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Which Way to Chinatown?

BY AMY MILSHTEIN | PHOTOS BY JASON E. KAPLAN

The Jade International District, already Portland's center of Asian life, is poised for rejuvenation. Where does that leave the westside's historic Chinatown?

BY AMY MILSHTEIN | PHOTOS BY JASON E. KAPLAN

The Jade International District, already Portland's center of Asian life, is poised for rejuvenation. Where does that leave the westside's historic Chinatown?

0215 chinatown08 620px

A look from New York to San Francisco reveals that downtown metro areas, once a melting pot of ethnic and financial diversity, now serve the upwardly mobile as inner cities across the country grow richer, younger and whiter. Portland is no exception. Already over 76% white according to the 2010 census, the  central core neighborhoods, from the Pearl to the inner Eastside, have followed the rest of the nation’s lead, becoming gentrified destinations filled with trendy shops, spendy restaurants and wealthy residents living in expensive housing.

There is one glaring exception: Old Town/Chinatown.

The holdout constitutes the last chunk of downtown land waiting for renewal.  Gritty, sketchy and oddly barren, this history-rich area has morphed from a working center of Asian immigrant life into a node for the dispossessed and the safety nets that serve them. Soup kitchens and shelters aid homeless people who, at first glance, seems the sole inhabitants of the streets during the day.

“Chinatown looks tired and hollow,” admits architect Suenn Ho. A longtime champion of the district, Ho remembers the long haul of redevelopment in the area, especially the 2004- to 2006 renovation. “Money was put into streetscape improvements,” she says. While the resulting lampposts still look distinctive, the 18 months of construction work was, in Ho’s mind, detrimental to business. “Lack of access squeezed out many small, Asian-owned shops.”

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 Accountant Louis K.C. Lee in front of his office in Chinatown. Lee supports local businesses by dining at the Red Robe tea house (right) twice a day.

There are some holdouts. Louis K.C. Lee operates his accounting firm out of the 1,500-square foot building on Northwest Davis Street that he and his sister have owned for over 20 years. With a client base that is over 80% Asian, Lee and his three full-time staffers serve mostly small-business owners from California to Washington. He remains stubbornly dedicated to the district. “To run a business in Chinatown, you need endurance,” says the energetic 60-plus-year-old.

Lee’s endurance may pay off yet. Plans to revitalize Old Town/Chinatown continue to move along, albeit slowly. Driven by the Portland Development Commission (PDC) and other government entities, these plans include rehabbed buildings, new workforce housing, better parking and more jobs. Already there are bright spots of economic activity. Some are distinctly Asian, like the Lan Su Chinese Garden and the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine. Other non-Asian organizations that call the district home, like the Pendleton Home Store and the University of Oregon, see opportunity: a good bargain in a historic downtown location rich in character.


Portland visitors "don't know 82nd and Division, and that's where our edge is," says Lee.

Katen Bush, 42, represents that new Old Town/Chinatown merchant. Her store, Kat + Maouch, sells modern Moroccan designs from a large space on fourth Avenue. Originally envisioned as a pop-up shop, Bush is considering leasing the space long term if her holiday sales prove fruitful. The far-traveled Oregon native likes the neighborhood and her neighbors, even the residents of Right 2 Dream Too, the hotly contested homeless camp plainly visible from her large storefront windows.

“The Pearl District is overbuilt and unaffordable,” Bush says of the good fit for her storefront. While she bemoans the lack of a steady stream of foot traffic found in a “retail neighborhood like Northwest 23rd,” Bush reveals that the working creatives who do pass her shop, like designers from Pendleton or nearby SERA Architects, have taken notice. Word has gotten out and product is moving. “My inventory isn’t geared toward walk-by, impulse shoppers anyway,” she says of her vintage Berber rugs that range from $350 to $5,000.

Revitalization will inevitably come to a district that is far too valuable to lie fallow for much longer. Whether the face of that revitalization will be specifically Chinese, Asian, or immigrant for that matter, remains up for grabs. “Chinatown is a point of contention among different segments of the Asian population,” says Duncan Hwang, development, communications and program director for APANO, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon. “There are a lot of older Asians who want to see it restored to its former glory, but that’s probably not going to happen. Chinatown has the skin but no guts. We have the guts but no skin.”

