Boston's Chinatown is a centrally-located neighborhood within walking distance of downtown and the transit hub at South Station. It is tucked in among some of the more expensive real estate in downtown Boston, including Bay Village, Leather District, and the Theatre District.
Popular tourist and dining destination. Once an emigrant enclave, Boston's Chinatown is now a popular tourist destination, known for its restaurants and late-night bars. The neighborhood's section of the Rose Kennedy Greenway was even designed in a Chinese style, featuring bamboo and waterfalls. However, as of 2015, Asian residents have become a minority within the neighborhood for the first time since it became Chinatown, according to the Boston Globe.
Boston’s Chinatown is the third largest in the United States, after the Chinatown in Manhattan, and the Chinatown in San Francisco. These neighborhoods once served as an essential landing area for new emigrants looking for stability as they began to navigate a new country and new language. However, rising housing prices in each of these cities has resulted in the working class and recent arrivals going instead to secondary enclaves just outside the city, according to the Atlantic. Rising housing prices in Boston have led to the formation of two satellite Chinatowns, one along Hancock Street in the Wollaston neighborhood of Quincy, and a smaller one in Malden Center in Malden.
Significant healthcare presence. Tufts Medical Center occupies a large portion of the area and includes a full service hospital and various health-related schools of Tufts University including Tufts School of Medicine, Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, and School of Dental Medicine.
Chinatown's housing stock is a mix of historic brick rowhouses (especially along Hudson Street) and tenements, former garment factories since converted to lofts, and luxury condominiums.
Community organizations are trying to build and preserve affordable housing. The Chinatown Land Trust purchases houses and setting them aside for working families, while the Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC) is building housing developments which offer mixed- and low-income housing. The ACDC serves not just Boston's Chinatown, but also the extended Chinese communities around Greater Boston, including North Quincy and Wollaston in Quincy.
Boston's Chinatown is shrinking both in terms of land area and Chinese population. While the Chinatown in Manhattan has encroached into the adjacent neighborhoods, Boston's Chinatown has been encroached upon. Since the 1950s, the construction of two highways and the Tufts University hospital complex has occupied almost half of the neighborhood's footprint. As of 2015, the first and last time that the City of Boston and Chinatown's neighborhood groups jointly published a blueprint for the city's future was in 1990, according to the Boston Globe.
Reclaimed land. Chinatown is one of several Boston neighborhoods (including Back Bay, Bay Village, Beacon Hill's Flat of the Hill, and South End) built on reclaimed land. It was originally a tidal flat that was backfilled for additional buildable land. Chinatown's main drag, Beach Street, was so named because it was once waterfront. Today, it is almost a half mile from the harbor.
The Chinese Historical Society of New England is identifying buildings to submit to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Hayden Building (681-683 Washington St.), built in 1875 and designed by Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886), who pioneered a uniquely American architectural style. It is the last remaining commercial retail building built by Richardson in Boston. His work greatly influenced Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. (As an aside, Richardson was the grandson of the scientist who discovered oxygen, Joseph Priestley).
Site of 1919 Telephone Exchange strike (2-8 Harrison Ave.) In April 1919, Julia (Parker) O’Connor (1890-1972) led a successful and nonviolent strike of 8,000 women telephone operators, which stopped the system for six days throughout New England. The switchboard operators were mostly young women of Irish origin or descent, and were expected to work under brutal conditions. Supported by the Women’s Trade Union League, O’Connor and her team negotiated a settlement that included a $3 to $4 weekly raise. Starting in 1939, she worked for eighteen years as an organizer for the AFL.
The Orange Line stops at Chinatown station and Tufts Medical Center station are located within and at the southern edge of the district, respectively. Nearby South Station is served by the MBTA Red Line, Silver Line, and Commuter Rail.
South Station also accommodates Amtrak long-distance rail to New York City and other cities on the Northeast Corridor.
Chinatown is on the Shawmut Peninsula section of Boston. It is east of Boston Common, with Downtown Crossing to the north, South End to the south, Theatre District to the west, and the Leather District and Financial District to the east.
The neighborhood is loosely bounded by the MassPike (Route 90) to the south; Tremont and Washington streets to the west; Avenue de Lafayette and Bedford Street to the north; and Albany and Lincoln streets to the east.
