Decline of Old Chinatown

By the early 1910’s the seeds of decline were sown in Old Chinatown, which was located along Alameda Street by Olvera Street, a half mile from Azusa Street. Besides the Exclusion Acts curtailing immigration, the inducements of the new produce center at City Market, co-founded by the Chinese, and a new nearby Chinatown with an evolving residential district led to a gradual population decrease in the Old Place. Symptoms of a generally corrupt Los Angeles, news of wide open gambling houses, vestiges of opium dens, often staged for the unwary tourist, and the fierce tong warfare of the period encouraged the respectable visitor to avoid the Old Quarter. Now, highly dependent on Chinese residents alone, business in Old Chinatown declined.

Perhaps the most important factor in Old Chinatown’s increasing depression was instability and uncertainty in the actions of the landlords. With the rumors of impending City redevelopment increasing in volume with each passing year, few cared to improve or maintain their Chinatown properties. Incredibly, the historic streets of Old Chinatown east of Alameda were never to be paved as a result of this downward spiral of disinterest. Housing conditions were abominable in the end. And the Chinese became too impoverished or too dispirited to improve much. Without a place to go, they would remain stubbornly reluctant to vacate even at the very end.

The threat of Chinese relocation started as early as 1913 when a large portion of Old Chinatown was entangled in a three-way litigation suit between the Apablasa family and the City of Los Angeles over the ownership of Chinatown streets. It was contended that the streets belonged, not to the city, but to the estate since all street improvements had been paid for by the estate and the property had been maintained as private.

Meanwhile all the leases on the Chinatown property had expired and litigation was the one barrier which prevented the sale of the property for uses other than housing the Chinese. On December 12, 1913, all suits were
dropped and six acres of Old Chinatown property were sold for $310,000, possibly for Southern Pacific track ways. On November 7, 1914, a large deal was concluded for the acquisition of all Chinatown lying east of Alameda Street. This property cost the new owner L.F. Hanchett, a San Francisco capitalist, over two million dollars. Old Chinatown was to be converted into an industrial and warehouse district while a new Chinese Colony would be developed. In time, Hanchett was found to be planning a railroad terminal instead, but he was thwarted in court as his plan lost credibility.

The Hanchett experience was the first of several attempts for a terminal. Civic discussions continued at the highest levels of power, with always the favorite site being Old Chinatown since it was conveniently adjacent to a confluence of tracks and the land was controlled by one or few owners. In a day when rail was king, the strong metropolitan desire for a major rail terminal, Union Station, was akin to the push for Los Angeles International Airport years later. On the fateful day of May 19, 1931, a California Supreme Court decision was upheld approving land condemnations and the construction of the new Union Station upon the site of Old Chinatown. Two years were to slip by before an acceptable Chinese relocation proposal was accepted by the City.