The analysis explores the evolving condition of Houston's Chinese community into the early 21st century and its uncertain role within the local economy. Through a historical analysis, it examines Chinese immigration into Houston and the evolving and changing spatial settlements of Chinese immigrants in the city, showing the precarious nature of Houston Chinese neighborhoods. A quantitative analysis then examines whether disparities in economic prosperity are evident between Asian and White growth neighborhoods within Harris County between 1980 and 2000, when ethnic diversity was viewed as an important element of Houston's new economic development strategy. A principal components analysis (PCA) and a k-means clustering technique are conducted on census tract data to identify neighborhood types and to analyze changes in neighborhood characteristics. The quantitative analysis reveals that the city's promotion and celebration of ethnic diversity, and the extensive investment by Houston's Asians into their neighborhoods, did not translate into improving economic prospects for Asian neighborhoods within Houston.

With globalization—and with the rise in world trade, transnational capital flows and immigration—global cities began to view ethnic diversity and cosmopolitanism as an important aspect of economic development. Starting in the 1990s, research began to show that the concentration of highly skilled immigrants could play an important role in attracting firms and facilitating the expansion of businesses, particularly within high-tech industries (Koser & Salt, 1998; Lee, 2011; Saxenian, 2002). Studies also revealed that urban ethnic diversity was important in attracting human capital (Florida, 2002) and tourism (Gotham, 2002), and in enhancing productivity and economic health (Reese, 2012; Thomas & Darnton, 2006). In addition, ethnic neighborhoods emerged as an urban revitalization strategy in older U.S. inner cities (Ford, 2003; Ford, Klevisser, & Carli, 2008). The “Greek Towns” in Chicago and Detroit, the “Little Italys” in Boston, Baltimore, and New York City, and the “Chinatowns” in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia all provide examples. Furthermore, ethnic districts became important in not only promoting tourism and local development, but also as a link to transnational commerce and corporate capital (Light, 2002; Lin, 2008; Mitchell, 1993).

With a growing awareness that a diverse urban ethnic population within a globalizing economy could attract wealth, it is perhaps no surprise that by the 1980s the City of Houston—a city which in the 1960s was still in part a Jim Crow town—began to promote and celebrate pluralism, diversity, and ethnicity. In this “oil capital of America,” the downturn in petroleum prices during the 1980s encouraged economic diversification and a new local development direction, particularly in high-tech and specialized services. Sensitivity to pluralism and ethnicity also emerged, as Houston's leadership appeared to embrace ethnic diversity as part of Houston's new growth agenda (Central Houston Civic Improvement Plan, 1987; City of Houston, 1992; Imagine Houston, 1995a, b).

During the 1980s and 1990s, particular attention was placed on Houston's Asian communities. With Houston's downtown and midtown containing a Chinatown and a Vietnamese “Little Saigon,” with pockets of Korean business concentrations throughout the city, and a suburban “New Chinatown” developing, the Asian presence in Houston was growing and becoming clearly imprinted in the city's landscape. In just two decades, the image of the Asian community in Houston was fundamentally transformed. The local Chinese, who into the mid-20th century had faced legal discrimination, during the 1980s began to be touted within local media, by government, and among Houston's locals as a cultural and economic asset. Houston's Chinese urban presence, once undesirable and threatening—with even a “Chinese inspector” to ensure that the community was free of opium houses and other vice (Houston Chronicle, 1902)—began to emerge as a destination of significance, both culturally and economically.

This article explores the evolving condition of Houston's Chinese community into the early 21st century and its uncertain role within the local economy. Through a historical analysis, it examines Chinese immigration into Houston and their evolving and changing spatial settlements in the city, showing the precarious nature of Chinese neighborhoods within Houston. This qualitative analysis relies on government documents, newspaper articles, and interviews with Houston's Chinese entrepreneurs. A quantitative analysis then examines whether disparities in economic prosperity are evident between high-growth Asian and high-growth White neighborhoods within Harris County between 1980 and 2000.1 This was a period when ethnic diversity was viewed as an important element of Houston's new economic development strategy. From the quantitative analysis, it becomes apparent that the city's promotion and celebration of ethnic diversity, and the extensive investment by Houston's Asians into their communities, did not translate into improving economic prospects for Asian neighborhoods within Houston.


With the recognition that ethnicity has become a meaningful and explanatory variable in capital investment and local development (Mitchell, 1993, 1999), the link between ethnicity and economic performance gained widespread attention. The combined cultural and economic dimension to this discourse has attracted academic, government, and corporate interest. This is perhaps best evident from Richard Florida's work on diversity, human capital, and the high-tech economy (Florida, 2002). This growing interest in ethnicity represents a major transformation in the image of immigrants within the United States. By the end of the 20th century, a very different view of ethnicity and ethnic neighborhoods had developed from that of early 20th-century in part defined by the Chicago school of urban sociology.

Into the mid-1900s, ethnic communities were viewed, as Jan Lin (1995, p. 629) argues, “as undesirable districts of congestion, vice, and other social pathologies.” This perception of ethnic districts was extensively shaped by Ernest Burgess's zonal model, perhaps the most influential urban structure model of the 20th century. According to Burgess (1925, pp. 54–56),

In the zone of deterioration encircling the central business section are always to be found the so-called “slums” and “bad lands” with their submerged regions of poverty, degradation, and disease, and their underworlds of crime and vice. Within a deteriorating area are rooming-house districts, the purgatory of “lost souls.” Near by is the Latin Quarter, where creative and rebellious spirits resort. The slums are also crowded to overflowing and immigrant colonies—the Ghetto, Little Sicily, Greektown, Chinatown….

In contrast to the view of ethnic neighborhoods as American urban slums, by the 1980s, literature began to focus on the changing perception of ethnic enclaves as more than just zones in transition. Anderson (1987, 1988) and Lin (1995, 1998) have explored the transformation of perception of ethnic groups, including Chinese immigrants, in North American gateway cities. They note the fundamental change in the view of immigrants from being the “nemesis” of local officials (Lin, 1995, p. 629), “a fearful embodiment of an alien and inferior ‘stock’” (Anderson, 1988, p. 144), into an “inestimable enrichment” and an “ethnic asset” to cities. Ethnic communities began to take on a new economic role within U.S. cities as diversity began to be celebrated.

One of the early lines of research that identified the social and economic importance of ethnic communities to U.S. urban economies was that on ethnic enclaves, community structures formed by immigrants adapting to a new society (Portes & Shafer, 2007; Wilson & Portes, 1980; Zhou, 1992; Zhou & Logan, 1989). The work of Kenneth Wilson and Alejandro Portes (1980) identified the phenomenon of self-enclosed minorities concentrated in a particular area, modifying labor processes in the U.S. economy through the formation of enclaves. Wilson and Portes developed the concept from their decade-long study of Cubans who arrived in Miami during the early 1970s and who had stayed in the city, which allowed for follow-up interviews in the second half of the decade.

The Cuban enclave consisted of a spatial concentration of immigrants—supported by a sizable entrepreneurial class and strong community solidarity—who formed a diverse set of ethnic enterprises to serve their own community as well as the broader Miami area market. The ethnic enterprises consisted of concentrated investments in professional services and production, including textiles, furniture, construction, banks, supermarkets, restaurants, legal firms, private schools, and agricultural activity. Wilson and Portes (1980) recognized that members forming the enclave were less culturally assimilated when compared to native ethnic minorities, with stronger ties to their language and customs. This group also, however, maintained greater initial motivation, and were, as a result of the enclave generally in a more economically advantageous position than minorities that were part of the mainstream Miami economy.

The work on ethnic enclaves reveals that rather than being “mobility traps” confining ethnic minorities to conditions of permanent disadvantage, ethnic enclaves are “mobility machines.” They not only help generate higher incomes for ethnic entrepreneurs who own enclave enterprises, but also provide socioeconomic advantages for ethnic employees, who, despite their initial low wages, receive training and establish social ties, and in some cases even have the possibility of eventually owning their own business (Portes & Shafer, 2007). Research on ethnic enclaves in other U.S. regions, including the Chinese in New York City and San Francisco (Sanders & Nee, 1987; Zhou 1992; Zhou & Logan, 1989), Koreans in Los Angeles and New York City (Logan, Alba, & McNulty, 1994; Min, 1996; Zhou, 2004) and Japanese in Honolulu, Los Angeles, Anaheim, and San Jose (Logan, Alba, & McNulty, 1994) reveals similar enclave structures and socioeconomic benefits for immigrants and ethnic minorities.

