Lively Enclave

A new exhibit on old Chinatown opens at the Detroit Historical Museum


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In preservation circles, the “urban renewal” of the 1960s is often referred to as “urban removal.” Instead of rehabilitating an area, urban-renewal projects frequently leveled neighborhoods, leaving denizens displaced.

Detroit’s old Chinatown, which was on Third, between Michigan and Howard, met such a fate in 1959 when the Detroit Housing Commission (DHC) designated it a slum and razed it in 1961. “Ask any person who lived there, and they’ll tell you it was anything but a slum; it was kept up,” says Chelsea Zuzindlak, curator of the exhibit Detroit Chinatown: Works in Progress, which opens April 4 at the Detroit Historical Museum.

Around the same time of DHC’s pronouncement, the Lodge Freeway was planned to run through Chinatown. “Were they distinct movements, or was one just making way for the other to happen?” Zuzindlak wonders.

In any event, the old Chinatown was demolished, and a new one sprang up in the early ’60s in the Cass Corridor. However, not all businesses and residents made the move. Eventually, that second area became blighted, and there are few remnants remaining of the second Chinatown.

Through photographs and artifacts, the exhibit tells the story of the once-thriving enclave, as well as its reincarnation on Cass. Zuzindlak says those who lived on Third were happy to lend memorabilia. “They’re really excited about the exhibit because their story has never been told,” she says. Included are sadirons from a Chinese laundry, a merchant’s scale, a Chinese silk dress, and a 1950s dining set from Victor Lim’s restaurant.

The first Chinese immigrant settled in Detroit in 1872, but the influx from other American cities escalated in the 20th century. By 1945, there were more than 3,000 residents in Detroit’s Chinatown, Zuzindlak says.

Few Chinese were allowed to immigrate after the U.S. government’s 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which was lifted in 1943. While the act was in place, “the Chinese couldn’t be naturalized,” Zuzindlak says.

Although it was never as big as Chinatowns in San Francisco or New York, Detroit’s colony was vibrant and tight-knit.

“It was loving, friendly, and home to many people,” Zuzindlak says.

Runs through July 5. Info: detroithistorical.org.

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