Community Profile: Chicago
Chinatown: A 'hidden jewel' worth seeking
Accessibility and affordability lure home buyers
A condo building near 19th Street and Wong Parkway is embellished with a Chinese Motif. (Chris Salata for the Chicago Tribune)
For the Chinese who worked the railroad yards in Chicago in the 1870s and those arriving in the periodic waves of Immigration since, Chicago's Near Southwest Side provided the jia they were seeking.
It still does. The desire for jia remains a key factor for living in Chinatown as today's migration of both Chinese-Americans and immigrants attests.
It also is the reason that a number of Italian families have stayed in the neighborhood. They are descendants of immigrants who settled in the area before being displaced by the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway. Dorothy Albanese, a third generation Italian-American, is one.
"My grandmother left her home to my mother and I grew up here," Albanese said. "And my mother left it to me."
Albanese said most of the Italian-American families live between Wentworth and Princeton Avenues, and from Alexander Street to 24th Place.
"If you want to find Italians [in Chinatown]," she said, "stop at Feida Bakery after 8:30 mass or Chiu Quon [Bakery] after the 9:30," referring to the Sunday morning mass schedule at St. Therese Chinese Catholic Church on West Alexander Street. The promise of custard pie, coffee and conversation entices parishioners to gather at these Wentworth Avenue bakeries.
Still, the majority of the estimated 8,000 residents in Chinatown are of Chinese descent, according to Esther Wong, executive director for the Chinese American Service League (CASL).
The service area for CASL extends into Bridgeport and McKinley Park. "If we include those communities, the population [of residents of Chinese descent on the Near Southwest Side] is closer to 18,000," she said.
"The young professionals wanting to move back to Chinatown want to reconnect with traditional families and their heritage," said Chi Can To, co-executive director of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.
That desire for connection does not surprise Kam Liu, principal at Kam L. Liu Realty. Liu, a Realtor since the mid-1970s, was one of the first full-time Realtors in Chinatown.
Chinatown's real estate ranges from older, traditional single-family homes to luxurious town homes and condominiums. Its boundaries are as informal as they are dynamic, changing as business areas expand and housing becomes available, and are identified by the language spoken on the street.
Today, the borders are the south branch of the Chicago River on the north, Clark Street to the east, 26th Street on the south and Halsted to the west. The tight housing market has caused Chinese-Americans to move into the adjacent communities of Bridgeport and McKinley Park.
"As a whole, Chinatown is mostly businesses surrounded by housing on the side streets and south of Cermak Road," Liu said. Properties for sale in Chinatown are few, he said adding that families that own their home stay in it for generations or sell it among themselves.
"The preference may be to buy a single-family home, but the cost factor in Chinatown is too great," he said. "So first-time home buyers choose condos."
Amy Mui and her husband, Perry Zhao, are among those first-time condo buyers.
Mui grew up in Chinatown and is accustomed to the accessibility it affords to the rest of the city and the benefits of the community. All played a part in their decision to stay in the area. When friends visit, they shop, go to a restaurant and take photos by Chinatown Gate. "And there's always karaoke," she said.
"We didn't want to leave the neighborhood," Mui added. "The people are very warm here, very nice and caring. I am used to that and want that for my family."
The couple, who have an infant son, bought a two-bedroom unit in the new 60-unit Canal Crossing condominium development at South Canal Street and West 23rd Place.