Into the 1990s, the appreciation of ethnicity as an economic and cultural asset continued to be defined by a growing literature focusing on the impacts of immigrants on local economic development. This is evident, for instance, in the extensive research on ethnic communities in Los Angeles. The ethnoburb, as explored by Li (1998a, b), the urban and suburban Chinatowns as analyzed by Light (2002) and Lin (2008), and the city's “Koreatown” studied by Light (2002), all describe the emerging role of Los Angeles’ ethnic groups as vital in fostering local development and providing access to transnational capital and business opportunities. In these studies, ethnic populations are recognized as being relatively wealthy, prospering, and key players in transforming the urban landscape.

Saxenian (2002) explored the economic contribution of skilled Asian immigrants in Silicon Valley as both entrepreneurs and as facilitators of trade and investment in their countries of origin. She found that in 1998 some 24% of Silicon Valley's technology firms had Chinese or Indian executives. Saxenian (p. 24) goes on to note that “of the 11,443 high-technology firms started during this period, 2001 (17%) were run by Chinese and 774 (7%) by Indians.” In 1998, the collective impact of these companies totaled $16.8 billion in sales and 58,282 jobs. In terms of broader impacts of immigrants in California, Saxenian (p. 29) notes that, for every 1% increase in first-generation immigrants, exports from California increased nearly 0.5%. Paralleling Los Angeles studies, the Asian population in Silicon Valley is viewed as highly educated and affluent, and critical in driving the local high-technology industry.

Similarly, Nijman (1997) explored the impacts of Miami's Latino population in transforming Miami into an international trading center and tourist destination, with a focus on Latin America and the Caribbean. Nijman considers Miami's Latino entrepreneurs as being crucial in making Miami into a global city and an international trading center. He notes that by the late 1990s more than one-third of all U.S. trade with Latin America and more than half of all U.S. trade with the Caribbean were handled through Miami (Nijman, 1997). Nijman views Miami's Hispanics as a critical component of the local growth machine emerging as the new economic elite in the city.

Numerous other works on the interplay between ethnicity and the urban economy have introduced the multiple dimensions of ethnic diversity in fostering local development. The basic characteristics of urban ethnic concentrations, as well as the energy of immigrants and their international networks, are considered critical in enhancing local economic activity (Thomas & Darnton, 2006). In addition, the marketing of ethnic neighborhoods for tourist purposes and as drivers of local development became evident across North America, including in San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, and New Orleans (Ford, Klevisser, & Carli, 2008; Gotham, 2002; Lin, 2008). Literature also revealed the importance of ethnic communities in the reuse of the urban housing stock, retail spaces, and infrastructure, enhancing the economy and overall livability of many older cities, such as Chicago (Thomas, 2013). Ethnic neighborhoods have been viewed as a particularly important counterbalance to deindustrialization and urban decline (Lin, 1998). As Lin (1998, p. 314) maintains:

Ethnic places, significantly, serve as “polyglot honeypots” in advancing … [the] postindustrial functions in the transnational environment of the immigration gateway cities. Ethnic places (both commercial and cultural) thus may be seen alongside the producer services as leading edges of globalization.

Into the 21st century, therefore, ethnic neighborhoods have become recognized as critical to U.S. urban economies, facilitating investments and the delivery of a wide-ranging set of goods and services, from agricultural production to specialized professional services.

Research on Houston during the 1990s also began to articulate the role of ethnic groups in Houston's late 20th century growth strategy (Lin, 1995, 1998; Vojnovic, 2003a). Lin's work, for instance, focused on the success of ethnic places in driving Houston's urban revitalization in the “postmodernist development environment” (Lin, 1995, p. 629). Lin argued that Houston was experiencing a similar transformation as seen in other immigrant gateway cities—such as New York, Miami, or Los Angeles—where ethnic places were emerging as points of cultural production and corporate investment in the growing global economy (Lin, 1998). During the 1980s and 1990s, this growth strategy was clearly evident in the emergence of Houston's Chinatowns, Little Saigon, the pockets of Korean business development, and the Mexican American barrios in the Second Ward, as well as in Freedmen's Town, Houston's African American mother ward.

In a financial and socioeconomic profile focusing on Houston's new urban redevelopment strategy, Vojnovic (2003a, p. 615) similarly argued that “ethnic revitalization in Houston thus became a new development tool, along with increased historic preservation and the development of entertainment centers, as ethnic places became a commodity in the new service economy, where tourism is seen as a leading commercial activity in encouraging growth.” Houston's leaders were similarly touting the city's newly recognized economic asset. In a Houston Chronicle article titled “Houston urged to use diversity as tourist attraction” Sylvia Cavazos, director of the Houston Image Group, argued that “Houston has a great diverse and ethnic culture here and I think that we as a growing city, not only economically but culturally, are in a prime position to build along this type of effort” (Villafranca, 2000, p. A34).

Research also began to reveal, however, that while Houston's leadership and local media were promoting and celebrating pluralism, diversity, and ethnicity, Houston's ethnic districts were being erased from their lucrative urban locations (Knapp & Vojnovic, 2013; Podagrosi & Vojnovic, 2008). Old Chinatown in Houston's urban core disappeared, Little Saigon was displaced from its original midtown location, Freedmen's Town was torn down, and El Mercado del Sol, a Hispanic market, is redeveloping into upscale lofts. Despite the initial entrenchment of Houston's ethnic communities in the city's core, there was a fundamental disconnect between the local government and media celebration of ethnicity and actual on-the-ground events, with ethnic communities slowly disappearing from the city's core.

In addition, as this article will show with its focus on Houston's Asian community, it was not only that the Chinese entrepreneurs were being displaced from their key urban investment districts, but Chinese and Asian residential neighborhoods were economically deteriorating all across the city. This represents a very different postindustrial ethnic urban experience from what is being realized in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami. This article presents a more cautionary view of the nexus among ethnic urban concentrations, ethnic-based development, and the economic well-being of immigrant neighborhoods in a U.S. gateway city.


During the early 20th century, the Chinese constituted a small segment of Houston's population, unlike their presence in the major cities on the Pacific Coast and in the Northeast. El Paso and San Antonio—cities known more for their Hispanic populations—registered some of the largest Chinese populations in Texas, while locales such as New Orleans, Memphis, and parts of Mississippi had some of the most vibrant Chinese communities in the South (Loewen, 1971). Houston's first significant experience with Asians occurred during the close of the Reconstruction Era. In January 1870, the Daily Houston Telegraph printed one of the earliest accounts of the Chinese in the region, reporting that a ship carrying a contingent of 247 Chinese laborers had landed at Galveston (The Telegraph, 1870), from where the new immigrants scattered throughout southeast Texas. These laborers arrived at a time when Texas was adjusting to a post-slavery society under post–Civil War Reconstruction (Hendricks, 1942). The emancipation of Black slaves, who provided much of the labor for the antebellum economy, caused many employers to look for other sources of labor amenable to longer contracts and lower wages. In a time of contentious relations between Southern planters and former slaves, many sought out the Chinese to undermine the sizable workforce of emancipated slaves (Loewen, 1971; Gyory, 1998).

Chinese residents in the City of Houston were first enumerated in the 1880 Census, which included a family of three who operated a laundry in downtown Houston and four male Chinese residents who also worked in the city's laundry business (Swanland, 1995). The expansion of the Chinese Exclusion Acts in 1902 led some Chinese to leave Houston. According to one report, the Chinese in Houston declined from 43 to 27 residents in one year (Houston Chronicle, 1902), and had changed little by 1930. During the Great Depression, however, the ethnic economy of this small Chinese community changed as Houston experienced a wave of Chinese arriving from Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, establishing grocery stores in predominantly Black neighborhoods in the city (Chen, 1984).

Half a century after the early Chinese opened the first Chinese-owned laundry, C. Y. Chu opened the Quong Yick store around 1930, the first known Chinese-owned grocery in Houston (Chen, 1984). Grocery stores eventually replaced laundry and restaurant services as the primary occupation of Houston's Chinese (Chen & von der Mehden, 1982). Houston's first Chinatown began in north downtown, comprised of a loose collection of Chinese-owned businesses scattered across several blocks (Figure 1). In the 1940s, the New York Chinese Merchants Association, in collaboration with Houston's Chinese leaders, announced plans to create a Chinese business and community center in downtown Houston (Houston Chronicle, 1944), one of the first deliberate attempts to create a marketable Chinese business district. Jimmie Lin, a restaurant operator and chairman of the Chinese Merchants Association, noted that the development “would give the people of Houston and visitors to the city a real and colorful Chinese center” (Houston Chronicle, 1944).2

Figure 1.