{pullquote}Chinatown has the skin but no guts. We have the guts but no skin.{/pullquote}

Hwang, along with many other Asian businesspeople, are growing that skin. They already have a name: the Jade District. This far Southeast neighborhood, centered by the intersection of 82nd and Division, was named a Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative (NPI) by the PDC in 2011. This designation gives grants, training and support to communities in need of an economic boost; think St. Johns, Alberta and Parkrose. The common thread through these neighborhoods is a high concentration of minority-owned businesses and a higher-than-citywide poverty rate.

The Jade has both. The location has the highest concentration of low wage workers, with 50% of households earning less than $42,000 a year, according to APANO. The area is also home to the largest concentration of Asian and Pacific Islander immigrant families in the state. It is the most diverse spot in Portland, with a majority of residents of color. The Jade District sits in East Portland, an area growing faster than the rest of the city and home to both 37% of K-12 youth and over a third of the elderly. A huge percentage of this demographic lives in poverty.

Giving a voice to this diverse group is something Rosaline Hui, editor of the Portland Chinese Times, has tried to do for the past 18 years. The Hong Kong native, along with her husband, Charles, started the Chinese-language weekly newspaper in Chinatown but moved to the Jade three years ago to better serve her readers.

 

She remembers the paper’s early years when Old Town/Chinatown was a vibrant center of Asian life. “Before the paper, if people had news, they would post a flyer in a storefront window,” she says. Hui built the business and created two big events for the community: a Chinese New Year fair and a Moon Festival. Both have moved out of downtown. The New Year’s fair is now held at the Convention Center, while the Moon Festival, an autumn celebration, relocated to Southeast during the streetscape renovation and never looked back.

0215 chinatown12 500pxFrom their offices on the second floor of King Plaza, anchored by Wong’s King Seafood, the Portland Chinese Times serves 10,000 readers a week with both a print paper and an online presence. Along with ads, Hui and her staff of five, plus two freelance writers, produce pieces designed to unite and educate the community.

“Generally, Chinese people don’t get involved in politics,” she states, blaming the combination of a language barrier and a culture that prizes self-sufficiency. Hui admits that this paradigm is giving way to a newer, younger way of doing business. “We need to find a way to walk together, and people at the Jade District and APANO are trying making that happen.”

The youth and energy that Hui speaks of is on display at the Jade District offices. Here Todd Struble, Jade District manager, is settling in. Located in the Wing Ming Plaza on 82nd Street, Struble just moved to a bigger space to accommodate growing steering-committee meetings. Five or so young volunteers are energetically — and noisily — moving a conference table up the narrow staircase.

The 32-year-old lawyer is keenly aware of the potholes ahead of him. “The PDC has had a checkered history in the past,” he says, speaking of development in other parts of the city that has displaced residents and gentrified neighborhoods. “My position is funded by the PDC, and the goal is to make sure that investments benefit the community.”

Struble has an early win under his belt already, The Night Market. The Jade District debuted over four Saturday nights in late August/early September 2014 with a street food, craft and culture fair that drew over 20,000 visitors. Guests, some from as far away as Corvallis and Eugene, spent about $20 per person, infusing the area with over $400,000 in revenue. “We were expecting about 5,000 people total,” says Struble. “Clearly there was some pent-up demand.”

Struble admits that initially selling the Night Market to the 130 local businesses that reside within the Jade’s boundaries was a struggle. As a result, he had to reach out beyond the district’s borders for vendors. “Last year 25% of vendors came from the Jade,” he says. “Next time we are aiming to have 75% or more.”

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 Thai Fresh co-owners Vong Soutavong and Aroon Onchumchit.

Mining the area’s rich food culture is a smart move. Savvy Portlanders who once flocked to Old Town/Chinatown now know that this is the place for authentic Asian fare. For proof, look to dim sum houses like Wong’s King and HK that see lines all weekend long. Or the Vietnamese soup and sandwich eatery Ha & VL. A national darling, thanks to reviews in Bon Appetit and on Yelp, they consistently run out of broth by 2 p.m. daily. 

