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Liu and Geron

Changing Neighborhood:
Ethnic Enclaves and the
Struggle for Social Justice
Michael Liu and Kim Geron

ne of the legacies of the Asian-American experience is the formation of

distinctive ethnic neighborhoods. Today, new forms of enclaves have taken

shape distant from the downtown locations of the traditional urban enclaves
of Chinatown and Japantowns. Yet, since the late 1960s, it is within urban sites
that Asian Americans have most intensely mobilized and built their organizational
resources for social justice. This article will focus on Asian-American activism in
urban communities, particularly traditional Asian ethnic enclaves, around land use,
affordable housing, and labor and community preservation. In doing so, we explore
the reasons struggles unfolded in these enclaves, drawing and building on activism
within Asian-American communities, as well as the continuing relevance of ethnic
enclaves to Asian-American efforts to achieve social justice.
To understand the role of ethnic enclaves in the economy and politics of the
Asian-American community, we provide a brief history and description of the
types of Asian ethnic enclaves. We examine the historic intersection and evolution of enclaves and social justice organizing, the role of community activists in
ethnic enclave-based struggles, the contemporary state of enclave activism, and
the prospects for continuing activism.
Ethnic enclaves are specific localities where ethnic minorities congregate, and
possess three common features: co-ethnic owners and employees, spatial concentration, and sectoral specialization (Logan, Alba, and McNulty, 1994). Viewed
instrumentally, enclaves provide protection from hostile elements in society, aid
in the retention of cultural norms (including language), offer work in, and sometimes the option of owning, an intra-ethnic business, and allow for participation
Michael Liu is Senior Research Associate, Institute for Asian American Studies, University of
Massachusetts (e-mail: A multi-decade activist in the Asian-American
community, particularly in Boston, he is co-author with Kim Geron and Tracy Lai of The Snake Dance
of Asian American Activism: Community, Vision and Power (Lexington Press, 2008). His interests
focus on social movements and the political economy of Asian Americans, and his most recent
published studies concern low-income Asian Americans in Massachusetts and immigrant businesses
in Boston. Kim Geron is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, California State
University, East Bay (e-mail: Professor Geron teaches courses in public
policy and administration. He recently published Latino Political Power and his research interests
include social movements, and racial and labor politics.


Social Justice Vol. 35, No. 2 (2008)

Ethnic Enclaves and the Struggle for Social Justice


in community, religious, and cultural organizations and residence with members

of the same ethnic group.
Changing Character of Enclaves
Since ethnic enclaves have evolved from locations in central cities to suburban
sites, it is necessary to develop a taxonomy of Asian-American enclaves that illustrates the four distinctive types:
Traditional enclaves are neighborhood communities forged before World War
II by Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrants. Housing segregation and discriminatory laws forced Asian immigrants into urban ethnic enclaves. They created their own institutions and their own internal labor markets (Pascual, 1996).
These communities evolved into centers for residential housing, community and
religious organizations, ethnic shopping, and employment. Enclaves were a means
for protection and survival; as such, members of the ethnic community defended
them from extinction. Traditional Chinatowns, Japantowns, and the International
District in Seattle are current examples of this form of enclave.
Satellite enclaves developed after the 1965 Immigration Act brought new immigrants
in large numbers to urban centers. Traditional enclaves were already overcrowded,
and the new immigrants formed these new enclaves to provide residential space
and easy access to the traditional enclave for goods and services. The Richmond
District in San Francisco, Sunset Park in Brooklyn, and Quincy in Massachusetts
are representative of this type of enclave. For example, Quincy is described as a
One-Step-Up enclave; in the 1980s, Asian Americans began to settle in this town,
which is located adjacent to Boston. The residents are mostly families, with middleclass incomes, who maintain close ties to Bostons Chinatown (Chung, 1995).
New Enclaves formed as new economic enclaves for the newly arriving immigrant
and refugee population. Ethnic entrepreneurs first create stores that provide goods
and services to the ethnic community. These enclaves may or may not have a
residential component. South Asians, Koreans, and refugees from Southeast Asia
have all built new enclaves. Many cities have encouraged the development of these
enclaves, for the new immigrants have revitalized blighted or underutilized land.
Little Saigon in Westminster, California, and Little India in Artesia, California,
are examples.
Ethnoburbs are suburban ethnic clusters of residential areas and business districts
in large metropolitan areas. The local context of the ethnoburb characteristically
has a strong ethnic economy, with strong ties to the global economy. Ethnoburbs are
also multiethnic communities, in which one ethnic minority group has a significant
concentration, but not necessarily a majority (Li, J., 1998). Most of these suburban
communities changed demographically after the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration
Law. Monterey Park, California, is a prototype of such a community. The majority
of its population is now Asian American, primarily Chinese (Fong, 1994; Saito,


