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Putting Chinatown on the Map: Resisting Displacement through Infrastructural Advocacy

How San Francisco's Chinatown community used infrastructure as a conduit for identity, empowerment, and resilience.

The opening of San Francisco’s Central Subway on November 19, 2022, marked a pivotal moment for Chinatown, standing as a testament to the enduring spirit of a historically marginalized community. As Malcolm Yeung, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, noted, the Central Subway was a “signal to the city and the world that Chinatown is a permanent part of the fabric of San Francisco.” This event not only celebrated the completion of a 1.7-mile light rail system but also reflected a profound shift in the relationship between historically marginalized communities and infrastructure—a shift driven by strategic advocacy.

Chinatowns across America share the unfortunate narrative of destruction caused by infrastructure. Seattle’s International District, Philadelphia’s Chinatown, and Boston’s Chinatown are all witnesses to the divisive force of projects like Interstate 5, the Vine Street Expressway, and, in Boston, the Central Artery. The construction of these projects in the 1950s and 1960s tore apart social networks built over generations, forcibly evicting long-time residents and businesses and exacerbating the social isolation of marginalized communities.

The ramifications of infrastructural violence extend beyond physical displacement. The concept of “infrastructural stigma,” as articulated by Hanna Baumann and Haim Yacobi, underscores how stigma amplifies infrastructural failures and neglect in marginalized communities.1 However, a counter-narrative has begun to emerge—one where these communities refuse to be mere recipients of infrastructural violence. The response of marginalized communities to infrastructural challenges is evolving into a form of resistance, a reclamation of identity and a demand for inclusion in public spaces and networks.

In the case of San Francisco’s Chinatown, its leaders have defied expectations by embracing the Central Subway as an opportunity to redefine their community’s relationship with infrastructure. Unlike marginalized communities who often face the prospect of erasure through infrastructure projects, Chinatown’s leaders sought instead to advocate for infrastructure in order to place themselves firmly on the map. This seemingly paradoxical response necessitates a deeper exploration of the community’s existing social imaginaries and how they interact with the built environment.