Historic Locations of Downtown Chinese Businesses and Districts

Houston's Chinese community relied heavily on support from various local Chinese organizations, including the First Chinese Baptist Church, the Chinese Association of Houston, and the On Leong Merchant's Association. The On Leong Merchants Association erected their meetinghouse in Houston's eastside. This organization was one of many tongs founded among Southern Chinese, with chapters in Chinatowns throughout the United States (Ling, 2009). The organization offered services to recently arrived immigrants, provided financial support for local Chinese businesses, and hosted Chinese cultural events. In addition, the Chinese consulate held regular meetings and political rallies, as well as social and cultural events for the local Chinese. Until the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Acts in 1943, Houston's Chinese were effectively restricted to certain forms of property ownership and had little recourse against discrimination (Swanland, 1995). An important role of the Chinese consulate was thus to lobby for greater rights for the Houston Chinese.

The repeal of the Chinese Exclusionary Acts in 1943,3 the fall of Mainland China to communism in 1949, and the legal immigrant quotas for newly arriving Chinese professionals—culminating in the passage of the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act (1965) abolishing legalized racial discrimination in American immigration laws—had a dramatic impact on the size of Houston's Chinese community. In 1960, the city of Houston had 765 Chinese residents, roughly 0.08% of the city's population (U.S. Census Bureau, 1960). By 1980, this had grown to over 8,000 Chinese, accounting for 0.5% of the city's population (U.S. Census Bureau, 1980). By 2010, Houston had over 27,000 Chinese residents, which was about 1.2% of the city's population. For the greater Houston area,4 the 2010 Census recorded approximately 68,000 Chinese residents, which constituted 1.1% of the metro area population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010).

Into the late 20th century, many Chinese immigrants came to Houston to secure jobs quite different from those of their predecessors. Whereas the earlier immigrants generally lacked formal education—and took low-paying jobs in construction, laundries, restaurants, and grocery stores—many of the newer immigrants were educated and worked as scientists and engineers for Houston's petroleum, space, and medical industries (D. Wang, personal interview, April 14, 2009). In addition, whereas most of the Chinese up to the mid-20th century had been of Cantonese origin, during the later decades this composition became more diverse as Houston experienced the arrival of Chinese immigrants originating from Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Mainland China, as well as Chinese from other U.S. states (D. Wang, personal interview, April 14, 2009).

Commercial and Retail Investments: Houston's Chinese Districts

Despite their increasing population and growing role in the local economy, the Houston Chinese always maintained a precarious position in the city, being displaced from their main business districts on numerous occasions. Houston's booming postwar economy sparked a skyscraper binge in the downtown, displacing the Chinese business community from their north downtown location by the 1970s (Chen, 1984). The Chinese community went on to establish their second Chinese business district, referred to as Old Chinatown,5 located within a predominantly Black neighborhood to the east of downtown, in Houston's Second Ward (Figure 1).

During the late 1970s, a group of Cantonese Chinese entrepreneurs organized a coalition to spearhead a movement to reinforce Old Chinatown as an indispensable part of Houston's urban core. Lang Yee Woo, a Guangdong-born restaurant operator, was instrumental in marketing Old Chinatown to a broader audience and for garnering attention of the then White-dominated city government (Karkabi, 1982). Woo aggressively built up the initial infrastructure and redeveloped this section of the Second Ward into Houston's Chinatown. The surrounding area sat in a strategic location within the Second Ward that had the potential to draw large numbers of visitors from the neighboring downtown. The first proposed projects included a strip mall, grocery stores, a building to house a Chinese savings and loan, federally funded housing, apartments, a nursing home, and a cultural center. By the early 1980s, the proposed development projects had become larger in scope with plans for high-rise developments to complement the downtown.

These projects received funding from overseas sources in Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, and other East Asian cities (Hooper, 1981). Among the many proposals, Hong Kong–based Y.S.Y. Credit Investment proposed to finance the construction of an Asian-themed luxury hotel, called the Mandarin Plaza International, an initiative directed by Woo's Chinatown Development firm (Hooper, 1981). Woo also secured funding from the DMA World Corporation, an international business interest, for a proposed 900-seat movie theater and a two-story retail complex (Houston Post, 1981). Old Chinatown also received a 30-foot high Chinese-style gate as a gift from the city of Taipei, Taiwan (Kennedy, 1989) that was to be erected at the center of Old Chinatown (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

Retail Centers in Old Chinatown With Minute Maid Park in Background

In 1981, the Houston Center Improvement Committee submitted a report outlining the advantages of constructing the proposed George R. Brown Convention Center on the eastside of downtown. The committee was using Old Chinatown as a culturally distinct neighborhood to leverage the attractiveness of the eastside location to the city leaders responsible for the placement of the convention center (Convention Center Improvement Committee, 1981). In addition to boasting superior accessibility, opportunity to acquire free land, room for future expansion, and overall cost-effectiveness of the site, the report also indicated that the proposed convention center would enhance the development of the adjacent Chinatown district (Convention Center Improvement Committee, 1981).

By the mid 1980s, the Chinatown development had attained a significant enough status to be included in Houston's Department of Planning and Development report:

Houston's small, yet expanding Chinatown is located immediately southwest of the Second Ward. Chinatown has developed along Chartres and St. Emanuel streets, from Rusk Street on the north to McKinney Street on the south.

The development of Chinatown is being led by the Chinatown Development Company, which has constructed the existing shopping center, bank, and theater. Chinatown Development Company has announced plans to develop a seven-story, 200-room luxury hotel. The site of the proposed hotel is at the intersection of St. Emanuel and McKinney streets. The ultimate goal of the company is for Chinatown to contain commercial development, an entertainment center, and residential development. (City of Houston, 1986, p. 28)

This description was included as part of a proposal to increase the city's involvement in revitalizing the Second Ward. Through this plan, the department recommended a program of intensive public investment in the area in the form of public expenditures and tax incentives for cultural and historic preservation. According to the plan,

Public improvements in the Second Ward between 1976 and 1984 were insubstantial. However, recent attention to the need for the neighborhood's revitalization and major infrastructure improvements in the East End offer substantial benefits to the Second Ward…. This trend of increasing levels of public expenditures will encourage revitalization activity in the Second Ward. The leveraging of public funds, as in the development of El Mercado del Sol, will provide incentive for additional reinvestment. (City of Houston, 1986, p. 39)

Old Chinatown was also incorporated into the city's 1987 Civic Improvement Plan, which highlighted the need to refocus investment back into downtown as a way of attracting new corporate investment, development, and tourism into the city. Unlike plans from earlier decades, the 1987 plan did not solely focus on growth-related factors. Quality of life factors were also discussed, reflecting the city's willingness to try new methods to resolve the economic instabilities Houston faced during the 1980s recession.

The city's new development direction represented a dramatic economic shift from the past. It was driven by the severity of the 1980s recession, which led to a loss of some 150,000 to 200,000 jobs, the out-migration of 50,000 to 80,000 Houston residents each year, and a real estate collapse in the local housing market (City of Houston, 1994, p. 15; Houston Metropolitan Study, 1998, pp. 35–36). The severe drop in petroleum prices in the early 1980s had local officials fundamentally reevaluating the structure of the city's economic base. As noted by city of Houston officials,

Dependence on oil and related industries has made Houston's economic cycles far more dramatic than those for Texas and the nation….

