Interview with Gordon Chin, Founding Executive Director of the Chinatown Community Development Center

Gordon Chin started San Francisco Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), a longstanding CDC well-known in the field, in the mid-1970s. In June 2015, he released Building Community, Chinatown Style, a book about his professional life, the founding and evolution of CCDC, and the future of community development. Josh Ishimatsu, director of Research and Capacity Building at the National Coalition for Asian-Pacific American Community Development, and a regular Shelterforce contributor, spoke with Chin about where community development is going, and where it should go.

Josh Ishimatsu: You say that if CCDC could only choose to do one thing, it would have been community organizing. Talk about this and what it says about your vision of community development.

Gordon Chin: CDCs should embrace organizing as a principal line of business, which isn’t to suggest that it should be the only role.

Community organizing for us really started in the 1960s, by grassroots voluntary associations that had been working for many years on community development issues: housing, public housing, open space, transportation, neighborhood centers. Nobody got paid to do any of this stuff. It was all part of being a movement activist from the late ’60s to the early ’70s. I was involved in the Chinatown Coalition for Better Housing [and the] the I-Hotel, but I also had 18 other jobs during that time. I was at the Post Office and I was a teacher’s aide. We all did a lot of stuff just to survive and didn’t even conceive of the idea of being able to do this full time.

It ingrained in us a sense of commitment, a sense of activism, and a sense that community organizing had to be the foundation [on which] new organizations could someday be created. CCDC, which was formally created in 1977 as the Chinatown Resource Center, [was] created by the grassroots groups that formed the coalition that served as the initial board. [This] was a built-in accountability mechanism to grassroots organizing and constituencies.

The organization should not drive the agenda, community groups should. In the first two or three years our work was basically helping to organize these groups—providing technical assistance, staffing meetings, doing the grunt work. We were not high profile at all, we were in the background—as a good labor organizer should be, letting the workers lead. That was ingrained in us from the get-go, that we should not lose the volunteerism and grassroots activism once we created an organization where people got paid.

When we were first incorporated, the first staff I hired was Sue Lee as a community organizer. [Then] I hired Jenny Lu, a planner who had gone to MIT, [then] Babette Gee, a planner from Berkeley. And I hired a number of other organizers, not all of whom had the title of organizer. If you’re an organizer and you have other skills you could be an office manager or whatever.

So organizing [w]as the foundation while we evolved a planning program. Having planners gave us some resources to help [our] groups think a little broader, be more analytical, [and] make the case for their particular needs and for Chinatown’s needs. Having that planning capacity led to some seminal research in the first decade. To this day, it probably was a high-water mark of studies and research on Chinatown. The first housing studies, the first SRO study, the first community reinvestment study about what local banks were doing, the first land use study, the first real estate speculation study, the first transportation study, the first alleyway study—we did all of those in the first three to four years of the organization. Some were done with UC Berkeley, some were done totally in house. It created a different type of credibility with the city and the community, that we weren’t just rabble rousers and we had a serious commitment to making the case, telling the story, really documenting the needs, and suggesting some good solutions.

The synergy between planning and organizing, a lot of it was focused around those planning processes, engaging an even broader set of constituents. Prof. John Liu, who is now in Taiwan, but taught at Berkeley many years, [along] with Sarah Ishikawa and Mui Ho [were] some of those first planning and architecture professors to link up their classes to community work. In fact, Sarah and John were the first architects for the Clayton Hotel, our first acquisition in 1981. We did a study looking at who lives in the SROs. John also did a design study, looking at the lifestyle in an SRO, how people lived, how it was different between men and women and by age. [He] designed bed storage and a bunch of stuff about how do you pack things into an 8-by-10 room.

We had good local experts in other areas, like transportation. Chinatown TRIP (Transportation Research and Improvement Project) was formed by Chinese bus drivers, so they knew the business. We gained a lot of respect that we weren’t just organizers but had professional, technical expertise, as well. It was a process of using organizing to expand the community input beyond the core founding groups to embrace other constituencies throughout the community. This characterized our first four or five years before we spun off our housing corporation, which didn’t happen until 1981.

