protect preserve chinatown san francisco chinatown community development center cdc ccdc
Rev. Norman Fong, current Executive Director, and Gordon Chin, founding Executive Director, standing in front of the recently remodeled North Ping Yuen. They know the heart of Chinatown is its people and affordable housing. PHOTO BY GEORGE E. BAKER JR.

Preserve and Protect:
How one Bay Area nonprofit is working hard to retain the cultural legacy of Chinatown

Chinatown is one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in San Francisco and renowned throughout the world. However, that stature is no accident — it has taken a lot of hard work and dedication to preserve the district and its community.

“Chinatown would not be the same if Chinatown Community Development Center hadn’t existed,” said Gordon Chin, founding Executive Director of Chinatown Community Development Center (Chinatown CDC), a member of the NeighborWorks network. “Citywide, Chinatown CDC has helped advocate and educate residents, elected officials and other stakeholders about the importance of Chinatown. It can’t be taken for granted. It’s an integral place in San Francisco.”

Established in 1853, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the first neighborhood of its kind in the United States. It also embodies the legacy of seven or eight generations.

“The Chinese historically suffered a lot of discrimination and exclusion under city, state and federal law,” Chin said, who became Executive Director when the nonprofit formed in 1977. “So Chinatown is much more than just the people who live there now. There’s a spiritual nature to the place called Chinatown, a national significance.”

Reverend Norman Fong, Chinatown CDC’s Executive Director since 2011 (formerly the Deputy Director of Programs since 1990), fully understands this aspect.

“My dad came here in 1919 while there was still segregation under the Chinese Exclusion Act,” recalled Fong, who grew up in Chinatown himself. “Through my father, I learned the Chinese not only worked on the railroad, but also on reclamation swamp land throughout California. We constructed so much. I tell the youth I work with, ‘The Chinese are part of American history — America is us, too.’”

In fact, Chinatown CDC teaches local youths this legacy by prioritizing their involvement in the community.

“What I love the most is the youth program here,” Fong said. “It creates a whole new, young generation to care for Chinatown.”

No matter what new programs get added to the nonprofit’s roster, Chinatown CDC never loses sight of the mission it started with in 1977 — tenant protection and affordable housing.

“Chinatown CDC started by fighting encroachment by the Financial District,” Fong said. “Since then, we’ve doubled in scope and become a bigger, broader, more diverse organization. And we’re not just building affordable housing, but also preserving affordable housing. We’ve remained faithful to this focus and try to think of every aspect that makes a neighborhood work.”

Chinatown CDC’s decades-long affordable housing expertise has also helped it create valuable partnerships with other area nonprofits such as Swords to Plowshares, San Francisco neighborhoods like the Mission and Tenderloin districts, and the Ping Yuen Residents Improvement Association — one of Chinatown CDC’s partners from the beginning.

“These partnerships are part of embracing diversity in San Francisco,” Fong said. “We need to work together better — the problems are just too big.”

Article by Thea Marie Rood. Published in What Does It Take to Save a Neighborhood?


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