The Shawmut Peninsula that contains downtown Boston's neighborhoods was expanded considerably over the years with infill. As a result, many of the neighborhoods that were once waterfront are now inland. Chinatown's main drag, Beach Street, was so named because it was once waterfront. Today, it is almost a half mile from the harbor. Even the site of the Boston Tea Party is commemorated by a plaque at the corner of Congress and Purchase streets, far from today's wharves.
Long before the neighborhood became known as Chinatown, it was simply an inexpensive neighborhood that became a natural landing pad for successive waves of emigrants. Rents were inexpensive because this was a neighborhood of necessity, rather than choice – it was close to noisy railroad yards and a working waterfront at the time.
Starting in 1858, Chinese workers were integral to the construction of the California transcontinental railroads, and more men were brought over from China in the 1860s to keep the railroad construction on schedule. However, after the dangerous and grueling work was finished, these workers were driven east by anti-Chinese legislation and violence. In 1870, the owners of the Sampson Shoe Factory in North Adams, Mass., brought Chinese workers to break a labor strike by the factory employees. By 1874, many Chinese immigrants had settled in the Boston area, initially around Ping On Alley. Boston's first Chinese restaurant, Hong Far Low, opened in 1875.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 limited emigration to the United States until it was partially lifted in 1943, and fully lifted in 1965. For decades, the Chinese emigrants were mostly men, as the Act prohibited women – in part to create a steady source of labor for physical projects like railroads, and in part to make it difficult to start a family in the United States, or to keep one together, according to CityLab. Uncomfortably echoing immigration raids in 2017, in 1903, anti-immigrant sentiment led to raids in Chinatown, with over 230 people arrested and almost 50 deported.
The elevated train lowered property values – and the garment industry grew. In 1901, the construction of the El (the elevated train) along Harrison and Beach streets – with its noise and pollution – made the area less desirable for residential uses. Property prices fell, and this contributed to the rise of commercial uses instead. The garment industry expanded onto this less-expensive downtown property, building tall buildings with large windows (for better sunlight with which to work). Despite the factories' location within Chinatown, there were very few Chinese employed in the sector until World War II. Racist legislation had permitted the emigration of few Chinese women; it was not until the 1965 Act that large numbers of Chinese women, mostly from Hong Kong, who were skilled seamstresses, began working here. These factories lasted through the 1990s, and many of the buildings have since been converted into residential lofts.
Misguided and racist urban planning in the 1950s and 60s. The 1950s and 60s were a time of racist and misguided urban planning in the United States. One one hand, federal policies like 'redlining' refused to offer mortgages to buyers in racially-diverse neighborhoods. On the other hand, the euphemistically-named 'urban renewal' demolished entire historic (and often, minority) neighborhoods.
In the 1950s, significant parts of Chinatown were demolished for the construction of the Central Artery. In the 60s and 70s, the Mass Turnpike Extension required the demolition of even more residences and businesses. It is perhaps not coincidental that the historic Chinatown in Providence – including the businesses, homes, and Chinese cultural societies – was demolished for a street extension in 1951. Given the rampant racism of the era, this was likely a reaction to the rising number of Chinese emigrants to the United States after the Exclusion Act was lifted in 1943.
Formerly a red light district. In the early 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that cities could not ban sex-related businesses, but could regulate them through zoning. In 1974, in an attempt to regulate adult businesses, the Boston Redevelopment Authority designated parts of downtown Boston as the city's adult entertainment district. Along with the 'Combat Zone' around Downtown Crossing, Chinatown was one of the neighborhoods designated as a Red Light District by the city of Boston. However, two factors resulted in neighborhood change by the 1990s. On one hand, gentrification and rising real estate values. On the other hand, the internet (which as the Avenue Q musical reliably informs us, is for porn). More at Boston magazine and the Washington Post.
Chinatown gate a gift from Taiwan. The traditional 'paifang' Chinatown gate (at Beach St. and Surface Rd.) was a gift from the government of Taiwan, where Taipei is a sister city to Boston. In 1976, in honor of the American bicentennial, Taiwan sent the unassembled gate to Boston and to other U.S. cities. However – perhaps because this was before the days of Ikea instruction booklets, or maybe because Boston's Big Dig set the unhurried pace for other major projects – it was not assembled and installed until 1982.
Over the years, the gate has required extensive renovations, from weather-related damage as well as from the Big Dig. In 2007, two of the four large foo dog statues which decorated the gate were found missing. They were later found in Lexington, Mass., at the house of one of the Big Dig executives, according to the Boston Herald. As an aside, Lexington was also the home of Charles Ponzi, for whom that financial scheme is named.