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Chicago’s Asian population, fastest growing in city, is booming south of Chinatown — especially in former Daley stronghold

The 2020 census shows Asian Americans for the first time are the biggest ethnic or racial group in Bridgeport and are seeing big gains in many areas along Archer Avenue.

People walk across Cermak Road, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, in Chinatown.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Asians are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in Chicago, according to the 2020 census. And that population growth is happening in neighborhoods throughout the city — including Bridgeport, the onetime home of the Daley family dynasty, where they now outnumber whites for the first time in history.

The total Asian population in Chicago grew from 144,903 in 2010 to 189,857 in 2020 — a 31% increase. Asian Americans now make up 7 percent of the city’s 2.7 million residents.

Customers head inside Park to Shop, 2121 S. Archer Ave., on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021.
Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

Main artery for East Asian immigrants

On the South Side, the Asian population has grown exponentially along and near Archer Avenue, beginning at Armour Square and stretching as far west as Archer Heights. The street has become the main artery for immigrants and descendants of East Asian countries for the past decade.

Grace Chan McKibben, executive director of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, said the area’s access to the Stevenson Expressway allows people to travel quickly by car for work or for leisure while the No. 62 Archer Avenue bus help both young and elderly commuters.

“People started moving along Archer Avenue because the bus is so important and they take it to Chinatown or all the way to Kelly High School,” McKibben said. “If you drive up and down Archer you will see a lot of Chinese signs and that can be seen well past 45th Street. These are restaurants, auto repair shops, wholesale places, industrial places — all things that are vital for a growing community.”

The 2020 census documented that growth beginning in the Armour Square community, home to Chinatown. Armour Square, which has been majority-Asian for at least 30 years, saw modest growth in its total population, from 13,391 in 2010 to 13,890 last year; Asian Americans make up the bulk of that slight increase.

McKibben said the growth in Armour Square hasn’t matched nearby neighborhoods because it already was a hub for Asians from many backgrounds. Also, Chinatown remains mostly a commercial district and housing has become less affordable over the years.

Housing is cheaper southwest of Chinatown, allowing some to buy a home while still being close to their cultural hub.

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Another sought-out destination for Asian Americans has been Bridgeport, where Asians have become the largest ethnic or racial group in the past 10 years.

Bridgeport was the longtime home of thousands of Irish immigrants where both Mayor Richard J. Daley and his son, Richard M. who also served as mayor, lived for decades along with many white ethnic city workers and officials.

But the area has been becoming more diverse over the years; in 2010, the 11,225 whites barely outnumbered the Asian population of just over 11,000 and exceeded the Latino population of 8,627.

Since then Bridgeport saw its Asian population explode by 3,138, or 28%, while its white population fell by nearly 8% and Latino population fell even more, the 2020 census shows. The community, which in total grew by 5% to 33,702 residents, is now 42% Asian, 31% white and 21% Latino.

“If you ask a resident who lives in Bridgeport, or even McKinley Park, they will believe they are living in Chinatown,” McKibben said. “I think they just feel this whole place is connected, with Chinatown acting as the commercial hub.”

In McKinley Park, the Asian population grew 75% — from 2,445 in 2010 to 4,294 in 2020. Asians now make up more than a quarter of the population as the white and Latino population dropped, though the community remains majority Latino.

Further west, in Brighton Park, the Asian population grew 117% — from 2,252 in 2010 to 4,895 in 2020 — accounting for about 10% of the more than 45,000 people that call the neighborhood home.

David Wu, executive director of the Pui Tak Center, discusses COVID-19 vaccinations during a news conference in June.
David Wu, executive director of the Pui Tak Center, discusses COVID-19 vaccinations during a news conference in June.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago’s Chinatown remains strong

David Wu, founder of the Pui Tak Center, said Chinatowns across the country are shrinking and feeling the pressures of gentrification, often because of location: Chinatowns in cities like San Francisco and New York tend to be located in financial districts, for example. But that is not happening in Chicago’s Chinatown, which is just outside of the downtown area.

“Traditionally, an immigrant community sticks around for 40 to 50 years and until they are replaced by another immigrant group or it gets gentrified,” Wu said. “But Chinatown is fairly unique as this has been a place for immigrants from China, and other parts of Asia, for over 100 years because people two and even three generations out — people still want to live here.”

Those communities outside Armour Square are good options for those moving up the economic ladder to purchase their first homes or to just find affordable rental housing, Wu said.

The growing population also has allowed social service organizations like Wu’s to expand in those communities.

Pui Tak Center was one of many groups during the pandemic distributing culturally appropriate food to people in need, helping laid-off workers apply for unemployment and setting up vaccination clinics. The organization opened a satellite location in Bridgeport to meet demand.

“We focus on the needs of the newer immigrants, and language is still a big issue we help with, but the language has changed slightly in a sense, with more diverse dialects,” Wu said.

Paul Luu, CEO of the Chinese American Service League, said the growing population has allowed his organization to expand. The league, which has provided services to Asian Americans for over 40 years, serves close to 8,000 clients in McKinley Park, Brighton Park, Armour Square and Bridgeport.

A woman peruses the fruit outside Park To Shop Supermarket, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, in Chinatown.
Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

As that population has grown over the years, community leaders in Chinatown, seeing no strong advocate in City Hall, went to work. Their efforts led to the opening of the Chinatown Branch library in 2014 and the opening of Ping Tom Park in 1999 — which has since expanded to add a boathouse and field house.

Just north of Archer Avenue on the other side of the river is also 88 Marketplace at Jefferson Square, 2105 S. Jefferson St., which borders Chinatown and East Pilsen. It’s dubbed the largest Chinese supermarket in the city stocking imported Chinese products and its second floor bolsters a sprawling food court.

“It is because of the Chinese leaders that we are seeing so much growth in the community,” Luu said. “They are building grocery stores, housing and investors want to see Chinatown thrive. That’s why it is really important to have an [Asian and Pacific Islander] ward that would allow our residents to have a voice in City Hall.”

In search of political clout

Chicago’s ward map is redrawn every 10 years based on new census numbers. This time, Luu and other Chinatown leaders want to include a majority-Asian ward for the first time.

Luu said more must be done to meet the needs of Asian Americans living in Chicago, such as improving access to mental health support, creating economic mobility and building more affordable housing, as well as “more quality child care that is bilingual and culturally appropriate.”

“Not everyone who is Asian speaks Cantonese or Mandarin, and not everyone in Chinatown is Chinese. We have Vietnamese, Korean and other ethnic groups that need help,” he added. An Asian American leader “would recognize that and advocate for us all.”