What role is a new business required to play in meeting the needs of its immediate neighbors? That is the question at the center of recent social media debate about the gentrification of Los Angeles’s Chinatown between grassroots organization Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED) and the independently owned restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries that have sprung up in the neighborhood since Roy Choi opened his rice bowl restaurant, Chego, at Far East Plaza in 2013. In two Instagram posts — the first appeared last July in response to a fundraiser to amplify the Black Lives Matter movement; the second this past April following a similar event to support Stop AAPI Hate — CCED says that these newer businesses are virtue signaling about social justice issues but failing to address the inequities taking place on their home turf.
The organization wanted its message to spark introspection, accountability, and action among the businesses named, including Cantonese barbecue shop Pearl River Deli, French bistro and wine bar Oriel, the recently closed Taiwanese breakfast pop-up Today Starts Here, and others. While many of the owners included in the post were taken aback by the public callout and some even questioned its validity, several responded by assessing the impact of their businesses on the neighborhood and organizing with fellow business owners to approach the issues collectively.
Like many Chinatowns across the nation, Los Angeles’s historic hub was economically neglected by the city and outside investors for decades via redlining and other restrictive policies, which inevitably led to depressed housing prices, deteriorated infrastructure, and limited public services. This in turn secured the neighborhood’s potential for profit in more recent years with the proliferation of new business and residential developments. Choi opening Chego eight years ago signaled a turning point for the tight-knit immigrant community. By bringing his restaurant to an aging food court while other chefs and restaurateurs were opening their new establishments in more affluent neighborhoods, Choi set a precedent that led to a number of high-profile tenants, including the Nashville hot chicken shop Howlin’ Ray’s, and now-closed restaurants from nationally known chefs Andy Ricker and Eddie Huang.
“A lot of these gentrifying businesses are like, ‘We have a fundraiser to #StopAAPIHate,’ but if they don’t actively reflect on what that immediate impact and presence looks like, then that is totally antithetical to their cause,” says Milly, a CCED volunteer. Founded in 2012 following a hard-fought campaign to stop Walmart from moving into Chinatown, the volunteer-run organization works directly with residents to safeguard affordable housing, job opportunities, public spaces, and quality education.
Some of CCED’s current initiatives include advocating to maintain permanently affordable housing for the residents of Hillside Villa Apartments; suing the City of Los Angeles and Atlas Capital for the approval of the College Station Project, which is slated for 725 market-rate apartments but no affordable housing; and offering mutual aid throughout the pandemic. The CCED members who spoke with Eater LA asked to be referred to only by their first names for privacy concerns.
“People think that we’re saying these things because we’re angry and we just want to cause trouble. And we are angry, but the reason why we’re angry is because it really comes from a place of love and frustration,” says Anna, a CCED volunteer who grew up going to Chinatown with her grandparents to procure groceries and medicine. “When we see people who want to stop the violence against Asian people or against people in general, for us that really means to think about who you are, what you do, and especially what you profit from, and how that might be harming people. These calls are a first step.”
Many of the businesses mentioned in CCED’s post initially reeled from being identified as a gentrifying force in the neighborhood. “I’m not going to pretend that we weren’t hurt by it,” says Natalia MacAdams, co-owner of Heaven’s Market, a natural wine and flower shop in Chung King Court. She and the shop’s co-owner, Lindsay Cummins, were also the subject of a separate CCED social media post in December 2020 that called out their “white girl wine and colonial aesthetics” and overlaid an image of MacAdams and Cummins with devilish horns and mustaches. The two admit that they didn’t fully understand the “entire ramifications’’ of launching a business as “two white women in Chinatown’’ prior to signing their lease, but are seeking to better understand capitalism, white supremacy, Asian American history, and gentrification through the Chinatown public library, social media resources, listening to podcasts, participating in workshops, and reading books and articles.
“We don’t want to see our neighbors violently uprooted,” says MacAdams. “We’ve grappled with our role a lot. This is a daily, multi-weekly conversation about our neighborhood and how we can engage with it in a way that’s healthy and productive and not harmful.”