Liu and Geron

1998). Another example of an ethnoburb is Cupertino, California, located near San

Jose. This city experienced rapid demographic changes in the 20 years between
1980 and 2000, with the Asian American population growing from 6.7 to 45%, as
large numbers of middle-class Asian immigrants moved there in search of better
schools, as well as for other quality of life reasons (Lai and Geron, 2006: 67). In
both of these communities, Asian Americans have built electoral coalitions to win
local political office.
Each of these types of enclaves has been the site of race-based campaigns for
equity, representation, and social change. Yet, for Asian-American social justice
activists, urban enclaves, particularly the traditional ones, have been the most crucial
environments. In this article, we focus on the particular relationship between urban
enclaves and Asian American activism.
Asian Immigration and Enclave Formation
Before the establishment of black communities in New York and Chicago, and
in contrast to white immigrant neighborhoods that sprang up in the 19th century as
transitional sites for acculturation into U.S. society, Chinese immigrants formed
Chinatowns as defenses against racial violence upon their arrival in the 1850s.
In the first part of the 20th century, Japanese and Filipino immigrants also built
ethnic enclaves. These enclaves grew to become community centers where new
immigrants lived and worked together, shared resources, built social and political
organizations, and nurtured distinctive social and cultural lives. Ethnic enclaves
are often initially located in neighborhoods in flux. Some evolve over time to be
permanent; others are temporary and disappear as individuals from the ethnic group
move away (Laguerre, 2000).
Until World War II, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos comprised the overwhelming proportion of Asian immigrants. They began arriving to the United States in
significant numbers as laborers for the agricultural, mining, and transportation
industries in the latter half of the 19th century. They all encountered discrimination
and physical violence and were forced to live in segregated housing and neighborhoods in cities, mining towns, and rural areas. They built enclaves to have a measure
of relative safety. Yet, as early as 1871, a white mob attacked the Los Angeles
Chinese enclave over a minor incident among the Chinese residents (Chan, 1991:
48). Some Chinese moved to avoid the violence and formed new Chinatowns in
the Northeast region (Zhou, 2004).
Over time, Asian immigrants constructed extensive communities. Little Tokyo,
a Los Angeles community that formed in the late 1800s near downtown, swelled to
30,000 residents by the 1930s, with thriving businesses, religious institutions, and
community groups. The Japanese section of Seattles International District included
45 restaurants, 20 barbershops, bathhouses, laundries, 30 hotels and lodging houses,
four groceries, two newspapers, and two monthly magazines (Chin, 2001: 27). In

Ethnic Enclaves and the Struggle for Social Justice


California, Stocktons Filipino community grew to thousands between World War

I and II and was known as Little Manila (Laguerre, 2000).
During World War II, Japanese community enclaves were virtually closed down
and boarded up as Japanese Americans were shipped off to internment camps. When
Japanese American merchants and residents returned, they found a significantly
smaller geographic community, as others had taken over the land and property in
the Japantowns. Public redevelopment and urban renewal in the subsequent decades
also contributed to the reduction and near elimination of these communities. One
group of Asian enclaves had been seriously diminished.
Post-World War II Challenges to Survival
Following World War II, many of the remaining inner-city ethnic enclaves,
which were located in close proximity to downtown financial and commercial districts, came under increasing threat of displacement by corporate interests and local
governments. Urban renewal plans often targeted ethnic enclaves as redevelopment
zones. Using the power of eminent domain, local governments forced out residents
and small businesses, making way for capital investment, often international, to
cater to tourists and implement urban gentrification plans.
In San Francisco, the financial district began to outgrow its original location
in the 1960s; developers and city leaders sought to expand into ethnic enclaves,
including Chinatown, Manilatown, and the South of Market area, to gain access to more land (Hartman and Kessler, 1978). For Manilatown, urban renewal
reduced what was once a 10-block neighborhood, to one block, anchored by the
International Hotel. As other hotels were closed down and were replaced with new
developments, many of the older generation of Filipinos were forced to move to
other parts of the city. Chinatowns close proximity to downtown also made it a
prime target for urban renewal.
This process of urban renewal also occurred in other cities. In 1964, the first
of several efforts by urban renewal forces in Philadelphia reduced the size of the
Chinatown. Community residents resisted an effort in 1966 to place an expressway
thorough the community. Community opposition stopped this and subsequent plans
by local government and corporate entities to destroy the historic Chinatown. Nevertheless, in Philadelphia one-fourth of Chinatowns land, housing, and commercial
activity has been eliminated by these efforts (Philadelphia Community Development
Corporation). During this period, similar scenarios of urban enclave redevelopment
took place in other East Coast Chinatowns, in Seattle, and in California cities.
Post-1965 Enclaves and New Issues
As urban centers were being redeveloped, beginning with the liberalization of
immigration law in 1965, new Asian immigrants from throughout Asia entered the
United States. Though many were poor relatives of current residents, the countrys