Initially, the Chinatown Resource Center did not envision doing housing development, so when housing development opportunities came it spun off a separate corporation. Initially, the board decided to give some stability and guidance to the corporation [by making] me part-time executive director of CRC and part-time director of CCHC. I had 24 board meetings every year. I had to manage two different types of organizations. It created this challenge of identity, a challenge of integration that we struggled with over a decade. Maybe that struggling was good in terms of an intentional analysis about the respective roles [of] two organizations within the community. We had long debates about whether we wanted to be a landlord and evict tenants, or did we want to be pure and just stay as organizers and planners.

Josh Ishimatsu: Did people who worked for CRC think of themselves as working at a CDC?

Gordon Chin: No. Nomenclature might be a little different between West Coast and East Coast, or even between L.A. and San Francisco, [but] no one called themselves a CDC in San Francisco. In our early history, we [CRC] were known as a neighborhood organization and CCHC was known as a housing development corporation.

Josh Ishimatsu: But when you merged the two organizations, you called yourself a CDC, or at least a community development center.

Gordon Chin: On a day-to-day basis, we really needed to be one organization. When we did the formal merging into one corporation, the board did a formal process with staff. It wasn’t that hard to do most of the key ingredients: governance, financial administration, and consolidation. But deciding on the new name was interesting. It was an open process with staff and board and community. I found it fascinating. So much went into each word.

I felt sure that the name needed to include “Chinatown.” At that point we had evolved to serve more and more non-Chinese [people] and a slightly broader geographic area. We didn’t want to be or be known as only Chinese-serving. Perhaps the word Chinatown has a similar perception, but we felt that Chinatown was a place different than the Chinese community or ethnicity. We felt we could legitimately call ourselves a Chinatown place-based organization that wasn’t tied to one ethnic community and that could even sometimes do things in other places.

The second part of the name was about the what. Some of the housing developers on staff wanted the word “housing” in the name. Some of the organizers wanted something a little more activist. At that time the community development movement around the country had gained some maturity, so we agreed on the words “community development.” [As for] the last “C,” are we a center as we were before? Are we a corporation? CCHC [had] “corporation” in its name, [and] many of the nonprofit housing developers in San Francisco called themselves housing corporations. But activists said, “We don’t want to be known as a corporation,” and the developers said, “We don’t want to be known as a coalition, people will think we’re communists,” so we compromised and adopted “center.” It took a lot of process . People felt so strongly about it, because it’s not just about the name, it’s about how they view the work. And of course, all of this is related to the challenges we face in the bigger field of community development.

Josh Ishimatsu: If you were starting a grassroots organization today or advising a grassroots activist group that wanted to have more community development impact, what would you tell them?

Gordon Chin: I’ve had so many conversations with people over the years in so many different types of communities, but I think they basically fall into a few different categories.

The first category is places that have no community infrastructure, where a group is just starting up and maybe the community has had a history of bad nonprofits with scandals or other nonprofits have just been ineffective. I tell people from these places to start with organizing around achievable issues. People need to know that victory is possible. Little things that the community wants: putting in a stop sign, closing a liquor store, whatever. And [then] look at the other assets of the community: who are the good people trying to change things, the churches, the older families that people know. Focus on building a base from these assets, bringing people together. And you don’t always have to do something. It can be quasi-social. Let’s [get] together and have a barbecue in the park. Start with basic base building.

The second category—and there have been more in this category in the past 10–15 years or so—are groups that have a history or track record in organizing and activism around various issues but there’s no positive development in their communities. Maybe it’s that the city or private developers—whether nonprofit or for profit, local, regional, or national—are ignoring their community, or maybe there’s too much of the wrong kind of development or issues of gentrification and displacement. The grassroots organization wants more control over development and they’re thinking, “Well let’s form a CDC,” [after] they see an example like CCDC.

But those CDCs who started up in the ’60s, ’70s, and maybe even ’80s are in a different situation than those who want to start up now. Community development funding and affordable housing funding became much more difficult into the ’90s and certainly even more so now. I’m not alone in advising groups that they should not become developers, that they should not build development capacity.