Dustin Lancaster, the owner of Oriel, as well as Silver Lake’s L&E Oyster Bar, Sunset Junction’s El Condor, and Highland Park’s Hermosillo, says he is “no stranger” to conversations surrounding gentrification, as many of his businesses operate in communities that are currently undergoing or have experienced gentrification in the past decade. After seeing CCED’s social media post, Lancaster wanted to better understand how Oriel harmed Chinatown and its residents, and the specific actions he needed to take. “According to CCED, the only way to love Chinatown is to do it their way or leave,” he wrote in an email. “Alerting me to how I may be causing harm is a useful conversation to have. Insisting that I have to agree with them is not.”
JayJay, a CCED volunteer who grew up in Chinatown, sees the social media posts as a “digestible callout” — an easy-to-understand resource for businesses to assess their place and impact in Chinatown. “A lot of these gentrifiers react very strongly to these posts because they may be feeling guilt or confusion or a sense of shame coming from their place of privilege and not being able to sit well with it,” she says. “They don’t have to speak to actual residents about how they’ve narrowed their options in terms of living, accessing health care, accessing food, things of those sorts.”
Though most of the businesses that spoke to Eater LA, including Heaven’s Market and Oriel, disagreed with CCED’s contentious social media approach, the posts ultimately succeeded in motivating action among more than a dozen AAPI-owned businesses, including Today Starts Here, Pearl River Deli, Filipino rotisserie chicken shop Lasita, and coffee pop-up Thank You Coffee. In direct response to the Instagram callout, the businesses formed a new collective to provide support to one another and to examine their shared impact on the neighborhood. While most of the collective’s 16 members run Chinatown-based businesses, some of the members operate restaurants outside of the neighborhood, including Rice Box and Petite Peso in Downtown, and Woon Kitchen in Historic Filipinotown; everyone in the collective is of AAPI heritage. The yet-to-be-named group believes that Chinatown’s legacy and new businesses, as well as longtime residents, can thrive alongside one another.
“It’s important for everyone in this collective to see that the rising tide lifts all boats. We’re not fighting over slices of a pie,” says Diana Zheng, the co-owner of Three Gems Tea and a member of the collective. The online loose leaf tea store donated products for the Stop AAPI Hate fundraiser. “Our goal is aligned [with CCED’s] at the end of the day, it’s just our approaches are different. Everyone is really community-minded and trying to think of how to raise people equitably. I think there are a lot of opportunities for us to work alongside legacy businesses for a more-just future.”
Vivian Ku, who opened Today Starts Here at Central Plaza during the pandemic and is a member of the AAPI collective, echoes Zheng’s sentiment. “We want to be humble and come into the community and see how we can be a responsible part of it,” she says. “And then through time because we’re there and present, be a positive addition to the community.” Ku also owns two Taiwanese restaurants, Silver Lake’s Pine & Crane and Highland Park’s Joy, and is opening a third Taiwanese restaurant in Downtown later this year.
In order to actualize a Chinatown where new businesses can succeed without displacing longtime residents and businesses, the collective plans to work with long-standing community-based organizations, perform outreach to newer businesses, and educate non-Chinatown residents, among other initiatives. An official name, mission statement, and precise next steps are still being ironed out as the loosely formed group continues to solidify its purpose.
Gentrification is an intentional process that often progresses over decades, says CCED. It usually begins with disinvesting in urban centers for an extended period of time in the wake of white flight and suburbanization. This neglect is followed by speculation from developers who buy up inexpensive properties and empty lots to install market-rate housing and hip storefronts that attract a more privileged class of dwellers and entrepreneurs. All this in turn raises the price of living and operating for the neighborhood’s original working-class tenants and businesses who are eventually priced out, displaced, and forced to live and work elsewhere.
The larger changing dynamics within Chinatown, and specifically the transformation of Far East Plaza, has largely been attributed to George Yu. As president of the Chinatown Business Improvement District (a property-owner-based organization founded in 2010 that provides security, maintenance, and marketing using monies from property assessments within its jurisdiction) and vice president of the investment company Macco Investments Corp. that owns Far East Plaza, Yu has been building coalitions between city officials, real estate developers, and investors since 1976. Yu serves as the neighborhood’s unofficial gatekeeper through his multifaceted roles, closely overseeing Chinatown’s incoming and outgoing tenants. He says that he disagrees with the assessment that legacy businesses are being displaced by newer businesses in Chinatown. “It’s very easy to sit there and criticize and tell a community what’s best for it. But what [CCED is] doing is the very definition of bullying and an elitist perspective,” Yu says.
