to 35%, while McKinley Park's grew from just under 8% to 17%, according to an analysis of census data.

Walking through the Chinatown Gate with the beautiful Chicago skyline in the background and you will see young Chinese professionals gathered at the local restaurants or children skipping around the playgrounds. You can walk the streets and sample exotic foods, herbs and teas, shop at the many traditional Chinese stores and groceries and attend art exhibitions and museums to learn more about the culture. 

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