Economic diversification is expected to moderate Houston's future economic cycles. The region's reduced dependence on upstream oil has made the local economy less prone to the boom and bust cycles due to large and unpredictable swings in oil prices. The shift of employment to the service sector, which typically has smaller cyclical swings than the goods-producing industries, will make the local economy less volatile. (City of Houston, 1994, pp. 15–16)

According to the 1987 Civic Improvement plan, the three priorities of downtown reinvestment were: “maintain and improve the downtown as the transportation hub of the region,” “ensure the success of Houston's expanding convention and tourist business,” and “provide an exciting ‘core’ to downtown” (Central Houston Civic Improvement. 1987, p. 8). The plan focused on the need to reinvent the downtown as a space for reinvestment in an economy that may become less reliant on petroleum, Houston's base economy. As noted in the Houston Civic Improvement plan,

New visitors, including children, in the downtown must be offered activities, entertainment, and fun in a secure and attractive environment. … Visitors, shoppers, workers, and residents need a place which is appealing, innovative, understandable, and economically productive. Retail facilities, offices, and hotels in a revitalized street environment should also provide a dynamic new image for the downtown. (Central Houston Civic Improvement, 1987, p. 8)

The plan also noted that “Chinatown has the potential for an excellent visitor attraction” (Central Houston Civic Improvement, 1987, p. 20) and that the proposed “street improvements within the area, such as ornamental gates or special street lights, could easily reinforce the oriental character” (p. 22). Figure 3 shows the plan's vision for Old Chinatown.

Figure 3.

Artist Rendering of the Proposed Chinatown Streetscape and Original Caption, 1987 Civic Improvement Plan

In terms of the city's broader development direction, it should be noted that by the end of the 1990s Houston's diversification initiatives were seen as working. For instance, while energy accounted for 83% of Houston's economic base in 1983, it had dropped to 60% in 1990, and then to 49% by 1999 (Smith, 1989, 2000). It was also clear that by the mid-1980s Old Chinatown was seen as a support facility—along with the Theater District, Warehouse District, Houston Center, and Main Street—that was to attract revenue back into Houston's urban core through tourism, corporate investment, and local development. As noted by city officials in the early 1990s,

Culture and history play a significant role in the economy of many U.S. cities. Historical places and cultural attractions can stimulate tourism and add to the city's tax base and business revenues. For example, San Francisco's Victorian houses, New Orleans's Vieux Carre (French Quarter) and New York's Chinatown attract large numbers of visitors and residents, which in turn support important commercial activity…

Cultural resources, like historic resources, can be used as an economic stimulus. Cultural tourism can bring visitors to a city and can keep visitors coming to the city for other reasons, such as business, conventions, shopping, medical treatment, or mild winter climate. Cultural resources can attract corporate relocations and stimulate initiation and growth of community-friendly industries and service and professional firms. (City of Houston, 1992, p. 25)

Into the early and mid-1990s, Old Chinatown had considerable promise and this was evident in just its role in promoting tourism. By the early 1990s, tourism had emerged as the fourth largest industry in Texas, and Texas was ranked third—behind California and Florida—as a pleasure destination for U.S. residents (City of Houston, 1992, p. 26). In addition, City of Houston officials expected tourism to emerge as the largest retail industry in the United States by the year 2000 (City of Houston, 1992, p. 26). The impacts of tourism in Houston were also viewed as already being significant, with almost $4 billion spent in Harris County on tourism, largely driven by cultural activities. As noted by city officials, “unlike other cities, most of Houston's tourist attractions are culturally, rather than historically, based” (City of Houston, 1992, p. 26).

Given the role of Chinatowns in the redevelopment of other U.S. cities, from New York to San Francisco, this potential reinforced the idea of investment in Old Chinatown as a strategy for stabilizing Houston's downtown during the mid-1980s economic downturn. As Lin (1998) argued, paralleling the role of ethnic neighborhoods in New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami, Houston ethnic entrepreneurs, including local Chinese, had started to play an important role in reviving Houston's urban core. These investments by Houston's ethnic entrepreneurs were all taking place in the context of considerable local promotion and celebration of Houston's ethnic communities.

Houston's ethnic neighborhoods were viewed by many as key elements of the city's cultural amenities. During the mid-1990s, Imagine Houston, a steering committee established by the city, submitted a report, which in the opening outlined the group's vision “to celebrate and promote Houston as a vibrant, multi-cultural and international center for the arts, urban design and historic resources” (Imagine Houston, 1995a, p. 1). One of the proposed methods to further foster its vision was to create a cultural guidebook of the city. Specifically, the committee sought to:

Promote the City through the arts and the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors’ Bureau (GHCVB), especially outside of Houston (including internationally) in order to promote a cosmopolitan, positive image for the City. [And] create a cultural guide which includes a map, and information about services and historic resources. (Imagine Houston, 1995a, p. 9)

Another report from Imagine Houston listed “pathways to progress” in fostering “a greater appreciation of the different cultures that make up Houston” (Imagine Houston, 1995b, p. 11). The three initiatives advanced to further cultivate diverse ethnic groups and to more formally incorporate ethnic communities into Houston's development plan were the following:

  • Ensure that Houstonians have access to a multilingual network of information, education, and other services to encourage participation in community life.
  • Promote greater involvement by Houston's ethnic communities in economic development initiatives, particularly international trade.
  • Hold inter-ethnic forums to identify and explore issues affecting our success as a multicultural community. (Imagine Houston, 1995b, p. 11)

Similar in spirit to Lin, Vojnovic (2003a, p. 615) argued that capitalizing “on the Hispanic culture, already proven successful in San Antonio and developing Chinatowns around the growing Asian community, became new elements of the pro-growth agenda as Houston began celebrating ethnic diversity.”

The promise of ethnically driven revitalization in Houston's core, however, was short-lived. By the late 1980s, the Mandarin Plaza International failed to be realized and the other Asian-themed developments were still limited to a handful of blocks in the district. Since the majority of Old Chinatown developments were privately financed—many personally by Woo—developers were severely limited in the ability to purchase land once the announcement of the convention center increased property prices in the surrounding area (Hooper, 1981). In addition, the aging sewer lines and a moratorium on intensive development in the Second Ward impeded the expansion of Old Chinatown. One local entrepreneur complained that “growth screeched to a halt in the mid-1980s, partly because of a lack of sewerage capacity” (Yip, 1993b, p. D1). This problem was acknowledged in the city's 1986 planning and development report, which admitted that the “lack of sewer capacity has been a deterrent to development” (City of Houston, 1986, p. 35).

In addition, the expansion of the convention center in 2001 permanently closed a section of a major street that had connected Old Chinatown to downtown. This occurred around the time when the district's increasingly isolated Chinese boosters planned to erect a ceremonial Chinese gate at the intersection of McKinney and St. Emanuel (Chow, 2002). In the face of competing developments and a restrictive investment environment, many of the Chinese and Vietnamese businesses began relocating to other areas around the city—leaving the remnants of the district to be acquired and rebranded by non-Asian interests—and the remaining Old Chinatown projects were cancelled.

During the 1980s, rival Chinese entrepreneurs began developing the “New’” Chinatown around a Chinese grocery store in Sharpstown, a suburban neighborhood in southwest Houston. Di Ho Supermarket, a Chinese grocery chain headquartered in Monterey Park, California, opened a store in Di Ho Plaza—a new Chinese shopping center developed in Sharpstown by a joint venture between Taiwanese-born commercial real estate entrepreneurs and a local landowner (Commercial Investment Real Estate, 2003). The area quickly attracted investors from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore (Hooper, 1981). Tsang Dat Wong, who ran the Di Ho supermarket chain, invited an associate from Singapore to develop the 120,000-square-foot Dynasty Mall in New Chinatown. As one reporter noted, “When Dynasty Mall was being developed in 1986, 1987, it was the worst time, but Mr. Wong saw it as a good time for outsiders to come in because of cheap land and foreclosures” (Yip, 1993a, p. D18). In addition to international investment, funding also came from various ethnic banks located in the neighborhood. MetroCorp Bank, an Asian American owned bank catering mainly to Asian immigrants, financed the construction of Hong Kong Market and the iconic Chinese-style gateway arch (D. Wang, personal interview, April 2014, 2009), now the symbolic center of New Chinatown.

Chinese commercial development continued throughout the late 1980s despite Houston's economic downturn and the stagnation of Old Chinatown. Several industrial buildings, business parks, and apartment buildings in Sharpstown were bought by Chinese investors, expanding New Chinatown's footprint (Houston Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce, 1994). The corner of Bellaire Boulevard and Corporate Drive, near the heart of New Chinatown, included several banks, many of which are Asian American–owned. Businesses included grocery stores and restaurants, but also realtors, newspapers, legal firms, accountants, wholesalers, and medical practitioners. Large subdivisions consisting of several hundred homes and multiple office parks appeared within New Chinatown during the 1990s and 2000s (Commercial Investment Real Estate, 2003).