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post-industrial, globalizing economic needs also privileged those with professional

and managerial skills in immigration and education policy. As a result, traditional
enclaves expanded or new enclaves were created by Asian Americans with the
economic resources needed to live in middle-class areas. Also, residential and
business location patterns led to the creation of new suburban enclaves for existing
ethnic Asian populations. Many Chinese, Filipinos, and other new immigrants, as
well as people seeking to leave traditional urban enclaves, moved into suburban
communities. In California, for example, Chinese and other Asian immigrants
moved into several cities in the San Gabriel Valley area that lies east of Los Angeles; Japanese Americans congregated in suburbs such as Gardena, near south Los
Angeles; and Filipinos were attracted to Daly City near San Francisco and Union
City in the East Bay.
The growing, relatively educated population that came through Korean
immigration created new enclaves. The Koreatown in Los Angeles is the largest
Korean ethnic enclave in the United States. With its approximately 25 square miles,
Koreatown is the commercial center for Koreans in Los Angeles. About 3,000 Koreanowned businesses were already located there in the early 1990s (Min, 1993a). It
became a site of mass looting and property destruction following the Rodney King
police brutality verdict in 1992 (Lee, 2000). Refugees from Southeast Asia created
another new set of ethnic enclaves, including Long Beachs Little Phnom Penh
(north of downtown and home to 50,000 Cambodians), the Vietnamese enclave in
Westminster, California, and Fresnos Hmong concentration (Miyares, 1998).
Asian immigrants to the United States have thus created distinctive ethnic
enclaves for a multiplicity of reasons that reflected the needs of the ethnic group
and the political, economic, and political realities of the time. Recently, new immigrants have built enclaves for reasons of economics, familiarity, convenience,
and identity. They provide a central location for marketing goods and services
to the ethnic community and preserving cultural identity. Often, they reflect the
transnational character of Asian Pacific migration (Hu-DeHart, 1999) and grow
with the support of local governments that are seeking to revitalize parts of their
city or county. Ongoing debates among scholars concern ethnic entrepreneurship
and the ethnic enclave economy. Min Zhou (2004) provides an excellent summary
of the main issues.
The Historic Engagement of Activism and the Enclave
The Movement and the Place
Enclaves have become sites for oppositional resistance and the struggle for
social justice. In the post-World War II era, a strikingly similar pattern developed
in urban Asian ethnic enclavesrising land values, public-private cooperation to
remove the enclaves, and the use of eminent-domain eviction powers to force poor,
elderly, and working-class immigrant residents from their homes and businesses.

