When my parents moved to California, they settled down just east of Chinatown in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Lincoln Heights. At that time, my parents decided to settle there due to it’s close proximity to Chinatown and the relatively affordable rent. I spent a good part of my childhood exploring the neighborhood, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to truly appreciate the walkability Chinatown offers.
What makes Chinatown so walking friendly?
I believe it’s partially attributed to the Chinese culture, but also because of the dense residential layouts, short blocks, human scaled storefronts, and most importantly, the small businesses that serve the community. There’s a wide variety of shops ranging from family owned supermarkets, herb shops, seafood, eateries, bakeries, clothiers, and many more serving the tight knit community. Growing up, my parents did all of their shopping and errands within a few square miles. We purchased our birthday cakes at Queen Bakery and Phoenix Bakery, brought our produce at Ai Hoa Supermarket, and picked up fresh chicken from the local poultry shop.
But the small businesses environment in Chinatown is changing. There is now a mixture of new and old businesses that co-exist together, each serving different demographics, both culturally and generationally. The younger generation has moved away from Chinatown, leaving an increasingly elderly immigrant population that relies heavily upon the shops and services for their daily needs.
Chinatown has been emerging as a foodie destination with new restaurants of various cuisines moving in – from Roy Choi’s Chego, Howlin’ Ray’s, and Burgerlords. These new eateries target the younger and hipster generation. But with the new influx of business that are moving in who do not cater to the local elderly immigrant residents, it leaves fewer and fewer places that residents can shop closer to home. For example, Wing Hop Fung – an emporium of Chinese goods and herbs that served the community for over 30 years – closed its doors last year. Similarly, legacy restaurants have been closing regularly due to the changing demographic and competition from other new businesses.
One positive aspect is that these new businesses are helping generate increased foot traffic, especially at night. Old business owners are hoping that this influx will generate more income for them as well. I still believe there’s an opportunity and possibility to connect the old Chinatown with this new emerging one.
My mother still works in Chinatown. She is worried the culture of the Chinatown community she grew up knowing is slowing disappearing. Recently I walked the neighborhood in the early morning. Despite my mother’ concerns, I believe one can still experience the feeling of community that I felt as a child walking the neighborhood at this hour. Residents still greet each other warmly as they go about their daily routines, while residents congregate to exercise, eat breakfast, and play chess.
The small brick and mortar shops in the community will continue to evolve as the demographic of the residents changes. Whether this demographic shift is good or bad depends upon who you speak to. But regardless which way your opinions fall, I can attest it is Chinatown’s community that makes the neighborhood forever special in my memories, and it remains one of the best sections of Los Angeles to explore by foot.