The construction of Jia Apartments a block away from Far East Plaza in 2014 was another sign of changing times in the neighborhood. The well-appointed six-story building includes a swimming pool and 280 market-rate residences but no apartments reserved for low-income residents. Though Los Angeles has programs that encourage developers to set aside a percentage of units as affordable in exchange for constructing taller or denser buildings near transit, there isn’t a law that requires them to add below-market-rate housing to market-rate projects.
By 2015, the late Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold declared Chinatown — a community that has existed and sustained itself for decades — LA’s hottest emerging restaurant destination. New York Times California restaurant critic Tejal Rao followed suit in June 2021, hailing Chinatown as the most exciting place to eat in Los Angeles. Rao juxtaposes “sleepy” older businesses with the newer establishments that opened during the pandemic, including chef Wes Avila’s Angry Egret Dinette, the superette Sesame LA, Japanese sandwich shop Katsu Sando, and the vegan croissant kiosk Bakers Bench, to paint an exciting but mostly uncritical picture of Chinatown today.
Many of the businesses mentioned in CCED’s social media post are grappling with the role that independent shops like theirs can play in the complex economics of gentrification. “I don’t think any of us came in with the intention of, we’re just gonna do our own thing and make money and not care about what goes on around us,” says chef Johnny Lee, who opened Pearl River Deli last year in Far East Plaza and is a member of the AAPI collective. “We all want to be in Chinatown for a reason. Nobody talked to us and asked us to see what we’re about or what we’re trying to do. They just assumed what our objectives were, what our motivations were.” Lee says that affordable rent, his family’s history with the neighborhood, and a desire to restore Chinatown’s former vitality factored into opening Pearl River Deli in the neighborhood.
But as developers raze entire city blocks to make room for market-rate housing and trendy storefronts, the neighborhood’s working-class tenants, elderly population, and legacy businesses are increasingly displaced, both by upwardly mobile Angelenos and better-capitalized business owners. “It’s a multipart problem. Landlords will buy buildings or they’ll start evicting people from buildings by raising rents. And then luxury developments or market-rate developments will also raise their costs. And that’s all connected to new businesses coming in that are catered toward that demographic and they feed into each other,” says Anna.
Journalist Peter Moskowitz explores this widespread phenomenon in his book How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood. “Gentrification may provide a new tax base, but it also reshapes what cities are,” he writes. “A real solution to the economics of American cities would require more work — more taxes, more laws, more intervention from the federal government. Those things are hard. Gentrification is easy.” While it is possible to gentrify without displacement with the help of government oversight or in communities where residents own their homes, Chinatown’s tenants are largely renters and therefore beholden to landlords’ whims and market conditions.
“I don’t do development. I’m a single operator that takes a 1,000-square-foot building and puts a bar or restaurant or something else in it,” says Lancaster, who opened Oriel underneath the Metro Gold Line tracks in 2017. “Is Oriel displacing anyone? I mean it was a dilapidated building, which is being broken into and having homeless encampments, so it seems like a better use to me.”
Chinatown’s displaced residents have largely moved to less-expensive neighborhoods in Los Angeles and, in some cases, out of the state. While the San Gabriel Valley may not seem all that different or far from Chinatown, especially for those who own cars, this displacement often means that people are torn from relationships and routines they have built their entire lives around, says CCED in a joint statement provided to Eater LA.
Because incoming businesses have an inherently narrow purview of a neighborhood’s overall development, it makes it difficult to see the interconnected and often very intentional nature of gentrification. “One of the narratives that makes it so much easier for more well-meaning gentrifiers to feel, like, ‘I’m not doing as much harm,’ is if you’re being told you’re being given an empty storefront. Then you don’t have to think about why it was left empty for so long. And why someone with your financial capital and your social capital is able to rent in that space, as opposed to many other people who provide services that Chinatown actually really needs,” says Anna.