Ethnic Enclaves and the Struggle for Social Justice


The Asian American Movement (AAM) emerged in the late 1960s. Into these tenuous enclave environments, the early AAM activists gravitated.
The grievances, infrastructure, and symbolic potential of the Chinatowns,
Little Tokyos, and Little Manilas in numerous cities channeled much of the early
activism of the movement. Developing badly needed service programs, advocating
around issues of the enclaves working-class residents, and promoting peace and
international support, the activists rooted their organizations in the gritty streets of
Chinatowns, Little Tokyos, and Manilatowns. In casting much of its lot with the
interests of these communities and the residential population of workers, shopkeepers, street youth, and elderly, the Asian American Movement built, educated, and
significantly defined itself.
I Wor Kuen, the Red Guard, Asian Law Caucus, Wei Min She, East Wind, JTown Collective, and Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino (KDP) were a
few of the many organizations that established roots in the enclaves. Among the
deepest learning experiences for activists were the omnipresent issue of development and the campaigns to defend ethnic enclaves. There have been several notable
campaigns to preserve enclaves from physical destruction led by community grassroots movements. Supported by young Asian-American student activists, tenants,
community activists, and small business owners built fledging contra-development
Defending the Enclave from Dispersal and Destruction
Save the I-Hotel Campaign
Among the most significant campaigns was the struggle around the International
Hotel in San Francisco. In 1968, efforts by the International Hotels owners to evict
elderly Filipino tenants sparked one of the longest-running urban struggles in the
post-World War II era. After tenants successfully stalled the initial eviction efforts,
the building, already a community center for the Filipino community, was transformed into a thriving movement center as grass-roots community organizations,
arts and cultural groups, and a bookstore moved into the street-level storefront of
the hotel (Rodan, 1970; Dong, 2002).
Until 1977, the International Hotel tenants and their community supporters
rallied thousands of people to stop the evictions and demand the preservation of
low-cost housing. A broad coalition of forces led by the International Hotel Tenants Association, but also including Asian community activists, students, affordable housing advocates, gay and lesbian activists, trade unions, women, and other
progressive groups, waged the campaign to preserve low-cost housing for Filipino
and other tenants at the International Hotel (Solomon, 1998). Literally thousands
of people became I-Hotel supporters and signed up to defend the hotel and the
tenants from eviction (Kordziel, 2001). People were educated about the power of
capital, the power of organized resistance by the people, and the governments role


Liu and Geron

in preserving property rights over those of tenants and people. In 1977, despite
numerous legal maneuvers and mass protests, the tenants were forcibly evicted
in a chaotic confrontation between a human barricade of thousands and the citys
police and fire departments. The efforts to preserve the hotel and the adjoining
storefronts profoundly affected local development policy. No city administration
dared to build upon the site until affordable housing and a community center
were proposed 25 years later. Asian-American ethnic neighborhood preservation
campaigns spread throughout the country as community activists drew inspiration
from the International Hotel campaign.
Sun Hotel Struggle in Little Tokyo
Another mobilizing struggle began in the 1960s in Los Angeles. The city sought
to transform Little Tokyo from a historical, residential community into a tourist
attraction for wealthy Japanese businessmen. In 1976, the Little Tokyo Peoples
Rights Organization (LTPRO) formed to unite tenants, small businesses, and community supporters to defend the community from a government-sponsored corporate
takeover. LTPRO became the focus for a number of local movement organizations
(Masaoka, 2004). The organization was determined to stop the removal of residents
and small businesses to make way for a tourist hotel. Community activists dramatically occupied buildings such as the Sun Hotel to stop the evictions. They succeeded
in bringing together different classes within the Japanese-American community to
work against a perceived second mass eviction (the first mass eviction being the
incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II).
Although ultimately unable to stop the construction of the hotel, they succeeded in mobilizing the larger Japanese-American community in efforts to save
the enclave. Due to such grass-roots efforts, much of the physical community
remains, providing small business services and some affordable housing, primarily
for elderly community members. It also retained its identity as a center for social,
cultural, and religious activities and community organizations for future generations. This organizing effort evolved into the fight for redress and reparations for
Japanese Americans. The Los Angeles activists became a critical contingent of the
Japanese-American activists all over the country who successful took up the issue
of demanding compensation from the U.S. government for its mass incarcerations
of Japanese Americans during World War II (Nikkei, 1980).
Other Enclave Struggles
Catalytic, mobilizing campaigns took place across the country: in Chinatowns
in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, Nihonmachi in San Francisco, and the
International District in Seattle. In each case, grass-roots organizations organized
around issues related to development, sank roots in the community, and continued

