Chinatown, Detroit

August 3, 2016

At the intersection of Cass Avenue and Peterboro Street are the remnants of the second Chinatown of Detroit, Michigan, which relocated there in the 1960s before it and its last restaurant closed in 2000.


This morning, the only hints of its history are the 8-paneled “Welcome to Chinatown” kiosk on the Cass-Peterboro corner, a mural commemorating the Vincent Chin murder 34 years ago, and signs in Chinese characters overlooking vacant storefronts on the south side of Peterboro. A quick Google Image search reveals that the vertical panels of the kiosk must have been painted in recent years; the originals had different text painted in red words over white backgrounds. When I asked my mother what the characters read later that evening, she provided rough translations for several panels before deeming the others illegible due to their overwrought calligraphy.


The trees lining Peterboro in their sturdy planters lend it a courtyard-like feel. There’s not much foot traffic on the block this hot summer morning. Two men with leafblowers sweep up the north side of the street, whose storefronts house those familiar bellwethers of 21st century gentrification–a craft beer bar around the corner, a hip tattoo parlour, a bike shop, and a chic restaurant/cocktail bar aptly named the Peterboro, serving “contemporary American Chinese food.”


The doors on the building on the street’s south side are locked and boarded up. A man named Mario shakes my hand and asks for some change for bus fare back to Flint. “You should buy this place,” he advises me, “what with the hockey rink they’re building.” He leads me to the corner and points out the cranes looming above the construction site for the Red Wings arena a few blocks over, funded in part by some $280 million in taxpayer funds in a city that filed for bankruptcy three years ago. After he walks away, I hear from the manager at the Peterboro, which opened last fall, that the building Mario mentioned is in development to be another restaurant.


I take a closer look at the mural mounted on the as-yet undeveloped building. In the bottom left corner, Mrs. Lily Chin clutches a photo of Vincent, the words “I want justice for my son” peering over her shoulder. The middle of the mural has Dr. King’s face, with the text “I have a dream here in Detroit” beside him–he’d given a version of his famous speech here in Detroit two months before delivering it following the March on Washington in 1963. His eyes gaze rightward toward a rainbow coalition of protestors crying out for justice: “No human being is illegal.” “Fight poverty, not people.” “Stop racism.”


Tucked away in the upper left corner of the mural are three musical notes and the words “Paradise Valley” and “Black Bottom.” Wikipedia tells me that they were historic, predominantly black neighborhoods in Detroit, famed for their contributions to Blues, Big Band, and Jazz during the 1930s-1950s. The two neighborhoods were cleared to make way for freeways and “urban renewal.” They were gone before the 1960s, gone before Chinatown carved out, then lost, a short-lived home in this tiny slice of Detroit.

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