A traditional Chinese garden draws hundreds of visitors to Chinatown in downtown Portland, Oregon. But along with beauty, the garden has brought development pressure and higher rents. Dmae Roberts reports on how the city is coping with the downside of urban revitalization.
CURWOOD: A little more than a year ago, the largest classical Chinese garden outside of China opened in Portland, Oregon. After 15 years and 12 and a half million dollars, the city converted a block of concrete in the heart of Chinatown into a viable and busy tourist attraction. But, as producer Dmae Roberts reports, some residents of Chinatown have mixed feelings about the new-found prosperity that has come with the walled garden.
ROBERTS: Portland's Chinatown sits on roughly ten square blocks between homeless shelters and an ever-growing arts district. Once a thriving community with about 150 Asian families, Chinatown has dwindled the last few decades, to a handful of Chinese restaurants and gift shops. As rents increased, most of the family businesses have moved out, leaving empty storefronts. Chinatown was on its way to becoming an area of neglect until the recent surge of activity, from the classical Chinese garden.
WATSON: We have many school tours that come trough our garden and one that's coming in right now is in the entrance courtyard.
ROBERTS: Tour manager Lisa Watson enters the garden, already packed with groups of school kids.
WATSON: This is an area that includes a large archway that's very typical of gardens in China. It's guarded by two lions, one that has its hand on the earth, which is the male; and the other is the female, which has her hand on a pup, both signifying their importance in their role in the family.
ROBERTS: The garden is an architect's dream, with pavilions, archways, bridges and cobblestone walkways all centering around a large lake, laced with water lilies and lotus flowers.
WATSON: The best part about the garden for me, I think, is the location of it in the middle of a city and having a nice respite: an area where people can come during a busy work day and relax and enjoy the quiet, enjoy the waterfall, the scenery, and on a beautiful day like today, enjoy the sunshine.
ROBERTS: Standing in the Chinese garden, there's a moment you forget you're in the heart of downtown. Then we turn a corner, and see one of the largest skyscrapers in Portland.
WATSON: It's sort of overlooking one of our largest buildings in the garden, which is the four-sided hall. It's a really nice contrast, and it really does help to highlight the fact that we are in a very busy part of the city.
ROBERTS: Just how a garden space can mix with urban life is one of the challenges that face most cities today. And while the Chinese garden has far exceeded expectations to revitalize Chinatown by drawing in visitors, it's also luring new development that may not be sensitive to the needs of the garden or to the neighborhood. Randy Gragg, of the Oregonian newspaper, covers architecture and urban design. He's been following the development of this urban park and tourist attraction.
GRAGG: The neighborhood is under a lot of development pressure right now. You're surrounded by basically key development sites. Most of the blocks here are underdeveloped and they are likely to change hands and the buildings on them torn down. The heights around the garden right now, the zoning would allow for buildings as high as 250 feet.
ROBERTS: Gloria Lee, executive director of the garden, says she's confident new development won't literally overshadow the garden.
LEE: Mr. Kwang, the original garden designer from Suzhou, has shared with us the concept of "borrowed views," and I think for the garden some basic things are that when you look up that you be able to see light, doesn't necessarily mean that we can't have tall buildings. And it's my belief that I think we can accomplish both things, is to make good use of our land values down here, and still keep dutiful respect of how the design is handled, so that the "borrowed view," if you will, is pleasing for the garden.
ROBERTS: Assuring that the "borrowed view" won't be compromised is Gloria Lee's mission. But as property values increase, many of the Chinese residents may not be able to afford the rent. Bruce Wong's family used to own several businesses in Chinatown before moving out as the area deteriorated. Mr. Wong is skeptical that Chinatown will be able to keep its Asian identity.
WONG: Let's face it. If you go down to Chinatown now, and you go down on a weekday, not on a weekend, go on a weekday. And you go walk into a House of Louie, you walk into Seven Stars, you walk into Hung Far Lo, Fong Chong--any of them, it's not a standing line waiting, and you don't make a profit, on four or five tables a night. So we've got a real problem on income. How's he going to make it? So then, if I come by and say, "Okay, I'll buy that property from you, cash, 2 million bucks," they're going to sell it. And, as they sell it, more and more of the Asian ownership of the building and the property disappears.
HONG: Well, since the garden opened we've had a lot more people that came into the store.
ROBERTS: Joann Hong started the Great Era Gift Shop 25 years ago. As the owner of the building she's been able to hold onto her business through the years, when others have moved on. She credits the garden with rejuvenating the area.
HONG: The Tuck Lung building used to be a grocery store, and it was empty for quite some time. Royal Ginseng family went in and they put in their ginseng and tea shop, and it is a wonderful addition. I'm hoping that Chinatown will grow. I'm hopeful.
ROBERTS: Regardless, if Chinatown can hold onto the Asian community, the classical Chinese garden is, without doubt, a place of beauty. Here on a sunny day crowds of people get a chance to see a Chinese garden, perhaps for the first time. A positive introduction to Chinese culture, intertwining nature and art in the heart of a city. For Living on Earth, I'm Dmae Roberts, in Portland, Oregon.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.