Ethnic Enclaves and the Struggle for Social Justice


to take up other community or social issues (Liu, 1999; Kwong and Miscevic,
2005; Chin, 2001; Lin, 1998).
The Contemporary Role of Enclaves
Asian-American urban enclaves, particularly historic, older enclaves, today
tend to be mobilizing sites that are critical to Asian-American struggles for social
justice. This is true for several reasons: numerous grievances, the concentration of
resources, the culture of resistance, and the availability of framing symbols. This
pivotal role may increasingly migrate from older to more recent urban enclaves.
The urban transformation of the cities that began in the 1950s has continued
unabated, creating the conditions for ongoing grievances and confrontations between
development capital and residents. Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Boston,
Seattle, and Philadelphia have followed post-industrial development paths or pursued post-industrial economic futures that emphasize downtown areas to nurture
corporate headquarters, law firms, and financial services and their concomitant elites
(Sassen, 2001). These areas are precisely where many older enclaves are situated
(the New York, San Francisco, and Boston Chinatowns, and Little Tokyo in Los
Angeles). The contemporary attraction of urban sites for the post-World War II baby
boomers and younger professionals has contributed a second, exacerbating factor
that affects newer enclaves. Over the past decades, newer enclaves have revived
neglected areas, making them more attractive to other, more advantaged populations. Thus, the construction of financial centers, hotels, shopping malls, sports
pavilions, upscale housing, hospitals, and universities, along with all the physical
manifestations of globalizing cities, have often occurred on the rubble of enclaves.
In 2001, Bostons Chinatown, for example, enumerated 30 developments proposed
or under construction in its environs (Boston Transportation Department, 1999).
The population of poorer residents in urban enclaves also experiences a constant stream of other grievances over labor conditions, housing, education, and
services. They are consequently a constituency open to mobilization. Enclaves tend
to house the most-exploited, least-advantaged sectors of Asian-American populations. Southeast Asian populations in urban enclaves tend to have particularly low
socioeconomic indicators (Ong and Hee, 1994; Lai and Arguelles, 2003), and the
influx of immigrant workers, many with low educational attainment and uncertain
legal status, has led to numerous labor abuses.
Repertoires of Contention
The history of organizing in such enclaves has also created a culture of resistance
and mobilizing traditions. To enclave residents engaging in petitions, protests, and


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rallies, these actions do not appear to be as great a risk as they did in the past. The
familiarity of such tactics, including occasional acts of civil disobedience, removes
obstacles to their application in mobilization. The repetition of protest tactics also
opens communities to less familiar ones. Thus, in 2004 the Chinese Progressive
Association (CPA) Boston was able to lead a community sit-in at the mayors office,
the only time an Asian-American group has done so. In doing so, CPA built upon
its two-decade history of grass-roots organizing through protest politics.
Newer enclaves have shorter histories of opposing government and private
institutions and mobilizing challenges to powerful corporate and government policies. Issues such as development and youth organizing, however, have mobilized
these new enclaves.
Community Resources
Having built up a concentration of service, advocacy, and social change organizations since the 1960s, enclaves have the most developed community infrastructures
within Asian-American communities. Boston Chinatown, for instance, has 75
organizations within the 25 square blocks that comprise this small neighborhood
(Liu, 1999). This creates a force willing to confront threats to the neighborhood.
Such a concentration also aggregates and often supports Asian-American activists
through opportunities for staff positions and voluntary committees and boards. When
grievances arise, often there is an organization willing to respond and organize
around it. Depending on the issue, grass-roots groups can draw upon the support
and resources of other parts of the community infrastructure.
A particular feature of Asian-American enclaves has been the development of
community-based labor organizations, such as the Chinese Workers and Staff Association in New York, Asian Immigrant Worker Association in Oakland, and the
Korean Immigrant Workers Alliance, which began in the late 1970s, early 1980s,
and early 1990s, respectively. These organizations and others have waged numerous campaigns to defend low-wage immigrant workers who work and often live in
ethnic enclaves. The demands of food industry, construction, and light manufacturing
workers for solidarity and labor protections, combined with the labor movements
reluctance to organize these workers, eventually led to the development of community-labor centers that generally seek to improve working conditions and build
worker power (KIWA, 2007).
New urban enclaves and ethnic Asian communities have also catalyzed structures of social justice organizing, though they are less extensive than those in
older enclaves. Enclaves that house Southeast Asian populations tend to be more
disadvantaged, with lower socioeconomic indicators, and more significant youth
violence. This situation generates a larger number of grievances. Despite a community infrastructure that is not as extensive as that of older historical enclaves,
they are nonetheless significant. Many activists from Asian-American communities
are working in these ethnic Asian enclaves, whose communities historically have

