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Providence, Rhode Island, USA Chinatown

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Providence, Rhode Island, USA Chinatown

Posted: 27 Apr 2010 2:27AM GMT
Classification: Query
Fondest greetings to you all!

Although my ancestry is not Chinese (I am, in fact, a white working-class Catholic member of America's "Ellis Island Nation", much as many of the participants on this thread are members of "Angel Island Nation"), I found myself, a couple of years ago, compelled to write the following piece documenting an early documented example (almost one hundred years ago now) of the misuse of urban planning principles and practices for the purposes of ethnic cleansing:


Providence's Chinatown


Did you know that Providence had a thriving Chinatown less than one hundred years ago? It’s surprising, but true. Not only did Chinatown once have a presence in Downtown Providence, but ethnic cleansing also made an appearance as a result.

Beginning in the early 1890’s Burrill Street, which once ran where the Blue Cross/Blue Shield building is today, became a magnet for Chinese groceries, restaurants, and boarding houses which served the community of Asian men who ran the Chinese laundries then scattered throughout the city (the immigration of Asian women being then disfavored under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, supposedly in order to prevent the “Yellow Peril” from engulfing a nation which still saw itself as a white man’s land). Burrill Street’s out-of-the-way invisibility made it an obvious settlement choice for a people who felt conspicuous in an alien land, but further development destroyed those qualities of the street, as the colony’s buildings were quickly devoured by the (long since demolished) Empire Theatre and other commercial structures, with the result that, soon after 1900, the growing community needed to relocate to the nearby block of Empire Street
between Washington and Westminster Streets.

The research that resulted in this article began, in part, with this reporter’s observations which first convinced him of some cataclysm having ripped the fabric of that block of Empire Street. The promiscuously visible (from Empire Street) rear-facing facades of buildings fronting on Aborn Street told this observer that the buildings which faced Empire Street on the same block must once have been more massive than they are today, sufficiently so to have hidden those rear ends which were never intended to be publicly viewed. This reporter further noticed that the buildings facing Empire Street were not only decades newer than those facing Aborn Street, but were all built at about the same time ( i.e., the nineteen twenties through the early thirties). Less massive buildings replacing bigger ones, all being built at about the same time, suggested that developers may have felt hesitant about rebuilding, consequently hedging their investments against some future contingency.

Two articles in the Providence Sunday Journal, published nearly two years apart, describe the destruction of Empire Street in terms so radically different each from the other that they may as well be the official press of two warring nations describing the same event from their own irreconcilable perspectives.

The December 13, 1914 article spoke of the need to extend Empire Street (rather than Snow Street, as had originally been planned) through to Weybosset Street, with the attendant widening that mysteriously required demolition of every building in Chinatown at that time, and which left that block of Empire Street conspicuously wider than its other two blocks. However, the February 16, 1913 article positively reeked with contempt for the Chinese. It spoke anxiously of young white girls hanging out at the Chop Suey houses, there subject to the supposedly "unhealthy" attentions of womanless Chinese men, as well as the discovery of opium and gambling in the neighborhood, and includes the injudicious statement that “Police May Forbid Another Colony”.

The year-long gap between the Chinese Revolution and the beginning of discussion on the destruction of Chinatown leaves some doubt as to whether fear of the spread of Chinese rebelliousness to other immigrant groups played a role in motivating Providence's city fathers to ethnically cleanse Empire Street, although the headline of the February 16, 1913 story, "A 'New China' Here Too", suggests that recent events in Asia were definitely on the minds of the power elite in Providence. It must also be remembered that the American ruling class of the period greatly feared rebellion amongst the mostly immigrant workers, a dread reflected in the strategic placement of National Guard armories near factory districts, still visible across New England today.

Sources:

Conley , Patrick T. and Campbell, Paul R. Providence : A Pictorial History
(Virginia Beach, Va. : Donning Co., 1982), p. 138.

The Providence Sunday Journal, Vol. xxviii No. 33 (February 16, 1913) Sec. 5, p. 5.

The Providence Sunday Journal, Vol. xxx No. 24 (December 13, 1914) Sec. 5, p. 7.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Exclusion_Act(United_St...

Author’s personal observations

***

I even drew up a map of Providences Chinatown (in it's original Burrill Street incarnation c. 1900), which I'll try to attach here (if my effort at attaching the succeeds, fine; if it doesn't, I'll try again in a subsequent reply):

SubjectAuthorDate Posted
bobschunk 27 Apr 2010 8:27AM GMT 
bobschunk 27 Apr 2010 8:29AM GMT 
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