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Tunney Lee's Chinatown Atlas

Written by Corinne Muller. Photos by Matthew Dickey.

 

Chinatown Gate

When the late MIT Professor Emeritus Tunney Lee passed away in July, he left behind an impressive and impactful legacy in Boston and far beyond. Among the projects he bequeathed to the field of architecture and the city of Boston is his Boston Chinatown Atlas.

After years spent developing a series of illustrations of Chinatown, Lee launched the Atlas website in 2016 with many contributors from Boston. These collaborators created the Atlas to document and explore the neighborhood’s growth and change through time, with the hope that the project will encourage future generations to preserve the community’s traditions and vitality. As Chinatown faces rapid demographic and physical change, the cultural-historical documentation and advocacy represented by the Atlas are especially important for transforming concern for the neighborhood’s future into positive social change, preservation, and stabilization for residents. 

Divided into five sections according to era, extending from 1875 to the present, the Atlas makes Chinatown’s history accessible to a wide audience through engaging content. The Atlas website offers interactive graphics of Chinatown’s streets throughout history, “then” and “now” photographs, historic maps of the neighborhood, and useful references for archival and research materials. 

Since the first Chinese residents settled in Boston between Essex and Beach Streets in the 1870s, Massachusetts’s Chinese population has grown tremendously. According to the U.S. census, between 2000-2010, the Chinese population in Massachusetts increased by 46%. The neighborhood was first characterized by the many laundries and clothing factories established by Chinese workers who moved from the San Francisco area. As these men were joined by their families and other Chinese immigrants, they began programming activities and services geared toward the city’s Chinese community, founding the Quong Kow Language School in 1916, the Chinese Mission, a Boy Scout troop, and many more enduring cultural and recreational organizations that continue to characterize the neighborhood. Chinatown has since become an important social, cultural, and economic center and resource for Massachusetts’s Chinese-American population. It has also become an inseparable part of Boston, home to some of the city’s most popular restaurants and festivals, like the Chinese New Year and Lion Dance festivals. Yet Chinatown is rapidly gentrifying. 

Chinatown store

As sleek skyscrapers, luxury condos, and new dormitories from Emerson College and Suffolk University have begun encroaching on the neighborhood’s borders, Chinatown residents are being forced to expand into Quincy, Braintree, and Malden in search of affordable housing. Quincy now has the largest population of Asian descent per capita of any city in Massachusetts—with 24% of the city Asian, compared to 15.4% a decade ago. The 12,000 people living in the quarter-square-mile of Chinatown—many of whom are still Asian American or Asian immigrants—are increasingly threatened by the interests of luxury developers and some of the city’s highest real estate prices. Financial stress on both residents and commercial businesses caused by loss of business and job loss during the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the situation for Chinatown.

Chinese residents came to Boston a century and a half ago to escape the West Coast’s enforcement of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which not only banned Chinese immigration to the U.S. but also tried to force Chinese workers out of the U.S. through attrition. They came to Boston because, even though anti-Chinese sentiment was still strong, the law was less strictly imposed. But now they’re being forced out of the city. 

As an anthropological atlas and ongoing project, the Chinatown Atlas is just as much a developing and living thing as the neighborhood it documents. It records much more than the material history of buildings and the way the urban landscape has changed over the past century and a half; the website is a clear product and continuation of Tunney Lee’s belief that architecture is an expression of the human lived experience. So what can we learn from the Chinatown Atlas, and how can we use it to help Chinatown today?

The Atlas reminds us that Chinatown is just as much a continuingly lived place as it is a historic part of the city. It reminds us that soon, unless more forceful and sustainable action is taken, “Chinatown” might become just a name. As the Chinatown Land Trust Committee’s Chinatown Master Plan 2020 demonstrates, however, there are opportunities to work for change in the neighborhood. Among the CLT’s primary concerns are amending Chinatown zoning regulations, supporting community businesses, and earning the neighborhood status as a Historical and Cultural District.

With their redevelopment of the Hong Lok House in 2015, Building Conservation Associates, Inc. and Chia-Ming Sze Architect, Inc. took a significant step forward towards preserving Chinatown’s architectural heritage while providing new affordable housing. They reconstructed three historic buildings—one of them, the oldest wooden commercial building in Boston—and integrated them into a new single facility to creatively fulfill the neighborhood’s demands to preserve its history and character while making available affordable housing. In June 2020, the Chinatown CLT purchased two row house properties on Oak Street and Hudson Street that they will soon renovate to create seven new permanently affordable, low-income residential units. Their work to preserve both the history and nature of this cultural-ethnic enclave resists pressures from the rest of the city.

Chinatown

With increased funding (Row House Preservation Fund) and supported legislation, Chinatown residents are more likely to continue living in the home they currently know. CLT is currently urging Boston residents to encourage senators to support TOPA (H 1260/S786), which will help give tenants the right to purchase their homes if they are being sold, and to support the Housing Stability Act to extend the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures

Equally important as these other actionable items is Chinatown’s designation as a historic district. The comprehensive historic documentation by Lee’s Chinatown Atlas offers a much-needed argument for this kind of designation. The Atlas publicly and extensively demonstrates what, why, and to whom Chinatown—and its protection—matters. With increased documentation, recognition, and renewed appreciation, Chinatown’s character can be preserved over time, as can its residents’ quality of life. By imparting the same kind of attention and passion Tunney Lee put into his Atlas for years of his life, Chinatown residents and supportive Bostonians can defy the odds and make both community preservation and development a possibility.

Contact the Chinatown CLT at ChinatownCLT@gmail.com if you are interested in getting involved and advocating for Chinatown.

Contributors to the Chinatown Atlas:

Chinese Historical Society of New England

Chinatown Lantern Cultural and Educational Center

UMass Boston Institute for Asian American Studies

 

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