Ethnic Enclaves and the Struggle for Social Justice


had limited access to resources and organizational development. Groups such as

the Asian Pacific Environmental Network are working with the Laotian community
in Richmond and Oakland, and the Coalition for Asian and Pacific American Youth
works with Khmer and Vietnamese youth in Greater Boston.
Framing of Issues
The complex economic development and community struggles have served to
train activists in class dynamics, institutional roles, and organizing strategy and
tactics. Enclaves are multi-class structures, primarily involving small business owners, professionals, workers, and sometimes, criminal elements. In larger enclaves,
transnational corporations and larger capitalists are also involved. Mobilizing the
community often requires confronting class conflicts and relations. How to develop
a particular piece of land often hinges on competing, class-based visions of a community, such as in Bostons Chinatown. There, the conflict over the construction
of a mixed-use, mixed-income, 30-story tower on a contentious parcel of land
involved differing visions of a working-class Chinatown or a multi-class new
urbanist neighborhood (Leong, 1997; Lowe and Brugge, 2008).
Participants in enclave struggles learn the fundamental importance of organizing those with a direct stake in the outcome and proceeding from a popular base.
They also learn the role of coalition building within and beyond the immediate
community, and the strength and constraints of cross-community alliances. Shortterm, immediate concerns must be balanced against long-term needs for structural
change. Struggles rooted in the socioeconomic problems in enclaves offer a great
deal of material for working out ideological frames and messaging.
Contemporary Enclave Campaigns
Enclaves are sites where activists repeatedly mobilize, with contemporary
struggles taking a variety of forms. Development struggles dominate many enclave agendas and are closely related to housing struggles against exploitative rent
increases and evictions. Enclaves also host a range of other issues, such as over
political power, labor, environmental justice, immigration, and police abuse. Recent
development struggles have become a survival issue for smaller ethnic enclaves,
such as the Japantowns and East Coast Chinatowns.
In the year 2000, Asian-American activists and mainstream community groups
successful defeated a proposed professional baseball stadium on the northern border
of Philadelphias Chinatown. United against that development was a spectrum of
organizations that believed the stadium threatened the future of the 12-city-block
neighborhood. They mobilized one thousand people for rallies and packed hearings,
successfully defeating the stadium proposal (Asian Week, 2000).
Little Tokyo in Los Angeles is one of the three remaining Japanese enclaves,
along with San Francisco and San Jose. Each has fought for survival by focusing


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on rebuilding its neighborhoods, while fending off further encroachment. In Los

Angeles, activists have united around a multiyear battle to construct a gym that
is considered essential for reviving community life in the area. Their rallies and
attendance at hearings have brought together students, basketball kids and their
families, residents from affordable housing, seniors, and martial arts enthusiasts.
They have come into conflict with city cultural institutions opposed to the siting
of the gym and the proponents of new jails and city policing institutions (J-town
Voice, 2003).
Bostons Chinatown faces similar issues and has organized against luxury
developments through community referendums, sit-ins, and traffic tie-ups (Leong,
1997; Fight Liberty Place, 2002; Lowe and Brugge, 2008). In San Franciscos Japantown, activists have fought to ensure community influence over, access to, and
retention of a local shopping mall and theater after they were sold to non-Japanese
developers (Buttress, 2006; Said and Zito, 2006).
Development campaigns include enclaves that are attempting to rebuild themselves as well as newer ones facing similar pressures. Although nearly all the original
Manilatowns have been redeveloped into oblivion, Filipino activists have taken a
proactive strategy to reestablish an enclave in San Francisco. The memorializing
of the International Hotel site through the Manilatown Center and the attempt to
reconsolidate an urban enclave in San Franciscos South of Market area speaks
to the unique roles such sites play in mobilizing young activists and community
elders. Thus, young activists are staffing community development entities that are
creating housing and reviving community rituals such as the Flores de Mayo, a
religious observance (Matthews, 1998)
New urban enclaves face similar problems but have fewer ongoing social justice
organizations. They often turn to more established tactics used by others. In 2007
in Seattles Little Saigon, a plan to build a major mixed-use development of big
box retailers, luxury condos, and parking threatened scores of Vietnamese businesses. Mobilizing efforts demanded hearings and meetings. During the rebuilding
of New Orleans, Louisiana, however, strong grass-roots protest politics emerged.
Vietnamese living in the New Orleans East community successfully fought off a
new landfill for waste from Hurricane Katrina.
In larger urban enclaves, such as the Chinatowns in New York, San Francisco,
and Oakland, population growth has assured an indelible presence for Asian Americans. Within them, organizing around development focuses on the character of the
enclaves. Campaigns centering on affordable housing and associated evictions
of poor and elderly tenants mark efforts to maintain their role as working-class
communities. In Oakland, for example, since 2003 the Pacific Renaissance Plaza
has been at the center of a community fight to preserve affordable housing for the
Chinese community. In April 2003, several community-based groups formed the
Stop Chinatown Evictions Coalition and sought to stop evictions of residents of
the 50 units of affordable housing (Wu, 2005).