“Another harmful thing is when they feed this narrative that Chinatown is dying and needs to be revitalized, apparently by young wealthy people, and all of that gives legitimacy to previous businesses being pushed out,” she says.
Lancaster’s perspective that small businesses have a lesser impact than larger developers was shared by many restaurateurs that spoke to Eater LA, including Songbird Cafe owner Scott Chen. His cafe-slash-speakeasy is located in Blossom Plaza, a five-story apartment building constructed in 2016 that contains 236 rental residences (183 at market rate and 53 designated for lower-income tenants). “We’re just a small operator, that’s all,” Chen says. “I am empathetic to [CCED’s] concerns but it was never our intention to ruin a community. For us, we’re simply trying to run a small little business. We see some of these big developers come in here — I think they should take more issues with those particular developers. It wasn’t like I built Blossom Plaza and put my store here.”
CCED, meanwhile, says that these newer businesses, like a third-wave coffee shop, highly curated superette, and natural wine store, do not meet the needs of Chinatown’s longtime residents, whose median incomes hover around $23,000 a year. “They’re building their own clientele that completely excludes the longtime tenants. Ultimately, they’re not in communication with the tenants and they’re not trying to build with them or make their businesses more accessible to them,” Milly says. What the tenants need are full-service grocery stores, comprehensive health services, language resources, and a laundromat, says Frankie, a volunteer with CCED since 2014. “Folks either travel far away or wash clothes at home. That’s why you see people just hanging their laundry on the line outside of their apartment balconies,” she says.
Aside from selling goods and services that aren’t intended for an immigrant and lower-income audience, the new businesses are displacing existing essential businesses like grocery stores, restaurants, and clothiers. Prior to the pandemic, Ai Hoa Market — Chinatown’s last comprehensive grocery store — closed and relocated to El Monte after rent increases and difficult negotiations with the store’s landlord Tom Gilmore and his company, Gilmore China Group. “Residents are generally kind of baffled by this interest in taking up space, but not sharing space necessarily,” JayJay says. “Every new shop that pops up means that not only one shop is displaced, but an entire street is probably going to be displaced. All the workers are going to have to find jobs, find new schools for their children, and completely move out of the area.”
JayJay, who grew up in Chinatown and whose mother worked at J&K Hong Kong Cuisine on the second floor of Far East Plaza for over a decade until the restaurant closed in 2018, witnessed the neighborhood’s transformation and experienced the realities of displacement firsthand. “I have lived in Chinatown since I was 2. And in the past decade, just more than half of the people that I know that grew up here, whose families have established themselves here, who grew up in the parks, whose parents worked here, all of us have been displaced out east because there’s simply no space for us to live here, especially as more and more developers [come] in.” On a recent drive into Chinatown from their current residence in Diamond Bar, JayJay’s mother remarked on the neighborhood’s glaring changes. “Every time we drive by these developments all she has to say is a very resigned, ‘Wow. Chinatown’s going to be gone soon.’ In her mind, it’s over, which is so disheartening and so sad.”
Looking toward the future, a handful of the restaurateurs that spoke to Eater LA are taking CCED’s social media callout as an opportunity to address their place in the neighborhood and doing right by its longtime residents. “A lot of the concerns that CCED raises are concerns that we share as well. I think we might not agree on the exact solution that they propose, but I think there’s space for multiple approaches to complicated problems,” Jonathan Yang, the owner of Thank You Coffee, tells Eater LA. His pop-up opened during the pandemic and is located inside the stationary store Paper Please in Central Plaza. “We don’t think it’s necessary for everyone to agree on the same solution. I think it’s healthy to have that disagreement. And it challenges us all to think outside of our own thought processes.”
To that end, Jack Benchakul, the co-owner of third-wave coffee shop Endorffeine that opened in Far East Plaza in 2015, recently began donating monthly to CCED. Though it’s an admittedly small amount given Endorffeine’s limited financial capabilities, he believes in the organization’s mission and values. “We share a common belief in terms of not wanting to displace residents here. I just think that our thoughts in terms of going about that are a little different,” he says. “I think we can all be allies for the same goals. If we just tear at each other, I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere.”
