Once upon a time there was Chinatown

Photo Credit: onedayindetroit.com

After so many years of disparagement, Detroiters have become bitterly accustomed to being forced to endure a stream of misinformed mischaracterizations of their city by those who seem focused solely on frequently reported crime stats and the ever-present ruin porn as the sole definition of one of America’s most important cities. One of the things that gets overlooked quite often is the city’s diverse culture, and even among those familiar with that diversity you don’t often hear much discussion of the area of Detroit near Midtown that used to be the Cass Corridor that used to be home to Detroit’s own Chinatown.

Located near the intersection of Cass Avenue and Peterboro, which is literally right down the street from the El Moore not more than a few blocks away, Chinatown was relocated during the 1950s when it was uprooted from its original location due to the construction of the Lodge Freeway. Detroit’s Chinese population was at its height during the 1920s when there were more than 300 Chinese-operated laundry services in the city. At the time Chinatown was relocated there were an estimated 2,000 Chinese living within the city’s limits. By the 1980s that population had dwindled significantly, and soon the area known as Chinatown faded into history. According to Wikipedia:

Ah Chee arrived to Detroit in 1872 and established a laundry business. Ah Chee was the first Chinese person in Detroit.[4] The first Chinese businesses were established in Metro Detroit in 1879, making the Chinese the Asian immigrant group with the longest presence.[1] Many Chinese coming to Detroit after Ah Chee established laundry businesses.[4] At one time Detroit had its own Chinatown.[1] In 1905 the first Chinese restaurant opened in Detroit.[4] In the early 20th century Henry Ford had recruited some ethnic Chinese living in Hawaii to work at his automobile plants.[5] In the 1920s Detroit had 300 Chinese laundry businesses and 12 Chinese restaurants. Helen Zia, author of Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, wrote that during the 1920s the Chinese business community in Detroit had its peak.[4]

Some Chinese people moved to Detroit in the 1930s.[5] The Chinese business and the population of Detroit’s Chinatown decreased after the 1920s.[4] Much of the Chinatown was demolished in the 1950s so the John C. Lodge Freeway could be built.[6] In response Chinatown moved to an area in the southern Cass Corridorfocused on the intersection of Cass Avenue and Peterboro Street.[7] In 1951 about 2,000 Chinese lived in the Detroit city limits.[8]

The highly educated ethnic Chinese who moved to Detroit after the Immigration Act of 1965 moved to suburbs, bypassing Detroit and the Detroit Chinatown. The previous laundry and restaurant owners who had children who, instead of staying in the Chinatown, moved to Metro Detroit suburbs and to other cities and moved away to attend universities.

An article in the 1989 Argus Press suggests that the urban renewal that displaced the original Chinatown may have been the death knell for the entire community, and that the new Chinatown in the Cass Corridor never quite gained the traction it needed to become a vibrant community. Still, the landmark sign pictured above is still there where Chinatown used to be, a reminder of an important part of Detroit history.