Ethnic Enclaves and the Struggle for Social Justice


Enclave-based mobilization has also focused on housing and labor issues. New
York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston all have variants of communitybased worker centers, which are waging fights over withheld wages and working
conditions, and launching unionization drives. These organizations have battled
runaway shops, taken on sportswear manufacturers over severance settlements
and electronics assembly plants over health violations, and generally sought union
contracts. A typical struggle, involving employment of workers in marginal light
manufacturing, was a demand for severance from the South Boston Proman factory. The owner laid off all of its 40 Chinese and Latino workers, some of whom
had worked for decades at the plant (which was slated for closure), but offered no
severance or notice. In another notable campaign, the Korean Immigrant Workers
Association has organized the 60 primarily Latino workers at Assi Market in Koreatown in a unionization drive that has lasted over four years. The Rhee brothers,
local Korean Americans, own Assi Super. In both housing and labor issues, class
conflicts within the enclave and the community at large have emerged. Owners of
abusive shops are often leaders or influential members of the community.
Other work includes building electoral influence and fighting police brutality and
hate crimes. Despite the low voter registration rates in enclaves, the concentrated
population is sufficient to create an electoral base for political office and referendums. For example, in 2005 Chinese Progressive Association (San Francisco) was
part of a successful campaign to increase the minimum wage in the city. In terms
of police abuse, in the 1970s and 1980s New Yorks Chinatown became a hotbed
of protests against police beatings of local motorists. In Bostons Chinatown, the
case of Long Guang Huang, an immigrant beaten by an undercover police detective,
proved to be a watershed in catalyzing a sense of basic rights among the Chinese
population. The community developed a successful yearlong campaign to suspend
the officer. Within this enclave, in the 1980s the Asian American Resource Workshop
organized against hate crimes, particularly with respect to the murder of Southeast
Asians in the Greater Boston area.
Limits of Asian Enclave Organizing
Among the major trends that have mediated social justice organizing in the enclaves are the consistent rightward drift in the United States since the late 1970s, the
growth and development of the nonprofit sector, and the changing nature of Asian
enclaves. Since the 1970s, the ruling class has successfully imposed a muscular
neoliberal ideology, increased profits by attacking the conditions and rights of the
working class and people of color, and reasserted its global hegemony. Challenging
the neoliberal agenda in urban communities has been extremely difficult due to
limited resources and the lack of alternative visions of how to solve longstanding
social ills. The call for the fundamental redistribution of power, the elimination of
social inequalities, challenges to class hierarchies, and ending the system of racial


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oppression remain the purview of a small cadre of community activists who are
committed to deep societal transformation.
At the same time, the Asian-American organizational infrastructure continued
to expand and adopt the tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizational model to address the
growing Asian-American populations. This has served and delimited organizing.
It has meant that at least a small number of organizations constitute a reserve for
hosting organizing around social justice. However, by primarily working through
that structure, such organizations have at least minimally accepted significant formal
and legal limits on their political activity.
The example of Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) illustrates this institutionalization and retreat. Having built its reputation through a militant mobilization
for construction jobs and its open association with a Marxist organization, over
time it has become a multi-million-dollar community development corporation.
Rather than being critical of the system, its growth has been predicated on working
closely with local and state government, becoming dependent on foundation and
public funds. Its primary political efforts are concentrated in electoral politics, and
its former presidents have often run for political office. One indication of its changing stance was AAFEs decision to better position its president, Margaret Chin, for
election to the city council. It lobbied for redistricting so that Chinatown would be
connected with the wealthy and white downtown areas, rather than with a poorer,
predominantly Latino area in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In effect, AAFEs
vision for the enclave shifted from alliances with disadvantaged communities of
color to one with an elite sector to achieve electoral aims (Lin, 1998; Cho, 1994;
Hevesi, 2003).
Lastly, the changing nature and diversification of enclaves are also critical factors. Over the decades, the results of campaigns to improve the prospects of ethnic
enclaves have been uneven, and changing demographics and residential patterns
of the Asian-American population have diminished the singular importance of
traditional ethnic enclaves in Asian-American political dynamics. Moreover, newer
urban enclaves such as Little Saigon and New Phnom Penh more sharply encapsulate some of the structural issues. Southeast Asian populations tend to be more
disadvantaged, with lower socioeconomic indicators, increased social problems
(such as significant youth violence), and deportations of immigrant youth. This
situation generates a heightened set of grievances.
New enclaves also possess their own distinct dynamics and issues. The sudden
entry of large numbers of Southeast Asian refugees brought a wave of hate crimes
and killings in the early years of their settlement. That newer enclaves had relatively
limited numbers and their community resources were still emerging presented difficulties for organizing around these issues; moreover, political struggles at times
centered on homeland issues. The reasons for this are complex. For example,
many of the original community leaders were closely associated with the United
States in the Southeast Asian wars. Their community leadership structure tends to

