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Supporting Chinatown’s Local Economy Through Riverfront Placemaking Projects

Image courtesy Flickr Stephen Kelly

Chinatown’s Ping Tom Park along the Chicago River’s South Branch has experienced major changes as part of the Our Great Rivers project, under the leadership of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community (CBCAC). The riverfront along the park serves as an integral focal point, attracting residents and visitors alike with a pedestrian-friendly design.

CBCAC is a coalition of 14 member organizations and individuals who work together to amplify the voices of residents of Chinese heritage in the Greater Chinatown area. CBCAC carries out its mission for systemic change through civic education, policy advocacy, and community mobilization. Chicago’s Chinatown is often considered the only growing Chinatown in North America. This is largely due to the strong presence of its community institutions, many of whom have become partners in the project. Key partner organizations include Ping Tom Park Advisory Council, Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, Chinatown #73 SSA, Wendella Tours, and Northern Illinois University.

Mural “Between the Mountains and the Water”

For the past two years the project has focused on making the riverfront more inviting by installing public art, signage, and wayfinding. Between 2018 and 2019, the community unveiled two large murals under the park’s viaduct, entitled “All As One” and “Between the Mountains and the Water,” which were inspired by traditional Chinese culture. CBCAC also hosted a series of dragon boat classes, and supported citywide dragon boat races on the river in partnership with the Greater Chicago Dragon Boat Club.

On its third year of funding, CBCAC has shifted its focus to building local economic power in collaboration with businesses in Chinatown by leveraging the community’s proximity to and stewardship of the riverfront. Building on its previous community planning and engagement initiatives such as the Chinatown Wayfinding Plan, CBCAC is developing assessments to understanding the relationship between the riverfront, local businesses, and tourism in Chinatown. This year’s focus has three main components: a baseline study of the business landscape, a survey to gather characteristics and experiences of Chinatown tourists, and host two placemaking events at both murals in Ping Tom Park.

In spring 2020, CBCAC, in partnership with the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce and two researchers from Northern Illinois University, created a comprehensive survey to gather quantitative and qualitative data from the business community in Chinatown. During fall 2020, CBCAC implemented a wide-ranging outreach strategy to connect with over 200 business owners through door-knocking, emails, phone calls, and media advertisements from a local Chinese newspaper. Thus far, over 60 surveys have been completed. A major obstacle for collecting survey data has been the outreach limitations given the COVID-19 pandemic. The group began pivoting to digital outreach for the remainder of the 2020 year, but plan to strengthen their outreach by mailing surveys to businesses that would otherwise not respond due to the digital divide. The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted other aspects of the project. For now, CBCAC is unclear of when they will be able to roll out the survey of Wendella Boat Tour and Chicago Water Taxi riders to collect data on visitor demographics, spending habits, and activities conducted while in Chinatown.

Looking forward

For 2021, CBCAC has been developing new and creative strategies to meet their project goals. The group is working on a plan to safely host the two placemaking events at the murals under Ping Tom Park’s viaducts. Enhancing wayfinding by installing language inclusive signage and adequate lighting at Ping Tom Park continues to be a priority as well. We are proud to share that CBCAC has been invited to participate in a nationwide cohort through the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD) with organizations that are building business corridor stabilization and expansion projects in peer cities.