What I advise instead is to look at some of the strategies that were once maybe considered precursors to development capacity but are actually more important: understand what is happening in your community, be able to document it, figure out the development, planning, land use, and policy issues, real estate market issues. And then approach it like an activist—Who are the players? What are the levers? Stay with what you do as an organizer. Organize and protest and do actions. Stay with what you do best, and then build planning and research capacity to strengthen your organizing.

It is more important to control development than it is to be a developer. If you’re a developer, you do one property at a time, but if you control development policy you affect all the properties in your city.

If you care about affordable housing, you can’t just be a developer. But it is hard to remember. Developers want to develop. Function follows form.

That was a lesson we learned early on. In a place like Chinatown, it takes years to build a multi-million dollar housing project, but how many units of housing can you lose during the same period due to displacement and conversion of SRO housing? We could not afford to take resources and attention away from the entirety of the housing stock of the community. So we did land use studies, housing studies, transportation studies, which all geared up for a major re-zone of the community in 1986—which I still say to this day was the most important thing we’ve ever done. It impacted 900 buildings, 23 square blocks, the entire housing stock of the community.

All the developers we’ve had on staff know this. But developers want to develop; they’re always thinking about the next project, and that’s fine. But you don’t want to become imbalanced. Over time, the more housing you develop, you become unbalanced. You wake up one day and your organization is 120 staff and 80 of them are development and property management, and the other important roles feel a bit outnumbered. You need to talk about these issues of balance within an organization and within a community with intentionality. Not everyone should be the developer and the one who cuts the ribbon, someone also needs to be the bad cop, [and] someone needs to organize the community. It’s about long-term community engagement, organizing, advocacy, empowerment, [and a] community being able to say what their community should be, what their priorities are.

I’ve told lots of nonprofit developers this. Even if you don’t want to be an organizer, you have to support organizing. You have to support the groups who do organizing, even if you don’t necessarily agree with them, and even if they criticize you or your project. Longer term, it’s better for the community to have accountability mechanisms and overall support for things like affordable housing. It is more important for communities to have organizing capacity than it is to have any one development.

Josh Ishimatsu: There’s a Saul Alinksy saying, “Don’t build movements, build…”

Gordon Chin: “Build organizations.”

Josh Ishimatsu: Yes. I was wondering what you thought of this distinction.

Gordon Chin: Superficially, the short answer is that we need both. But more importantly—and like the dynamic between organizing and development—the important thing is that we have to constantly struggle with the question. And to do that, we need to understand who we’re talking about here. Are we talking about “we” as individual leaders? “We” as organizations? Or “we” as the community?

Over the years, even during my time as the executive director of an organization, my role changed, from activist to organization builder to capacity builder behind the scenes to developer. But I always tried to instill movement values and also the strategies from my early activist days in the 1960s. It wasn’t like the movement ended when we created an organization and now we’re going to do something totally different. But we knew during the first half-decade of the organization that creating the organization was an important result of the movement activity that happened before us.

If you look at Chinatown in the late ’60s and early ’70s, that’s when most of the nonprofits that still exist today were formed, a direct by-product of activism and movement building. But organizations shouldn’t be the end product. Successful organizations aren’t set up to advance a movement, to advance a big picture vision of the world. They’re set up to do stuff like create open space, develop affordable housing. So, to build a movement, it means sometimes that you have to do stuff outside of the organization. We still need to be movement activists.

Starting so many organizations did take some of the energy and vitality out of the movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But the needs side of the equation, providing services for people who need it, is also important, and you need organizations to do that.

Organizations can be part of movements. CDCs, activist groups, tenants associations, social justice groups, churches . . . all can play a part in larger social justice movements. And movements can influence organizations. I think there’s stuff going on right now with Black Lives Matter, for example, that is influencing the way that organizations think about issues, even organizations in the National CAPACD network.

At your last convention, you had two speakers, Japanese Americans who were members of SNCC. SNCC was an organization and it lasted a pretty long time and it was part of a movement. So were they an organization or were they a movement? And does it really matter that they were a little bit of both?

Josh Ishimatsu: It doesn’t make sense to make it a choice. There’s a time and a place for both.

Gordon Chin: Absolutely. It’s not like the civil rights movement was a spontaneous mass uprising of a bunch of unrelated people. There was infrastructure that continues to be active.

If you have an organization that’s unattached to a movement, it’s probably irrelevant.

