Village Green: Boston's Asian Community Brings Fun, Education & Affordability to Chinatown

As has been the case with a lot of the Boston Asian Community Development Corporation's great projects and partnerships, someone had a good idea, ran with it, and created just a little more community than there was before in the neighborhood.
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Every summer, Boston's Asian Community Development Corporation has been hosting an informal grassroots Asian film festival in a vacant lot near the city's Chinatown Gate. The final night this year (below) was moved to the nearby Chinatown Park. As has been the case with a lot of this organization's great projects and partnerships, someone had a good idea, ran with it, and created just a little more community than there was before in the neighborhood.

In addition, check out the rapid-fire, two-minute video of time-lapse photography below, which shows exactly how they do it. (But turn the annoying sound down or off.)

Writer Yvonne Abraham captures the spirit in the Boston Globe:

Take a seat on the patch of asphalt on Hudson Street near the Chinatown Gate. See Jackie Chan and Jet Li cheat death. Hear the crowd laugh, the kids squeal, and the city hum all around you.

Behold the miracle that is Films at the Gate. Now in its fourth year, the outdoor film series is the brainchild of the visionary Asian Community Development Corporation, residents Sam and Leslie Davol, and Chinese cinema buff Jean Lukitsh . . .

But what's happening here is also something bigger: An event that brings the city to life without a lifetime of planning and divine intervention; it belongs completely to the neighborhood while drawing people from all over; it converts an urban dead spot into a vital place . . .

The Davols have plans to bring us more of it: Come fall, their outfit, Boston Street Lab, will convert an unused Chinatown storefront into a temporary library. (The neighborhood lost its official branch decades ago.) After that, they're hoping to transform an empty Downtown Crossing storefront into a rehearsal space for musicians or actors, so passersby can see a production coming together before the curtain goes up.

It's an inspired way to think about animating the city, especially in a recession: Get a bunch of smart locals together, come up with a cool, short-term way to use vacant space, find a willing property owner, get the word out, and watch the magic happen.

How great is that?

The Asian CDC was formed in the late 1980s, as Asian immigrants and other low income families were facing extreme difficulty in securing affordable homes in and around Boston's Chinatown. Working families were being forced out of the neighborhood and into the suburbs where even greater cultural and linguistic barriers limited their access to essential services and job opportunities.

Since then, the ACDC has done all sorts of great things, including a number of terrific affordable and mixed-income housing projects in the neighborhood. The organization's web site describes the program with the right values:

ACDC's real estate developments are large-scale, transit-oriented, mixed-use and mixed-income. We work strategically with private partners to maximize the number and quality of affordable units we are able to develop while simultaneously fostering diversity that brings strength and additional resources to the neighborhood. We work closely with neighborhood residents, business owners, and organizations to ensure that what gets built meets the needs and desires of the community. We ground our developments in the principles of Smart Growth and sustainable design, creating transit-oriented-developments that maximize affordability while offer a variety of housing, services, employment, and transportation options to our residents.

ACDC has also worked with student teams in an area-wide conceptual design competition sponsored by a number of regional development and design interests to imagine innovative affordable housing proposals for neighborhoods in the New England region. The ACDC entries have won the competition for two years running, this spring with "Chinatown Crossing," designed by a team from MIT (see rendering). The design would convert an existing 1920s building and adjacent annex into 63 market-rate and 42 affordable apartment units, along with a ground-floor branch library, additional neighborhood open space, and a new connection to provide access to an alley lined with historic Chinatown row houses.

Other great ACDC activities include a participatory virtual planning mechanism, distribution of energy-efficient CFLs to community residents, social services for upward mobility, home ownership workshops in Cantonese and Mandarin, and more. Residents and ACDC staff explain and show us some of it in this second neat video:

Kaid Benfield writes occasional "Village Green" commentary on Huffington Post, and (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment on NRDC's Switchboard. For more posts, see his Switchboard blog's home page.

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