Gentrification is one of the most controversial issues in American cities today. But it also remains one of the least understood. Few agree on how to define it or whether it is boon or curse for cities. Gentrification has changed over time and has a history dating back to the early 20th century. Historically, gentrification has had a smaller demographic impact on American cities than suburbanization or immigration. But since the late 1970s, gentrification has dramatically reshaped cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston. Furthermore, districts such as the French Quarter in New Orleans, New York City’s Greenwich Village, and Georgetown in Washington DC have had an outsized influence on the political, cultural, and architectural history of cities. Gentrification thus must be examined alongside suburbanization as one of the major historical trends shaping the 20th-century American metropolis.
Many Asian American neighborhoods faced displacement after World War II because of urban renewal or redevelopment under the 1949 Housing Act. In the name of blight removal and slum clearance this Act allowed local elites to procure federal money to seize land designated as blighted, clear it of its structures, and sell this land to private developers—in the process displacing thousands of residents, small businesses, and community institutions. San Francisco’s Fillmore District, a multiracial neighborhood that housed the city’s largest Japanese American and African American communities, experienced this postwar redevelopment. Like many Asian American neighborhoods that shared space with other communities of color, the Fillmore formed at the intersection of class inequality and racism, and it was this intersection of structural factors that led to substandard urban conditions. Rather than recognize the root causes of urban decline, San Francisco urban and regional elites argued that the Fillmore was among the city’s most blighted neighborhoods and advocated for the neighborhood’s destruction in the name of the public good. They also targeted the Fillmore because their postwar plans for remaking the city’s political economy envisioned the Fillmore as (1) a space to house white- collar workers in the postwar economy and (2) as an Asian-themed space for tourism that connected the city symbolically and economically to Japan, an important U.S. postwar ally. For over four decades these elite-directed plans for the Fillmore displaced more than 20,000 residents in two phases, severely damaging the community. The Fillmore’s redevelopment, then, provides a window into other cases of redevelopment and aids further investigations of the connection between Asian Americans and urban crisis. It also sheds light on the deeper history of displacement in the Asian American experience and contextualizes contemporary gentrification in Asian American neighborhoods.