Josh Ishimatsu: And some people talk about the Occupy movement in the opposite way. If you have a movement without organizations, it’s probably not durable. Is social media changing organizing and movement building?

Gordon Chin: I’m the last person to say anything about social media given my level of technological incompetence. But it’s about communication. To the extent that communication is central to any movement, more power to them. New technologies can be really useful.

But, to the extent that this new kind of communication becomes the primary source of communication, I wonder whether the necessary relationship building and the organization building are happening. New technologies are great for movement events, for actions, and for getting superficial support. But for building long-term movement organizations, I still think you need lots of shared struggles, lots of difficult interpersonal conversations that need to be face to face.

Like what you were saying about the occupy movement. It has to be more than flash mob activism. I don’t think Black Lives Matter is the same thing. It seems from the outside like [there’s] more of an organization behind it, more of a clear message, more of an attempt to tie things back to real, local policies that affect people on the ground.

How do you translate movement excitement into boring things that can be implemented on the ground? On the other side of it, how do you get nonprofit workers to go to marches and support movements that may not seem to be directly related to their issues? Like going to anti-war marches like we all used to do in the ’60s, even if our first issue was housing advocacy or Chinatown.

Josh Ishimatsu: Do you feel like people don’t do both anymore? Participate in both movements and organizations?

Gordon Chin: I feel like it’s coming back a little bit. In some ways it was easier for activists who were forming organizations in the ’60s because there weren’t the organizations before. And we were activists from before, for a decade or more. It was the lifestyle. We came from a different place and it colored how we looked at the organizations. It’s hard to generalize; there were activists who formed organizations and then became engrossed in the narrow interests of the organization at the expense of the movement. But there were always those of us who knew that organizations come and go and we’ll always be part of the community and that the community will always be there. And for those of us who tried to do both organizations and movements, it was maybe a little bit easier to do both because it was what we were used to. We always had a foot in the movement. It’s not like now where you come up into an organization and you’re so specialized and professional and that’s all of what you do. But I feel that’s shifting a little bit with some of the younger generation who are maybe a little more comfortable being more than one thing at once.

Josh Ishimatsu: Let’s change gears a little and talk about Chinatown. Chinatowns were created by racism and segregation. Chinatowns used to be reviled, seen as slums full of disease and crime. And now tourists love Chinatowns. Hipsters and techies want to live in Chinatown. Chinatowns face gentrification and displacement. What does the present and future of Chinatowns say about our cities, about community development?

Gordon Chin: Many of us have thought about, talked about, strategized about this topic for a number of years. Bonnie Chu wrote a wonderful book, American Chinatown. But then she wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly called, “The End of Chinatown?” and it sparked a lot of debate when it came out three or four years ago. She was talking about how Chinatowns were shrinking as immigration patterns were changing and as the Chinese American population was suburbanizing. But a lot of groups around the country [pushed back]. AALDEF [Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund] and CAAAV in New York, for instance, came out with a study about how population loss in New York Chinatown is mostly due to gentrification and displacement. So there’s this active political and social context to population loss in Chinatowns that’s different than a simple question of immigration patterns and changing preferences. People, especially poor people, still need to live in Chinatowns and still want to live in Chinatowns and people are still fighting for Chinatowns as the main source of affordable housing for our communities and still the main center of the community in terms of social services and nonprofit institutions.

The fundamental question becomes how are Chinatowns changing and what are the conditions today that are different? And what is the vision of Chinatown that we want in 10, 20, 30 years? So many Chinatowns are located in hot market cities—San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Oakland, you name it—and everyone’s talking about the rise in evictions, housing prices, rising rents, turnover of properties, displacement, gentrification. And even in the satellite Chinatowns, like Flushing, Sunset Park, the Sunset in San Francisco and in the suburbs across California—they’re as concerned right now about displacement and rent increases as we are in the poor Chinatowns. We felt this great commonality of issues at the CAPACD Convention and every time I talk to people across the country.