Government Intervention in the “Laissez-faire” City

The development of New Chinatown, similar to Old Chinatown, was based on funding through private sources, both domestic and international. An interview with one of the developers revealed that the New Chinatown developments were due to the presence of various private ethnic developers interested in turning a profit (K. Li, personal interview, August 30, 2009). The City of Houston has not financially contributed to these developments and it was maintained that this was attributed to the local government's culture that enterprises must go at it alone (K. Li, personal interview, August 30, 2009). At the same time, however, the city provides extensive financial assistance to major competing developments, a condition that has contributed to the erasure of Old Chinatown and other ethnic neighborhoods in the city center (Knapp & Vojnovic, 2013).

More than any other city in the United States, Houston governance has been shaped by a minimum government ideology, or at least the myth of a minimum government ideology. As Vojnovic (2007, pp. 281–282) maintains, “as a classic example of a frontier economy, laissez-faire is a central component of Houston's culture.” Klineberg (1996, p. 20) similarly argues that in Houston locals “profess firm allegiance to the American creed of economic individualism—the belief that it is up to each individual to succeed or fail on his or her own merits, and that government has no business trying to shape the outcomes of social and economic competition.”

This minimal government philosophy is effectively evident in local taxes and expenditures. Neither Houston nor the state of Texas impose personal or corporate income tax. This, in turn, shapes public expenditures, and it is particularly evident in the local disinterest in public welfare. In 2001, for instance, while per capita annual expenditures on welfare were $630 in San Francisco and $1042 in New York City, they were only $5.29 in Houston (Vojnovic, 2007).

A similar minimal-government, anti-regulation philosophy is evident in urban development. Despite being the fourth largest city in the United States, with a population of some 2.15 million, Houston does not have zoning or a comprehensive plan. According to architectural critic Reyner Banham, Houston is “a place where property wheels and deals with fewer restrictions than anywhere else in the Anglo Saxon world” (quoted in Scardino, Stern, & Webb, 2003, p. x).

However, research has shown that despite the minimal government rhetoric, Houston's development has been extensively shaped by public financial intervention in the local economy, ranging from public subsidies to Houston's petroleum companies to public financial aid to defense corporations (Feagin, 1985, 1988; Vojnovic, 2003b). Extensive government intervention is also evident in local urban development, particularly apparent in Houston's late-20th century urban revitalization efforts. For instance, as part of Houston's urban revival program, three new sports stadiums were built in the city at a cost of over $1 billion, and public funds were used to pay some two-thirds of the costs (City of Houston, 2001). In fact, between 1997 and 2007, there was some $4 billion in private investment in Houston's downtown, leveraged by a 10-year government investment program of over $1.5 billion (Houston Downtown Management District, 2007), extensively subsidizing private development projects, from upscale lofts to sports stadiums. These public subsidies altered local prices and changed the relative attractiveness of place.

Hence, while there is a considerable disinterest in social welfare, the degree of corporate welfare throughout the city's history has been extensive. The location of public art may be used as an indicator of government assistance in Houston's redevelopment (Figure 4). The extensive public art investment throughout Houston is located particularly along the CBD and Museum District nodes. It reflects the city's urban revival efforts, its Main Street Corridor project, and the city's spatial pattern of subsidies to private developers.

Figure 4.

Urban Districts and Distribution of Public Art Installations in Houston

Extensive local and state government subsidies were provided to fund private downtown redevelopment projects along this art-investment corridor (Podagrosi & Vojnovic, 2008; Podagrosi, Vojnovic, & Pigozzi, 2011). Similarly, the disinterest in ethnic neighborhoods—including the city's Chinatowns—is also evident in Houston's public art investment. There has been no interest in providing cultural amenities to either the Old or New Chinatowns, which have exclusively relied on local entrepreneurs to fund their cultural amenities. This lack of infrastructure investment has placed Chinese entrepreneurs at a competitive disadvantage when compared to competing developers who receive extensive public financial aid.

More broadly in the literature on Houston, the relevance of growth machine politics, and the public subsidies provided to coalition members in local economic activity, have been widely illustrated throughout the city's history (Feagin, 1985; 1988; Vojnovic 2003a; 2007). It has also been recognized, however, that ethnic minorities have not been part, historically and into the present, of Houston's local growth coalitions, and were not party to the extensive public financing provided for local development projects, including necessary infrastructure (Podagrosi & Vojnovic, 2008; Knapp & Vojnovic, 2013).6

As with many Chinatowns throughout the world, Houston's New Chinatown boasts an Asian-style gateway arch. However, unlike in other Chinatowns, where the gateway is prominently positioned across a major thoroughfare or in a public space, this arch is relegated to a private parking lot. In Houston's New Chinatown, Hong Kong Mall is viewed as the visual center of the district. New Chinatown is predominantly private and has little to offer in terms of public spaces, a pressing concern for local entrepreneurs (author-attended meeting of the Sharpstown Management District, 2008).

The management district sought assistance from the city of Houston in order to develop its public rights of way and to create additional public spaces. The district also wanted to work with the city to improve the roadways, which were in various states of disrepair. The management district used examples of city-funded projects, such as Jones Plaza and Discovery Green, as models to bolster their case, but with little success. Local Chinese entrepreneurs recognize that Sharpstown still remains underserved in infrastructure while services of higher standard are provided in Houston's downtown, the Galleria, and other upper-income neighborhoods—public infrastructure extensively financed by the city of Houston (K. Li, personal interview, August 30, 2009).


We utilize census tract–level data to measure the changing characteristics experienced by Houston's neighborhoods between 1980 and 2000, a period of development of the Chinese and Asian districts and the revitalization of the inner city. There were operational considerations in using this timeframe. Neighborhood indicators such as income and housing values were not collected during the 2010 Census, and the replacement American Community Survey (ACS) data are not directly comparable to data collected during the previous decades. We normalize the Census 2000 tracts to the Census 1980 tract boundaries in order to facilitate comparison of data between censuses as well as calculation of the measurements of change (percent change and the change in percent). Twelve urban districts are delineated based on Houston's 2008 Official Visitors Guide (Figure 4).

New Chinatown falls within the Southwest-Chinatown-Harwin district. While immigrant entrepreneurs actively invested in New Chinatown, all census tracts within Southwest-Chinatown-Harwin experienced declining property values and incomes between 1980 and 2000 (Table 1). In contrast, most census tracts in the other urban districts experienced increases in property values and incomes. The Galleria, Midtown, the Museum District, and Houston Heights contained individual census tracts where inflation-controlled property values doubled between 1980 and 2000. Even the census tracts that once housed Old Chinatown experienced increased property values, resulting from later redevelopment that had displaced Old Chinatown.

Table 1. Comparison of Average Housing Values and Incomes (in Thousands) between Urban Districts: 1980a and 2000
  Average Value Owner-Occupied HousingAverage Income per FamilyAverage Income per Household
District Name# of Tracts19802000% chg19802000% chg19802000% chg
  1. a

    1980 values adjusted to 1999 dollars.

  2. b

    Old Chinatown is not recognized in the official visitor's guide. Authors included this district for comparison.

  3. c

    All districts excluding Southwest-Chinatown-Harwin and Old Chinatown.

  4. Data Source: U.S. Census Bureau (1980); U.S. Census Bureau (2000).

Downtown, Theater District163.488.840.125.2195.3675.029.468.8134.0
Houston Heights379.2147.285.940.963.455.035.751.544.3
Medical Center398.158.0−40.944.350.413.837.540.99.1
Museum District3190.5301.558.379.4135.570.756.291.362.5
Old Chinatownb247.555.917.626.529.09.428.326.7−5.7
Rice Village2284.9403.041.5121.9192.457.886.5144.266.7
Sixth Ward252.191.876.234.942.220.930.339.731.0
Southwest, Chinatown, Harwin15139.073.047.566.−27.2
Third Ward578.193.619.836.236.1-0.330.429.1-4.3
Upper Kirby, River Oaks, Greenway2185.4224.521.166.2105.659.557.173.829.2
Uptown, Galleria3270.0361.033.7121.6180.148.190.5130.143.8
11 urban districts (excl. Chinatowns)c29141.1192.526.759.387.647.847.663.825.4
Harris County648122.8119.5−2.866.