One restaurant, Thai Fresh, is taking a more Portland approach to cuisine. Owned by 39-year-old Vong Soutavong, along with business partner Aroon Onchumchit, Thai Fresh features food sourced as locally as possible. They specialize in feeding hard-to-cater-to customers with food sensitivities. “Many chefs don’t want to change their dishes,” says Soutavong, looking quite the hipster in a plaid shirt accented with a bowtie, his black hair punctuated by blonde bangs. He reports that business has grown 5% per year for the six years he’s been in the spot. “Diners come from Oregon City, Lake Oswego and Vancouver,” he reports.

Soutavong, a Laos native, is thankful for his loyal, wealthier, out-of-district patrons but insists that his fastest-growing segment is locals new to the area. “Ten percent of our customers are walk-ins,” he says.

That number comes as a surprise considering that walkability may be the biggest problem facing the district. The Jade sits in the most pedestrian-unfriendly part of Portland. Drivers speed up and down Powell and Division, and sidewalks are spotty. Southeast 82nd, also known as State Highway 213, is worse. Pedestrians on this five-lane road are treated to substandard sidewalks, infrequent crosswalks and the highest chance in the state of being seriously injured or killed in an accident.

The problems flow from the main arteries into the side streets. Some don’t have sidewalks. Many are unimproved dirt or gravel roads. One dirt road on the way to Harrison Park School has potholes so big, so deep and so numerous that the street is a no-man’s land, and anyone foolish enough to drive on it and survive with their axles intact is met with the pitying (contemptuous) stares of the local kids who know better.



"To me, [the Jade District] feels more community involved versus Chinatown"
"Everybody says that here is the new Chinatown.”

There are plans to update the major arteries, install curb cuts and improve intersections. There is even a move to transfer 82nd from state to city control, which would allow for lower speed limits. And there’s the Powell-Division Transit and Development Project, the region’s first bus rapid-transit project that would link Mt. Hood Community College to Portland State University, creating an education corridor.

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 Cross at your peril: The Jade District is located in one of
the most pedestrian unfriendly neighborhoods in the city.

If approved, the bus line would pass Portland Community College’s Southeast campus. That’s good news for a school that has grown 10% while other PCCs have seen enrollment shrink. The Southeast campus serves some 11,500 students and employs 550 more. Located on the corner of Division and 82nd, the campus just finished a $48 million bond-funded expansion that doubled its size. Part of their renovation includes two new retail spaces: a 950-square-foot coffee shop and a 3,255-square-foot space that can be divided.

Still the Jade faces major concerns. Struble and his visioning committee identified the main issue as a lack of space — green space, community space and parking space. There’s also a language barrier. Along with Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants, the area is home to many Spanish and Russian speakers, and that’s just getting started. PCC Southeast reports that their student body speaks over 80 languages.

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 Portland Chinese Times editor Rosaline Hui.

People living and working in the district are also concerned about crime. Jennah Lee, co-partner of Artico Lite

 

If approved, the bus line would pass Portland Community College’s Southeast campus. That’s good news for a school that has grown 10% while other PCCs have seen enrollment shrink. The Southeast campus serves some 11,500 students and employs 550 more. Located on the corner of Division and 82nd, the campus just finished a $48 million bond-funded expansion that doubled its size. Part of their renovation includes two new retail spaces: a 950-square-foot coffee shop and a 3,255-square-foot space that can be divided.Still the Jade faces major concerns. Struble and his visioning committee identified the main issue as a lack of space — green space, community space and parking space. There’s also a language barrier. Along with Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants, the area is home to many Spanish and Russian speakers, and that’s just getting started. PCC Southeast reports that their student body speaks over 80 languages.People living and working in the district are also concerned about crime. Jennah Lee, co-partner of Artico Lite

on Southeast Powell, has manufactured and sold signs out of her storefront for 15 years. She hopes that the Jade District will bring awareness and more business to the area, as 25% of her customers come from local shops, mostly restaurants and salons.

