Chicago’s Chinatown Is Flourishing, Bucking National Trend

Chicago’s Chinatown Is Flourishing, Bucking National Trend
Chinatown Gate, Chicago Tribune

When most people think of Chinatowns in the U.S., they tend to default to the iconic enclaves located in San Francisco and lower Manhattan.  While these neighborhoods still hold the distinction as the country’s two largest historic Chinatowns, they have been experiencing a steady population decline, mirroring a similar trend in Chinatowns in Washington, D.C., Boston, Seattle, and Los Angeles.  Whether attributed to gentrification, the surge in China’s economy, or an increasing immigrant preference for suburban living, most U.S. cities’ Chinatowns are either seeing their ethnic Chinese populations dispersed or establishing newer hubs in areas with cheaper housing (such as Flushing and Sunset Park in the case of New York and Inner Richmond in San Francisco).  Anachronistically, Chicago’s historic Chinatown continues to steadily gain population and expand.  Recent trends and developments in the pipeline will likely only solidify both Chinatown’s retention of its cultural identity and ongoing growth.

Pui Tak Center

Pui Tak Center

There has been a notable Chinese community in Chicago since the mid to late 19th century when many Chinese immigrants fled from ethnic hostility on the West Coast. The city’s first Chinatown was centered on and around Clark and Van Buren, but mounting discrimination and pressure from the Loop’s expanding business district forced the Chinese to relocate to the more affordable and physically removed location at Cermak and Wentworth.  By the second decade of the 20th century, a distinct neighborhood made up of mostly Cantonese speakers and businesses was well-established.  Perhaps the most emblematic building displaying the community’s cultural heritage is the On Leong Merchants Association Building, completed in 1927.  Though renamed the Pui Tak Center in 1993, the facility still serves as the neighborhood’s unofficial city hall, offering a variety of services including ESL classes and programs for recently arrived immigrants.

Ping Tom Memorial Park, Chicago Tribune

Ping Tom Memorial Park, Chicago Tribune

Over the ensuing decades, Chinese residents and businesses have not only spread past the immediate area around Cermak and Wentworth but beyond the borders of Armour Square (the community area in which Chinatown is located) into neighboring Bridgeport and McKinley Park.  Popular attractions include the revered Ping Tom Memorial Park along the riverfront and Chinatown Square, the two-story outdoor mall (and largest domestic Chinese mall outside of New York and San Francisco) designed by Harry Weese and Associates.  Of course, locals and visitors alike also flock to the multitude of eateries, including Tony Hu’s (aka “The Mayor” of Chinatown) Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Beijing, and Lao Shanghai and the dim sum mainstays MingHin Cuisine, Cai, and Phoenix.  Late-night revelers seeking food and shelter gather at Chi Café, which doesn’t close its doors until 5:00 am on Fridays and Saturdays.

The success and expansion of Chinatown’s restaurant business has been bolstered by the strong population surge in the neighborhood, a nearly 25% gain in the last decade.  Moreover, ethnic Chinese are now the fastest growing immigrant group in Chicago and third largest immigrant population overall (after Mexican and Polish).  While a majority of the newly arriving immigrants already have family living in Chinatown, it’s notable that an increasing percentage of these newcomers are younger, from various regions of China, religiously diverse, and Mandarin speakers.  Further contributing to Chinatown’s cosmopolitanization is an increase in young, ethnically Chinese professionals returning to the neighborhood.

Chinatown Library Branch under construction

Chinatown Library Branch under construction

In tandem with Chinatown’s population swell, various noteworthy developments are in the works that will increase the neighborhood’s profile.  The most immediate in proximity to the historic epicenter will be the new Chinatown public library branch at 2100 S. Wentworth Avenue, opening in late Spring 2015.  Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill with Wight and Co., the rounded two-story building will feature a striking glass exterior that will allow an abundance of natural light into the central atrium.  Other notable design elements are vertical fins, a green roof, permeable pavers, landscaping with native plants, and a shape and orientation that adhere to Feng Shui principals.  Replacing the increasingly crowded and outdated branch at 2353 S. Wentworth, the new library will include cutting edge technology and a strong childhood education focus.  With its location just north of the Chinatown Gate at Cermak and Wentworth and across the street from the CTA Cermak-Chinatown station, the new branch will assume a prominent presence in the neighborhood’s urban landscape.