In order to identify key characteristics of neighborhood change that have been occurring in Houston, we use an analysis similar to Vicino, Hanlon, and Short (2011), which applies a principal components analysis (PCA) and a k-means cluster analysis to tract-level data to create a typology of tracts. We selected 22 variables that primarily measure changes in neighborhood characteristics that reflect population, race/ethnicity, family structure, foreign-born residents, socioeconomic change, and housing values (see Table 2). We use a varimax PCA to reduce this initial data set, representing 648 census tracts in which complete data are available,7 into five components.8 These five components represent neighborhood characteristics indicative of (1) economically depressed Black neighborhoods, (2) high population growth, (3) Asian growth, (4) Hispanic growth, and (5) large Asian share in 1980.

Table 2. Selected Variables and Principal Components Analysis Loadings Matrixa
  1. Data Source: U.S. Census Bureau (1980); U.S Census Bureau (2000).

  2. a

    Factor loadings greater than 0.60 shown.

Population change: 1980–2000% change in tract population 0.67   
Race and ethnic composition: 1980% non-Hispanic White 0.74   
 % non-Hispanic Black −0.74   
 % Hispanic     
 % Asian    0.90
 % Chinese    0.75
 % Vietnamese    0.77
Race and ethnic composition: 1980–2000Change in % non-Hispanic White   −0.65 
 Change in % non-Hispanic Black0.63    
 Change in % Hispanic   0.93 
 Change in % Asian  0.94  
 Change in % Chinese  0.69  
 Change in % Vietnamese  0.79  
Family structure: 1980–2000Change in % of female-headed families with children0.73    
Immigrants: 1980–2000Change in % foreign born   0.93 
 Change in % population age 18+ not fluent in English   0.90 
Socioeconomic change: 1980—2000% change in college graduates 0.64   
 Change in % population age 16+ in poverty     
 % change in average income per household−0.85    
 % change in average income per family−0.75    
 Change in % age 16+ employed in professional sector 0.74   
Housing: 1980 – 2000% change in owner-occupied property values−0.69    

Through the PCA, we find certain characteristics that are negatively associated with each other. For example, Black neighborhoods are negatively associated with economic vitality. Growth in non-Hispanic White population, professionals, and college graduates are negatively associated with growth in Black populations, and finally a growing neighborhood share of Hispanic immigrants has an opposite relationship to the share of non-Hispanic White populations. These results provide evidence that resident Blacks and resident Hispanic groups are not realizing positive associations of socioeconomic success according to measures of poverty, education, income, and property values. However, the PCA does not provide clues to the changing socioeconomic conditions of neighborhoods with sizable Asians populations.

We next apply a k-means clustering technique to the PCA component scores to identify a subset of tracts representing neighborhood characteristics comparable to (1) neighborhoods positively impacted by Houston's revitalization initiatives, and (2) neighborhoods exhibiting characteristics of change similar to that of New Chinatown—the center of Chinese and Vietnamese developments serving Houston (Figure 5). Although several factors may be used to define these two groupings, we refer to these two neighborhood groupings as high-growth White and high-growth Asian, respectively. In addition to experiencing relatively high population growth, the first grouping contains tracts that experienced a larger percent increase in the White population relative to Harris County. The second grouping similarly experienced high population growth, but also has seen a large increase in the share of tract populations that are Asian relative to the county.

Figure 5.

White and Asian Neighborhood Tract Groups

Table 3 contains a list of the demographic variables we used to compare the high-growth White and high-growth Asian groupings. Both groupings experienced higher than average growth in tract populations. The race and Hispanic origin variables depict changes in tract-level characteristics represented as the percent change in the race/ethnic group's population, as well as the change in that group's share of the tract population. The non-Hispanic White tracts experienced declines in the White share; however these declines have been slow relative to both Asian tracts and all tracts in the county; the Non-Hispanic White population had been growing faster on average (225%) compared to the total tracts (137%).

Table 3. Differences in Tract Groups by Changes in Population Characteristics: 1980–2000
VariablesHigh-Growth White TractsHigh-Growth Asian TractsAll Tracts
  1. Data Source: U.S. Census Bureau (1980); U.S Census Bureau (2000).

Total population      
% change in population270.316.8197.0111.7147.923.7
Race and Hispanic origin      
Change in % non-Hispanic White−8.2−8.4−44.5−50.8−25.4−22.0
% change in non-Hispanic White225.16.726.2−29.4137.2−28.6
Change in % non-Hispanic Black1.30.59.911.23.71.2
% change in non-Hispanic Black807.3105.11,695.5736.9755.0163.1
Change in % Hispanic3.02.519.218.818.414.3
% change in Hispanic432.8116.3980.9505.5536.5286.3
Change in % Asian3.02.614.
Asian ethnicity      
Change in % Japanese0.
Change in % Chinese0.
Change in % Filipino0.
Change in % Korean0.
Change in % Asian Indian0.
Change in % Vietnamese0.
Neighborhood composition in 1980      
% non-Hispanic White84.089.378.682.266.880.6
% non-Hispanic Black2.
% Hispanic10.
% Japanese0.
% Chinese0.
% Filipino0.
% Korean0.
% Asian Indian0.
% Vietnamese0.
% Mexican8.
Change in % foreign-born4.65.923.023.313.010.3
% change in foreign-born708.1117.4973.8604.8552.5305.6
Change in % persons that speak a language other than English−
% change in persons that speak a language other than English625.323.11,775.81,213.6838.0346.2

The high-growth Asian group is not characterized by Asian growth alone, but also by large increases in the percent change in the share of non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic populations compared to all tracts in the county. We find that the high-growth White and high-growth Asian groups experienced increases in share of Asian ethnicities greater than the county. However, the largest increases to the proportion of tract populations were exhibited by the Chinese and Vietnamese in the high-growth Asian group, at an average increase of 2.9% and 6.6% respectively.

Table 4 provides a comparison of socioeconomic and housing measures between high-growth White, high-growth Asian, and all census tracts. Although the population living in poverty within the high-growth White tracts increased on average during these two decades, the share has remained steady while the Asian tracts experienced an increasing share, comparable to that experienced by all county tracts. A comparison of household and family incomes indicates that the high-growth White tracts exceeded both the high-growth Asian tracts and all county tracts during this period. High-growth Asian tracts fared poorly, with all economic variables showing negative change during this period. Observing measures of potentially economically unstable familial types, female-headed families with children follow patterns that mirror the socioeconomic variables, with high-growth Asian tracts again faring poorly.

Table 4. Differences in Tract Groups by Socioeconomic Status, Family Type, Housing, and Income: 1980–2000
 White TractsAsian TractsAll Tracts
  1. Data Source: U.S. Census Bureau (1980); U.S Census Bureau (2000).

Change in % poverty0.0−
% change in poverty227.146.5610.3461.5393.3150.5
% change in average household incomes30.325.1−11.7−17.2−3.4−10.8
% change in average family incomes41.129.1−12.2−14.7−2.0−11.0
Family structure      
Change in % female-headed families with children0.
% change in female-headed families with children192.716.7631.2243.0318.181.0
% change in average owner-occupied housing values (1979–1999)25.117.1−31.9−35.6−12.2−22.1
% change in owner-occupied housing units without plumbing71.0−84.6438.021.1156.5−9.8
% change in owned housing units281.639.7142.969.593.27.3
% change in rented housing units2302.919.0413.7106.0576.721.0
Income status as of 2000      
% of persons aged 18–64 years living in poverty6.
Median household income (1999): in thousands74.966.944.441.545.939.8
Median family income (1999): in thousands90.686.450.248.352.445.0
Average per capita income (1999): in thousands41.738.921.119.221.817.6
Median owner-occupied housing values (1999): in thousands194.8160.487.873.796.975.1

With regard to property values, high-growth White tracts experienced the largest gains. On average, all tracts experienced declining housing values, with high-growth Asian tracts faring the worst. In addition, the implied housing stock quality deteriorated in the high-growth Asian tracts, as measured by the percent change in owner-occupied housing without plumbing. Furthermore, the high-growth Asian tracts, as a whole, lagged behind the high-growth White tracts and all tracts in the county in economic vitality. The Asian group experienced a larger increase in poverty, and steep declines in income and housing values between 1980 and 2000.

