The Diverse Perspectives of Symbolic Displacement: Unpacking Gentrification in an Urban Chinatown

By Laureen D. Hom (California State Polytechnic University, Pomona)

Throughout my fieldwork in Los Angeles Chinatown, I was fortunate to meet many different stakeholders to try to understand how gentrification was impacting the neighborhood. As I visited different community organizations and attended public meetings, community leaders shared their different experiences being a part of Chinatown, which led to very diverse, and often conflicting, perspectives of gentrification. At one meeting held at the local elementary school, I was introduced to a city planner, and we casually talked about our observations about gentrification in Los Angeles. As we were ending our conversation, he briefly mentioned to me how they were not just looking at demographic shifts and property value changes, but were trying to “capture the sentiment” of communities. This fleeting comment stuck with me as I realized that he may have been doing that right now at this event as he briefly spoke with almost all the different community leaders. This resonated with me throughout my fieldwork as I learned more about the community – and continues as I visit Chinatown today. When I walk through the neighborhood, my understanding of an apartment complex, the public library, or shopping plaza has completely transformed from what I thought a few years ago. I associated it with certain people and their stories, that shaped my understanding and attachment to these places. When I gave tours to friends, students, and even professionally at a conference, I was aware that I introduced these sites in a very specific way that blended the knowledge I gained from my research along with my personal experiences that accumulated from being in Chinatown. But how do we capture these sentimental attachments to places that often drive many arguments against gentrification – and can sometimes be conflicting? How do we not disregard these sentiments and actually meaningfully address them in theory and practice?

My article in Urban Affairs Review engages with these tensions about how we define gentrification, particularly the symbolic displacement in historic urban ethnic enclaves. Chinatowns are recognized as important historic ethnic enclaves that have persisted throughout time amid changes to the urban landscape. We generally think of Chinatowns as places to visit to experience Chinese American culture and history. They have had this distinction for over a century because they are evolving homes for working class Asian immigrants and spaces of community belonging for Chinese Americans across geography who continue to view the neighborhood as a place of heritage and belonging. As downtown adjacent neighborhoods, Chinatowns have also been in constant threat of forced displacement. They were impacted by urban redevelopment since the early 20th Century and are currently experiencing gentrification through new market-rate housing developments and the upscaling of businesses. Gentrification is not just about the physical displacement that happens with these changes – although this matters greatly – but it also encompasses a larger symbolic displacement that disrupts and alters the sense of place and community. This social and cognitive displacement can lead to an eventual physical displacement of people to these spaces as they begin to no longer see this as a place of their own.

I conducted an in-depth analysis of community leader narratives around one particular site in Los Angeles Chinatown, Blossom Plaza, a mixed-use, mixed-income development that opened in 2016 after over a decade in negotiation and development. In the article, I draw from arguments made by ethnic placemaking, an emerging framework that has been used to examine how Asian Americans establish their presence in changing suburban communities, to analyze how the framings of Blossom Plaza from community leaders representing business, cultural, and residential interests brought insight into gentrification and to how they were trying to transform and regulate the neighborhood identity. This plaza was one of the newest developments, and thus was a reference point for many to discuss how Chinatown is changing. It was constructed on a site that was not actively being used and arguably not directly displacing people. It was one of the only new developments that provided affordable housing during a housing crisis and amid proposals that were for new market-rate housing developments. However, community leaders still had mixed feelings about the presence of the building, when it seemingly should have been a straight forward story about how it would change the neighborhood.

The placemaking framework revealed that Blossom Plaza was contributing to a broader symbolic displacement that specifically unsettled the historical, physical, economic, and political characteristics that has defined Chinatown throughout time. These narratives within and across these four areas spoke to the diversity and conflict that also defines communities and their political representation. Community leaders vary as to how they understand the impact of a symbolic displacement occurring within these core areas, making it often difficult to find a unified community voice to combat gentrification. For some business leaders, these forms of displacement were a means to modernize Chinatown as a new ethnic space that aligned with global downtown trends, while for cultural and residential leaders the displacement was threatening the older Chinese American heritage and working-class Chinese American immigrants that defined the neighborhood culturally, socioeconomically, and physically. All of these perspectives center Chinatown as an important ethnic space, but vary in how they address ethnicity as it intersects with class in defining the neighborhood today.

Gentrification is multifaceted as many aspects of a neighborhood can potentially be displaced, all of which will have ripple effects in how these places remain unique and appropriate to the communities that they serve. Both for policy and theory, understanding the meanings that people place onto new and old spaces matter if we are to grasp this fuller picture of gentrification, especially if we seek to be truly inclusive of community concerns and needs in equitable planning practices for neighborhoods. Different planning tools, from zoning regulations to community-controlled plans that guide historical preservation and architectural design, all play a part in possibly preventing the symbolic displacement, along with the physical displacement, that may occur in changing neighborhoods.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Christina Boemio on Unsplash

Author Biography

Laureen D. Hom is an assistant professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona in the political science department. She holds a PhD in Planning, Policy, and Design with an emphasis in Asian American Studies and an MPH with a specialization in Sociomedical Sciences and Urbanism and the Built Environment. Her research and teaching is at the intersection of urban studies, ethnic studies, and policy studies. Her current work examines the spatial politics of ethnic community formation and political representation in Southern California and how that provides insight to broader issues of urban development, gentrification, and community engagement in urban governance.