Ethnic Enclaves and the Struggle for Social Justice


remain conservative and some harbor strong anticommunist sentiments. They lack
a common experience of working within the larger Asian-American community
and with other racial minorities to achieve social justice goals. This is particularly
pronounced among the traditional leadership of the Vietnamese and other Southeast
Asian communities. Nevertheless, the emphasis of enclave-based organizing will
probably increasingly shift to these newer enclaves, given the significant social
problems that must be addressed.
We have described how Asian-American enclaves became ongoing, potent
sites of engagement for Asian-American activists. Within these enclaves are found
social justice groups such as the Asian Immigrant Workers Association, Asian
Pacific Environment Network, Chin Jurn Wor Ping (Oakland Chinatown), Nosei
(San Francisco Nihonmachi), J-town Voice, Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress
(formerly the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations in Little Tokyo, Los
Angeles), the Korean Immigrant Workers Association (Koreatown in Los Angeles),
Chinese Workers and Staff Association and CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities (New Yorks Chinatown), Chinese Progressive Association (Chinatowns in San
Francisco and Boston), Asian American Resource Workshop (Bostons Chinatown),
Asian Americans United (Philadelphias Chinatown), and Chinatown Center for
Collective Action (Chinatown in Los Angeles). Although organizations such as the
Chinese Progressive Associations and NCRR-LA have roots in the 1970s, others
are more recent activist groups.
Contemporary enclaves engage groups and activists because, as a nexus of large
and small capital exploitation, they generate ubiquitous neighborhood tensions.
Situated within localities of the global movement of capital, their proximity to
downtown and convention centers leads development capital to view Asian ethnic
enclaves as expendable, blighted areas that can be transformed into various forms
of capital investment. Yet significant social movement elements reside in these
communities, with organizational and social resources, a culture of resistance,
grievances, and relatively clear structural contradictions. Thus, enclaves exist in a
physical environment where land usage versus community control is contested. This
contest has inspired the formation and expansion of groups. J-town Voice formed
to revive and preserve Little Tokyo (Yoshimura, 2004), while CAAAV expanded
their work to Chinatown to confront the issue of gentrification (Bai, 2004).
Because of the value of enclaves as centers of community history, cultural pride,
and community life and economics, Asian Americans nationwide have organized
in their historical communities. Asian Americans have taken up a wide spectrum of
social justice issuesenvironmental justice, the rights of workers, immigrants, and
women, particularly working women, as well as opposition to warby building
temporary and more permanent community-based organizations that reflect their
communities interests and cultural roots. Young activists have been instrumental


Liu and Geron

in constructing many of these organizations and in infusing older community organizations with new energy and new ideas that reflect 21st-century sensibilities.
The combination of immigrants, American born, young and old, male and female
is a powerful weapon in the hands of the Asian-American community to build a
culture of resistance and struggle in enclaves.
Enclaves concentrate and forge a critical mass of social justice activists, yet
social justice work faces significant obstacles given the rightward trend of the
country, the institutionalization of the nonprofit sector, and changing demographics of the Asian-American population. The existence of enclave activism does
not ensure their transformation into a sustained social movement. Social justice
movement building must also adapt to a new environment. In the near future, older
enclaves will remain the sites that primarily nurture Asian-American activists,
yet student, community, and labor activists must increasingly shift their attention
to new enclaves and link these efforts to overarching organizing efforts in Asian
immigrant communities.
Furthermore, the framework for a strategy and vision for that movement may arise
from these sites, but could also surface elsewhere. In fact, the overwhelming nature
of day-to-day demands is a major obstacle to developing a broader perspective. In
the 1960s, a dynamic interaction between the community and campusthink of the
Black Panthers or the origins of the Asian American Movement itselfincubated
the dominant alternative visions. Organizing within enclaves must develop as part
of a larger movement involving multiple social sectors to realize the potential of
these sites as bases for social justice organizing.
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