The results from this analysis allude to the disparate experiences of residents living within each neighborhood type. The high-growth White tracts are becoming more diverse in terms of racial and ethnic composition. However, this change is occurring more slowly compared to all county tracts. These neighborhoods, many of which are located within the urban districts, had the most success in increasing property values, and retaining and attracting the highly educated and high-income earners. The high-growth Asian tracts not only experienced sizable increases in Asian populations, but also attracted large Hispanic and Black populations, resulting in neighborhoods that are not uniformly of one racial or ethnic group, but of a diverse composition. These neighborhoods are receiving a large immigrant population, particularly recent immigrants, based on the large increase in the share of the population that are fluent in a language other than English. These neighborhoods also are experiencing a massive increase to the initial housing stock. While the rate of rented and owner-occupied housing units entering the market exceeds the rate for all census tracts, the increase in share of potentially substandard housing also exceeds that for all census tracts. In the midst of this sits New Chinatown, located in an area of falling property values and incomes.


There is considerable evidence illustrating that ethnic communities have been playing an increasingly prominent role in the economy of large U.S. cities into the 21st century. Researchers have also noted, however, that the relationship between the concentration of ethnic minorities, local development, economic growth, and well-being—including of the ethnic groups themselves—should be approached cautiously (Knack, 2002; Knapp and Vojnovic, 2013; Lee, 2011). Ultimately, the experience of Asian immigrants in Silicon Valley or the Cubans in Miami is distinct, the result of specific histories, particular economic circumstances, ethnic concentrations, local politics, and governance strategies. One should not expect that these conditions will be reproduced elsewhere, as Houston illustrates. It also becomes clear that not all regions in the United States are equally open to ethnic partnerships and transnational capital investments.

Similar to Silicon Valley and Miami, the emergence of the ethnoburb in San Gabriel Valley (Los Angeles County) is another example of effectively entrenched ethnic enclaves. Li's (1998a, b) analysis has shown this multi-ethnic cluster of residential and business districts to be a global economic outpost with robust transnational business networks and extensive global capital access. In describing the local socioeconomic profile, Li (1998a, pp. 497–499) notes that the “ethnoburb Chinese are generally highly educated, relatively wealthy and well-housed.” While Houston's New Chinatown is evolving toward a similar demographic imprint, its economic profile—and that of high-growth Asian neighborhoods across Houston—is very different, being characterized by declining incomes, declining house values, and increasing poverty.

The ethnic enclaves in Silicon Valley, Miami, Los Angeles County, and Houston, with their unique ethnic imprints and neighborhood trajectories, reflect very different socioeconomic and political realities within these metropolitan centers. In the context of globalization and inter-ethnic conflict, including outright discrimination, the emergence of these ethnic neighborhoods is a byproduct of years of struggle by ethnic entrepreneurs in realizing and maintaining their cultural and economic presence within these cities. For instance, Alejandro Portes and Robert Manning's (1986, p. 63) work on ethnic enclaves shows that Jewish, Japanese, Korean, and Cuban entrepreneurs established their business communities and ensured their success despite opposition by “powerful domestic interests.” The difficulty of these struggles among ethnic entrepreneurs, and the importance of building strong coalitions, is illustrated by the Los Angeles Chinatown experience.

Lin (2008, p. 111) depicts the rise of Chinatown in Los Angeles from being viewed in the early 20th century as “a ‘slum’ plagued by vice, moral decay, and poor sanitation” to a neighborhood of growing prosperity during the 1940s. Chinatown then went through a period of decline during the 1950s, only to be revived during the 1960s, with new flows of in-migration and capital resulting from liberalizing U.S. immigration policies and growing international trade. During the 1970s, with suburbanization, industrial restructuring and urban decline in Los Angeles, accompanied with competition from the new suburban Chinatown in Monterey Park, urban Chinatown again went into decline. The struggles by ethnic entrepreneurs over the next two decades, along with the development of effective growth coalitions, ultimately enabled L.A.’s urban Chinatown to prevail and prosper.

During the 1990s, extensive public and private investment was directed at reviving downtown Los Angeles, Chinatown, and other ethnic enclaves, with considerable success. There was active private and public interest in redeveloping urban Chinatown, with tens of millions of dollars in public funding provided for infrastructure improvements (Lin, 2008). In addition, in 2003, development in Chinatown further flourished with the opening of the Chinatown Metro Station. Lin (2008, p. 117) attributes the success in the revival of Chinatown to an effective “coalition of Chinese developers, white developers, the City of Los Angeles, and the CRA [Community Redevelopment Agency].”

The revival of Los Angeles’ Chinatown—and the city's other ethnic districts, including Koreatown and Little Tokyo—was based on a comprehensive citywide effort, with considerable public financial resources. Without such broad-based coalitions, and the extensive access to public finances, Los Angeles’ Chinatown and its investors would have had much greater difficulty in reversing the community's decline during the late 20th century. Los Angeles’ Chinatown, and the city's other ethnic urban enclaves, could have easily disappeared from their lucrative urban locations, as in Houston. Los Angeles’ ethnic communities, however, faced a different local public support structure, even despite the localized opposition, when compared to the experience of Houston's ethnic entrepreneurs.

Houston's Chinatown and its other urban ethnic communities were not encompassed in such a comprehensive governance strategy, and they did not have access to public financing that their competitors were receiving, despite the local government rhetoric celebrating ethnic diversity. In fact, in Houston, the local Chinese had at least two major urban investment concentrations, their early ethnic neighborhoods, simply erased from the city's core. Ultimately, the lack of public funding to ethnic neighborhoods, particularly when compared to the large-scale government subsidization of competing projects—which eventually displaced Old Chinatown—speaks to the local disinterest in incorporating ethnicity as part of local economic development.

This research, showing the general economic decline of all Asian-growth neighborhoods across Houston, reveals a ripple outcome of this local governance strategy. Between 1980 and 2000, Asian-growth neighborhoods throughout the city have experienced declining incomes, declining property values and increasing poverty. Asian entrepreneurs face a discriminatory market for their developments, confronting higher investment costs, given the absence of public subsidies and infrastructure provision that competing economic interests receive (Knapp & Vojnovic, 2013).

Houston's ethnic enclaves, and its Asian-growth neighborhoods, did not have the same public support, including direct financial aid, that competing developers were privileged to in the city. To this day, this is evident in New Chinatown, where ethnic entrepreneurs are appealing to the city to get infrastructure investment that parallels the public investments that the city is providing to other, and competing, Houston districts.

In addition, during a period of history when Houston's Asian entrepreneurs had access to foreign capital investment for Old Chinatown, city officials were actively making Asian investment into this district difficult, because of inadequate infrastructure provision. Millions of dollars of potential investment secured by Houston ethnic entrepreneurs from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore were turned back; financial resources that might have enabled the survival of this community, especially given the absence of local public funding.

It is not just that ethnic neighborhoods, and the city's Asian subgroups, are experiencing deterioration and decline from this reluctance to integrate ethnicity into Houston's economy. Since the 1980s, while this governance strategy actively blocked millions of dollars in international investment into Old Chinatown, the city of Houston used some $2 billion in public funds to attract and encourage “desired” development within the urban core, including upscale lofts, condominiums, and sports stadiums. It is worth noticing that this development that was subsidized by government was void of any ethnic imprint; a statement in itself in considering a major gateway city in the 21st-century globalizing economy.


Houston illustrates that, even in a globalizing economy, the well-being of ethnic groups and their neighborhoods will vary across U.S. cities. Historically, Houston's Chinese economic and cultural centers moved around downtown as a response to encroaching inner-city redevelopment before finally relocating to the suburbs. Yet, the emergence of downtown Chinatown during the 1980s, and its potential to open new channels of foreign investment into Houston, had initially attracted the interest of City Hall, at least when the city was facing an economic downturn due to declining petroleum prices. In addition, Chinatown's main boosters “ha[d] garnered considerable investment capital” (Lin, 1995, p. 639), but the projects remained in hiatus, largely because of inadequate infrastructure. As the oil economy recovered and Houston's economic fortunes improved during the 1990s, Chinatown failed to attract sustained attention from the private sector or the city.

The spatial outcomes of downtown and nearby wards reveal the priorities in Houston's urban revitalization program. For a city that espouses a laissez faire philosophy in governance, local government has shown a remarkable interventionist philosophy towards redeveloping Houston's downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, even to facilitating the erasure of ethnic communities. The role of growth coalitions in the governance of Houston, with coalition partners receiving extensive and exclusive financial advantages from the city and state governments in local development, is an important aspect in the shaping of the history of Houston's ethnic neighborhoods (Feagin, 1985, 1988; Vojnovic 2003a, 2007).

