The Politics of Placemaking in Chinatown

Patterson, Matt | $32,344

Alberta University of Calgary 2021 SSHRC

The COVID19 pandemic has hit North American Chinatowns particularly hard, disproportionately affecting local businesses and sparking sometimes violent anti-Asian racism. These acute threats add to several longer term challenges facing Chinatowns including gentrification, which has made these neighbourhoods wealthier and whiter. Furthermore, changing immigration and residential trends among Chinese Canadians and Americans, as well as the emergence of more fluid, hybrid identities, have raised questions of how relevant traditional Chinatowns are to a Chinese population in North America that is more populous, diverse, and dispersed than ever.

Demonstrating the social and cultural resonance that these neighbourhoods still have for many, “Save Chinatown” movements have emerged across North America, often turning to cultural planning and placemaking strategies aimed at protecting the unique social and cultural characteristics of Chinatowns. The proliferation of these strategies raises important sociological questions. How are abstract notions of race, ethnicity, and culture translated into concrete urban design guidelines and placemaking projects? Whose notions of identity shape the development of official planning guidelines? To what extent have these notions been reflected in or eroded by the actual real estate development taking place in Chinatowns? Finally, how has the COVID19 pandemic been experienced in Chinatowns and how have these communities responded? These questions not only help us understand the changes, challenges, and political struggles occurring in North American Chinatowns today, they speak to an enduring issue at the centre of urban sociology: the complex interrelationship between the formation of ethnic and racial identities and the development of place.

To address these questions, this project will investigate cultural planning and placemaking in six North American Chinatowns, using a three-part qualitative approach. First we will conduct semi-structured interviews with members of five key “placemaker” groups who have some involvement in Chinatown cultural planning: community activists, local artists, members of business improvement associations, city planners, and real estate developers (N 60). Second, we will analyze Chinatown planning documents written after 2000. Finally, we will survey the architecture, usage, and marketing material of real estate development projects built within Chinatowns in the last decade. Through these methods, we will analyze how the construction and mobilization of certain identities relates to the social positions of each placemaker group, including their access to power and resources, professional backgrounds, and everyday experiences and perceptions of place. We will also investigate whose vision is being realized in the changing social and physical landscape of these neighbourhoods.

Chinatowns have a long history of fighting displacement. Recording their contemporary struggles is urgently needed as these neighbourhoods undergo rapid redevelopment, demographic shifts, and now suffer the impact of COVID19, which is expected to force many small businesses to close permanently. This project will consult with and support the work of dozens of community researchers who are recording the stories and changes taking place in Chinatowns. The data produced in this study will be used to make recommendations for Chinatown planning policies. Finally, the project will advance sociological understandings of the co-construction of race and place by examining the understudied phenomenon of placemaking as a process by which different groups struggle to materialize particular abstract notions of race and ethnicity into public policy and the urban built form.

With funding from the Government of Canada

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