Boston's Chinatown views growth on its fringes with a wary eye

For residents of this city's Chinatown, development is a double-edged sword. Both cheers and fears are now bubbling to the surface as two new ventures spruce up the fringes of this impoverished downtown community. Chinatown leaders hope the projects -- a Wang Laboratories plant and the commercial China Trade Center -- can slash at the area's double-digit unemployment by hiring up to 600 new workers. They also hope the developments can continue squeezing the Combat Zone, the seedy ``adult entertainment'' area that has been Chinatown's neighbor.

But many residents worry about the side effects of such development. Chau-Ming Lee, executive director of the Chinese-American Civic Organization, says that ``what pushes out the Combat Zone also pushes out Chinatown.''

With a year-old shopping plaza and hotel on one side of the community and a prestigious medical center on the other, Mr. Lee fears that Chinatown's local flavor is threatened. ``Land is so expensive,'' he says, ``that I have a feeling this will not be a residential area soon.''

Development has ``already driven up prices,'' says Suzanne Lee, a community activist who has spearheaded several recent protests against the Combat Zone. ``People can't afford it anymore.''

Prices have crept up slowly on the edges of town, agrees Mr. Lee, but he says the community fabric has remained strong so far because most residents refuse to yield their apartments to outsiders.

Wandering through this crowded community, with the pungent aroma of fish and fried rice sharing the air with a mix of Asian languages, one senses that Chinatown stands at a critical juncture. As Indochinese refugees and illegal aliens flow into the community -- doubling the official population of 8,000, some say -- Chinatown sorely needs more housing, more jobs.

Wang Laboratories gave the community a boost last week when it finally opened its computer-assembly plant after a five-month delay. The $10 million facility, which reflects company president An Wang's personal commitment to Chinatown, will employ 300 workers by 1987.

Generating even more excitement, however, is next month's opening of the $12 million China Trade Center, mainly because its building -- the former home of three adult bookstores and a burlesque bar -- marks another victory over the Combat Zone.

``The China Trade Center is great because it will help employment,'' says community leader William Chin. ``But equally important is that it is in the heart of the Combat Zone.''

Mayor Raymond L. Flynn and the Boston Redevelopment Authority -- the city's planning and development arm -- seem pleased to see the Combat Zone shrink, but they also want to prevent Chinatown from shrinking. Mr. Lee acknowledges that Mayor Flynn is ``very interested in keeping us here.'' But he thinks that both Flynn and the BRA are more committed ``commercially than residentially.''

That concern is ``a high priority'' for the BRA, says spokeswoman Dinah Vaprin, adding, ``we aim to protect the existing housing . . . and perhaps allow for its expansion.''

In fact, both the BRA and the mayor are making a concerted effort to bolster Chinatown's interests:

Last January, the BRA helped finance the China Trade Center by securing a $1.13 million grant and patching together other funds to help cover the cost of the project, according to Carol Mathieson, the BRA's chief adviser for the Chinatown area.

On Oct. 30, Boston's Department of Neighborhood Services appointed the Chinatown Neighborhood Planning Council, 21 community leaders who will help monitor development.

Within the next month or two, BRA officials say, the agency will publish guidelines, planned and drafted with the help of Chinatown residents on the Downtown Planning Advisory Committee, proposing linkage payments and zoning ordinances to ensure housing in Chinatown.

For several civic leaders, these initiatives are proof enough that the Flynn administration is taking good care of Chinatown. Yuk Sung, executive director of the Chinese Economic Development Council, which leased the China Trade Center land to its developer, cites the BRA effort to find funding for the project as ``the best example of the help and concern of the city.''

But for others like planning-council appointee Suzanne Lee, the city's efforts provide ``no guarantee'' that the Combat Zone will be eradicated or that the voices of the Chinese community will be heard or heeded.

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