Freedmen's Town, Houston's historic African American community, was wiped out by intensive capital, including public capital, flowing into the neighborhood (Podagrosi & Vojnovic, 2008). The eastside experienced a similar outcome, albeit under markedly different circumstances. Whereas Freedmen's Town may be characterized as the rapid destruction of a Black neighborhood through the use of public powers for land assembly and the infusion of public money for redevelopment, the eastside may be characterized as a gradual erosion of a Chinese business district by restricting new Asian development and the withholding of public money from ethnic entrepreneurs. While restricting growth within Old Chinatown, extensive public funding was provided to surrounding development projects, which eventually displaced all ethnic districts from Houston's lucrative urban location. Old Chinatown withered as public investment in the surrounding districts attracted competing developments that were financially backed by the city (Knapp & Vojnovic, 2013).

As Old Chinatown and other ethnic communities were displaced from Houston's core, a parallel process of decline was being experienced throughout Houston's Asian-growth neighborhoods, consisting of 47 census tracts within the city. Between 1980 and 2000, Houston's Asian-growth communities—including New Chinatown—experienced declining incomes, declining property values, and rising poverty. This is a very different economic condition when compared to Houston's White-growth neighborhoods, which grew and prospered. In fact, Asian-growth neighborhoods in the city experienced a unique scale of economic decline when compared to Houston's other urban districts and Harris County as a whole.

It should be reinforced, once again, that this analysis is focused on ethnic neighborhoods. As noted in the quantitative analysis, there are Asians locating in Houston who have moved into high-growth White neighborhoods and have been part of Houston subgroups experiencing rising prosperity. As ethnic enclave and other theorists have shown, occupationally skilled immigrants—such as doctors, nurses, and engineers—have more flexibility in selecting residential locations, and do move into wealthy and nonethnic neighborhoods, particularly in pursuit of high quality schools for their children (Portes & Manning, 1986; Kasinitz, Mollenkopf, Waters, & Holdaway, 2008).

Given the scale of investment by the Chinese and Asian community into Houston, their impact on the city's landscape, and the celebration of these communities in local government reports and media, there is a general sense that Houston's Chinese neighborhoods are prospering and that the city is a lucrative investment center for Chinese entrepreneurs. This notion is effectively voiced in a 2002 Houston Chronicle article by David Kaplan (p. A1) entitled “Far Eastern Entrepreneurs Find Niche in Southwest Houston.” Kaplan notes,

The thriving Asian wholesale-retail strip along Harwin sells everything from luggage to turquoise and is known nationwide. Fueling New Chinatown's expansion are more than a dozen banks, most of them Asian-American–owned. Houston's “Asian Wall Street” is what J. P. Morgan Chase Vice President Annie Mak calls the area.

Kaplan goes on to cite a Wall Street Journal article: “Word is said to be spreading, especially in Taiwan and Hong Kong, that if you're moving to the U.S., Houston is the place to settle” (Kaplan, 2002, p. A1). Despite Kaplan's praise and celebration of New Chinatown, this research has shown that this neighborhood, despite extensive investment by Asian ethnic entrepreneurs, has experienced extensive economic decline between 1980 and 2000. Not only is this neighborhood economically performing far below the city's average, with an enormous drop in real housing values and income during this period, but it has actually experienced the steepest economic decline among all of Houston's urban districts.

While articles like Kaplan's have shaped local, national, and international perspectives of Houston and its Asian entrepreneurs, analysis of census data for the last two decades of the 20th century shows a very different reality in the condition and the struggles of Chinese and Asian investors. Not only have Chinese and other Asian business concentrations been erased from their lucrative urban locations, but all the ostensible high-growth Asian neighborhoods across Houston are experiencing rapid economic decline. While Chinese and Asian immigrants have found considerable prosperity within major American gateway cities, this is not the case with Houston. Houston reveals that there still remain urban regions that are apprehensive of local ethnic entrepreneurship and of certain types of transnational capital investment, potentially resulting in economic losses to local ethnic groups.

This study is not meant to underemphasize the resiliency and capacity of Asian ethnic entrepreneurs in creating and ensuring the survival of their ethnic districts, regardless of government involvement; this is evident from the literature review showing the extensive impacts of ethnic groups across major U.S. cities. Even in the Houston context, while the Chinese and Asian economic and cultural centers have been pressured out of a number of different locations, they continue to reorganize, reclaim, and reinforce ties to local and foreign capital, and to reinvest, leaving their imprint on the city, and all of this despite the ethnic and socioeconomic inequities in Houston. Ultimately, New Chinatown reflects the ongoing resiliency of the Chinese and broader Asian community in Houston, and its ability to shape and reshape the urban landscape.

Two economic markets exist in Houston. One is for traditional White investors and developers, who receive extensive public financial aid, and the other is for ethnic-based communities, who are actually engaged in, on their end, free market competition with competitors extensively financed by government. Houston's growth coalition literature has provided extensive insight into the nature of this dual market (Feagin, 1985, 1988; Knapp & Vojnovic, 2013; Vojnovic 2003a, 2007). This analysis has shown that it is at multiple levels that ethnic groups do not fare as well within this market and cultural context. Asian-growth neighborhoods have experienced extensive—and a unique level of—economic decline within the city during the years of this analysis. It is also clear that Houston's “laissez-faire” governance approach plays a major role in defining competition and economic outcomes within Houston, disadvantaging Asian neighborhoods, whether they are Asian concentrations of homes or businesses.


The authors would like to thank Professor Laura Reese and the anonymous reviewers for their critique and recommendations on earlier versions of the article. Their constructive input was very helpful in improving the quality of the manuscript. We would also like to acknowledge the Census Bureau and Population Division staff for their review of the analysis and the draft. Their suggestions were also important and greatly appreciated. The methods employed, and views expressed herein, are those of the authors. No official policy or position of the United States Census Bureau, the Department of Commerce, or the United States Government should be inferred.


  1. 1

    The high-growth White neighborhoods contain tracts that experienced a larger percent increase in the White population relative to Harris County while the high-growth Asian neighborhoods experienced a larger increase in the share of tract population that are Asian relative to the increase in Harris County.

  2. 2

    Old Chinatown boundaries based on a map from Baird (1990).

  3. 3

    The Magnuson Act (the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943) allowed Chinese immigration into the United States and permitted citizenship to Chinese already residing in the country.

  4. 4

    The Houston metropolitan area is the primary metropolitan statistical area (PMSA) as defined by the Federal Office of Budget and Management in 1993 and used by the U.S. Census Bureau to report data for the 2000 Census. Although the federal government discarded the PMSA definition following the 2000 Census, the authors use the same geographic area for reporting the 2010 data for comparability.

  5. 5

    Although contemporary audiences would have referred to this district as Chinatown as well, the authors adopt Old Chinatown, one of the former local designations for this area, to distinguish it from the newly created Chinatown in southwest Houston.

  6. 6

    The locations for the public art were derived from the City of Houston's (2009) Municipal Art Inventory. Installations were mapped by the authors.

  7. 7

    Since census tracts do not coincide with city boundaries, we use census tracts for the city and surrounding county (Harris County, TX) for this study.

  8. 8

    Components account for approximately 70% of the variation in the data.


  • Anthony Knapp is a Statistician at the United States Census Bureau's Population Division. Prior to joining the Population Division, he was a geographer at the bureau's Geography Division and a geographic specialist at the Regional Census Center in Dallas, Texas. His research interests include urban development, the urban built environment, ethnic neighborhoods, immigration, and studying urban processes, especially at the neighborhood level. He is currently researching methods for estimating foreign-born immigration into the United States and working on the annual population estimates for the nation, states, and counties.

  • Igor Vojnovic is Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at Michigan State University, where he also holds appointments in the School of Planning, Design and Construction and the Global Urban Studies Program. His main area of research focuses on urban (re)development processes, involving a range of issues, including urban governance, gentrification, infrastructure investment, physical planning, urban design, and environmental impacts of urban form. His work has been published in journals such as Environment and Planning A, Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, Journal of Urban Design, Urban Geography, Journal of Urban Affairs, Cities, Ecological Economics, Applied Geography, Health and Place, GIScience and Remote Sensing, and Environmental Conservation.