She also hopes they will do something about vandalism and homelessness, and improve general security. “Things can get pretty bad,” says the Chinese national who grew up in Vietnam. In the factory behind the front room, her partner and brother-in-law is busy shaping neon tubes into signs. Lee stops by a rack of rejected neon pieces and picks up a Chinese character that looks simultaneously simple and complicated. “It means roasted,” she says. Would Lee ever consider moving to a different neighborhood? “This is where the Chinese people are,” she insists. “Asians like to do business with other Asians.” When asked about Old Town/Chinatown, Lee shrugs her shoulders. “When I first moved to Portland 20 years ago, we would travel there to eat, but everything is here now.”

Tim Nguyen agrees. Owner of Fujiyama Sushi Bar and Grill, the 44-year-old Vietnamese native doesn’t think that Old Town/Chinatown will ever attract the same Asian clientele it did in the old days, no matter how much revitalization takes place. He blames his culture’s love-hate affair with the car. “Asians love to drive, but we can’t park,” he says with a wry grin.

Suenn Ho, the architect, sees a different scenario in Chinatown. She notes that enthusiastic establishments like Ping and East Bar came in one at a time and failed one at a time. “We need to treat the area like a shopping mall with two strong anchors,” she says. “And we need the full backing of the city.”

When asked about the Jade District Ho admits that that’s where the really good restaurants are, but “so what? There’s a third ‘Chinatown’ in Beaverton. I still believe that Old Town/Chinatown will become a vibrant center of Asian life.”

The PDC understands the importance of cultural preservation for the neighborhood. It’s one of 13 key actions identified in their plan — and the last one on the list. No doubt the placement is coincidental, but what Old Town/Chinatown most desperately needs is more people living, working and spending money in the area.

{pullquote}I still believe Old Town/Chinatown will become a vibrant center of Asian life.{/pullquote}

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Jade District manager Todd Struble.

It looks like this time it’s happening. The Pacific Northwest College of Art will open in early 2015 and bring 1,300 students and 240 staff members. Urban Development + Partners want to convert the Suey Sing Building on Northwest Fourth and Davis into creative office space. The Baggage and Carriage Building sold for $1.75 million, with plans to turn it into a specialty food market by the end of 2015. Airbnb opened their operational headquarters in Old Town, employing 200. And for the adventurous, budget tourist, three hotels with options from hostel-style bunk beds to rooms with private baths are in various stages of planning.  

The PDC is also trying to change the residential mix of the neighborhood. As of today, 72% of the area’s rental housing is restricted to households earning less than 60% of the median family income. (This translates to $33,360 for a couple.) The PDC plans to help build 500 units to house those who make a little more, between 60% and 100% of the median family Income.

Ho wants that housing mix to go further. “Why not expensive, market-rate housing?” she asks. “People rent affordable housing. Wealthy Chinese people don’t rent. They buy.”

Ho acknowledges that the neighborhood is a hub for social services and wishes that the city would “share the love” and spread those services around. It’s not likely to happen. “The poor will always be a part of the area,” says Sarah Harpole, senior project manager at PDC. “The organizations that serve them own their buildings.”

0215 chinatown06 500pxHer concerns lie more with the drugs and crime that are common in the neighborhood. Harpole theorizes that the incoming flux of commerce and life will fill up empty storefronts, provide more eyes on the street and push that element out.

The price tag to the PDC for this vision totals $19 million this year and $57 million over the next five. If all goes as planned, Portland will have an inner-city bohemia: walkable, funky, authentic and affordable, at least for the first 15 years that rent restrictions are in place. After that it’s anybody’s guess.

And when residents of Old Town/Chinatown hunger for Asian noodles, Chinese herbs or Vietnamese groceries, they will probably go to the Jade. The PDC’s budget there is just over $1 million. Not much, but so far the area has done OK without a lot of help from outside of its own tight-knit communities. Yes, it’s poor and suffers from all of the symptoms that come with that condition, but it’s also thriving. Portland will always need a place for immigrants to land, and gentrification looks a long way away from the sprawling, low-slung, car-filled neighborhood. The Jade already exists on its own terms. The right branding might give it a name.

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