Heaven’s Market recently launched a “community pricing” model at the natural wine and flower shop with the understanding that its prices are not accessible to everyone in the neighborhood. Selected wines go for $10, while a mini-bouquet is priced at $15 through this honor-based system. Co-owners Cummins and MacAdams also plan to engage more in person with their neighbors to better understand their needs in the coming months as pandemic restrictions ease and the store fully transitions from delivery-only.
Lee, the chef at Pearl River Deli, plans to implement a free Buddhist vegetarian meal for lower-income Chinatown residents once business is more stable and Los Angeles more open. And even though his mostly Cantonese staff can easily communicate with passersby, he is revising the restaurant’s menus to include Chinese language as a welcoming gesture to Chinese-speaking residents.
Pan-Asian restaurant Ord & Broadway offered an affordable $6 lunch special that included a half-dozen chicken wings, french fries, and a drink with the neighborhood’s low-income residents in mind when it opened in 2018. Though co-owner J.P. Modesto recently raised the price by $2 due to the increased cost of labor, ingredients, and other operating factors, he still views it as a good deal for the neighborhood. “We really try to take care of them. They are regulars and when they come, they get food — not free, but very discounted or we’ll add some stuff because they’re our neighbors.” Modesto also makes it a point to help neighboring businesses, by giving takeout boxes to the banh mi shop two doors down that recently ran out and needed some to hold them over, and by sourcing the restaurant’s produce from a nearby purveyor.
The group of restaurateurs under the AAPI collective have a multipronged plan to be a force for good in Chinatown, including learning from and collaborating with organizations like Chinatown Service Center, Chinese American Citizens Alliance, and API Forward Movement. The group is also open to working with CCED in the future, if the opportunity arises. “I think what we can bring to the table complements their work and amplifying it, spreading it, bringing in more people from other communities that might not have paid attention to the issues that are affecting Chinatown, so I think it can be a symbiotic relationship,” says Zheng. “We’re all trying to be more expansive about our vision for what we can do in Chinatown and with Chinatown residents and legacy businesses.”
The collective also wants to educate businesses and customers about the historical significance of Chinatown and how to carry oneself in the neighborhood by borrowing a mindset that Yang picked up from businesses in Little Tokyo. “When you come in, you take off your shoes. You understand the culture and the community that you’re stepping into,” says Yang. “With Chinatown and other historic communities, we’re not improving it, we’re enjoying what it already is. And in some ways trying to continue the foundation that was built by those that came before us.”
Future plans for the group also include broadening the public’s perspectives on the nuances of gentrification through sharing personal stories, likely on social media. “We realize it’s so helpful to share the stories of legacy owners and their businesses and also the new ones that are coming in,” says Yang. “I think that helps represent a more accurate picture to describe what Chinatown and we are all about.” Beyond its public-facing and peer-to-peer initiatives, the collective understands the need to show humility and respect, and to do the little things, like greeting elders who walk by and making sure that their customers show the same level of deference.
Though the fundamental role that new businesses play in “reconfiguring the social, cultural, financial landscape of a community” remains a tremendous concern for CCED, any efforts to be more accessible to Chinatown’s denizens through pricing and language can be a positive initial step. Additionally, CCED wants these new businesses to stop supporting the Chinatown Business Improvement District (BID). “An option that CCED folks have thought about is, like, ‘Hey, maybe these gentrifying small businesses can organize among themselves to not support BID and not call on BID to harass unhoused folks and longtime community members,’” Anna says. CCED documents BID’s sometimes aggressive interactions with Chinatown’s street vendors and buskers, among other locals, on its Instagram account.
Addressing the forces of gentrification through social media has provided the catalyst for thoughtful discussion and potential change between CCED and Chinatown’s newer business owners in this particular moment. Though it’s still too soon to say what Chinatown will be like in the years ahead — who will reside and make a living in the neighborhood — there’s a possibility for something different to emerge from the current conflict: a third solution that strikes a balance between preserving Chinatown’s history and the needs of its longtime inhabitants while fostering the success of newcomers who tirelessly work to understand, respect, and uplift the community.