I was just in New York for a book reading and for the AAFE conference and it was one week after an article in New York Magazine called “How Has Chinatown Stayed Chinatown?” And I was amazed at the similarities with San Francisco. Some of the key reasons they pointed out were: Local ownership—Chinese families or familial associations own properties as opposed to other communities of color where it’s all absentee landlords. Strong local leadership—across the political spectrum, from property owners to residents to nonprofits to progressive grassroots activists. Zoning—which has been more of a factor in preserving San Francisco Chinatown. [And] strong small business networks—which is another major segment of our community providing working-class jobs and renting space in buildings that are owned probably by a Chinese family or family association.

The number one reason, as I mentioned before, that SF Chinatown has been preserved is because of the zoning. Number two, similar to New York, is the size of the parcels. Most parcels are really small and owned by these family associations. If you want to try to develop anything you have to assemble four or five of these parcels, which is very difficult to do, given the decision-making process of these types of owners.

So, looking back, you have to give props to the family associations who built Chinatowns and bought these properties from the white owners. They have been a critical factor in the preservation of the communities which exist today. There’s concern about the individual owners of buildings who may want to turn their properties over to different uses, but not the family associations. The family associations may not want to fix up their buildings, but they’re not going to sell them because those buildings have intrinsic value as symbols of their history in this country. The family associations own about a quarter of Chinatown and have been a huge stabilizing influence.

To generalize the lessons, it’s control of the zoning process, it’s local leadership, it’s local ownership. These things have helped prevent gentrification and displacement in Chinatowns and can be good lessons, though perhaps not exactly replicatable, in other communities across the country.

But we’re scared now, even in Chinatown. We’re scared about larger market and political trends that are happening in hot markets across the country. While I give the [San Francisco] mayor props for supporting the new construction side of it—the Mayor’s Housing Trust Fund, the new housing bond—we clearly cannot build ourselves out of this problem. The new construction units are not enough and the depth of affordability is not low enough to serve all the poor and working-class people who are now being displaced. There’s a problem to pegging rents to median income when median income is rising so fast. Median income is $130,000 for a family of four in San Francisco.

The past couple years have given us fear that speculators and developers are now looking at Chinatown as an opportunity, in part because they’ve already bought up the Mission and South of Market. We’re starting to see it in the SRO buildings—like Emory Lane, a 24-unit SRO on Vallejo St.. [It was] occupied, in some cases, by people living in there 35, 40 years, Chinese seniors and some families, people paying $550 a month for a small room. It was owned by a Chinese family who sold to Paragon Real Estate Company. When they purchased the building there were five vacant units, which they fixed up and rented out at $1,200 to $1,500 per unit and then issued eviction notices to all the other tenants. And there was organizing, protests, press conferences, and the mayor interceded, and then Paragon withdrew the eviction notices.

But the incident gave us an indication of what people are willing to pay. Young techies and urban professionals are willing to pay $1,500 per month for a 10’ by 10’ room, for basically dormitory-style living. Paragon’s vision was to convert the entire building to this. We also know, mostly anecdotally at least for now, that more owners are starting to market their SRO units through Air BnB. We’re starting to see more tourists with rollerbags coming through Chinatown to stay in the SROs. You never used to see that before. The Empress of China, a restaurant that closed down a couple of years ago, that building is now being marketed as a tech incubator site. They’ve established the value of the building at $35 million. People are trying to dispute whether a tech incubator fits the zoning definition of neighborhood-serving commercial and residential. But property owners know that tech companies are willing to pay more than anyone else. All of these things are indicators of developers testing the limits of our protections. And it has implications for the housing for thousands of low-income people and for the rents of every single retail business in Chinatown. It all looms as a major fight. This is not to say that there is no place for tech or that we want to demonize tech. But they have to play by the rules. They have to respect existing communities.

And this is not an ethnic thing. The young professionals might be Asian American. The tech companies bidding on properties might be Chinese or Asian American or have Asian investors or Asian employees. It’s about land use, it’s about equity. It’s about all the things that we first started organizing about in the ’60s. It all comes down to organizing, to base building and movement building. If I have to generalize about the future of community development, this is where community development needs to be right now. If you want impact on housing conditions, on the health and sustainability of communities, you need to be organizing. New technologies, new forms of communication, new forms of collecting and analyzing data are all fine and good but they need to be mobilized in support of organizing.

Josh Ishimatsu: Thank you for your time.

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