Wells-Wentworth Connector, City of Chicago

Wells-Wentworth Connector, City of Chicago

A major project that has the potential to not only transform accessibility to and from Chinatown, but also spur a surge of development and infill bridging the neighborhood to the South Loop, is the Wells-Wentworth Connector.  In the first two phases, pedestrian access will be improved along Wentworth making it easier to reach Ping Tom Memorial Park, and Wentworth and Cermak Avenues will be aligned to create a seamless thoroughfare linking the old historic Chinatown to the so-called “New Chinatown” stretching to the north.  While the first two phases will be underway this year, a start date for the most ambitious component has yet to be announced.  This phase will see the creation of the actual “Wells-Wentworth Connector”, a new road running through vacant, prime Chicago River adjacent land, linking “New Chinatown” to the burgeoning retail bustle of Roosevelt Road.  Grasping the potential flurry of activity the connector will ignite, development firm CMK recently bought up eight continuous acres of riverfront from Roosevelt Road to the River City Condominiums.  Once the new road is open, uninterrupted development from Roosevelt to Ping Tom Memorial Park will be just a matter of time.

McHugh Construction

McHugh Construction

While the Wells-Wentworth Connector will allow for tremendous growth to the north, major developments are also afoot to Chinatown’s east.  Straddling the Chinatown border, Chinese investors would like to bring a new hotel to a vacant plot just east of the CTA Cermak-Chinatown station at Clark and Archer.  The 60-room, five-story hotel would also include commercial and retail space.  Just a couple blocks away, the Chicago Housing Authority is seeking developers for an 11 acre plot on South State Street between Cermak and I-55.  The former site of the Harold Ickes Homes would become a CHA mixed-income property with public, affordable, and market-rate housing.  Within very short walking distance will be the new Cermak-McCormick Place Green Line Station at State and Cermak.  Once completed later this year, the Carol Ross Barney (architect for 2012’s Morgan CTA station) designed station will include elevators, advanced security, bike racks, three entrances, and a tubular, enclosed barrier to protect passengers against winter wind .  The new station is meant to serve the substantial bump in projected activity from the McCormick mega development project being planned.  In the next several years, a new Pelli Clark Pelli designed 10,000 seat DePaul sports arena and event center, a 51 story Marriott Marquis hotel building with 1,200 rooms, and a 12 story data center will be built along Cermak Avenue by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (McPier).  Across the street from the proposed Marriott tower, McHugh Development & Construction is also planning a 25-story hotel tower, a six story data center, and over 30,000 feet of retail space at Cermak and Indiana.  Between the McPier and McHugh projects, three historic buildings will be restored and repurposed: the American Book Company Building (320-330 E. Cermak), the Rambler Building (2246 S. Indiana), and Bird-Sykes Building (2215 S. Michigan).  Consequently, after decades of dormancy, the adjacent, historic Motor Row District is finally showing signs of an imminent commercial explosion with the Motor Row Brewery opening its doors last Thursday and Baderbräu Brewing Company set to open later this year.

Between the encouraging demographics and ambitious developments occurring in every direction from its borders, Chicago’s Chinatown appears to be establishing itself as a blooming entity that will command more and more attention.  Likewise, as wealthy Chinese investors increasingly discover Chicago as a lucrative real estate alternative to the coasts, Chinatown’s profile and relevence will ascend.  Though it will unlikely acquire the touristic cachet of its more famous counterparts in New York and San Francisco, it is already on its way to eclipsing them in its regional importance as the cultural and physical hub of the local Chinese community.

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