Adrian Walker

New arts center helps reclaim a piece of Chinatown

Wah Lum Kung Fu and Tai Chi Academy performed at the grand opening of the Pao Arts Center in Chinatown earlier this month.
Bunker Hill Community College
Wah Lum Kung Fu and Tai Chi Academy performed at the grand opening of the Pao Arts Center in Chinatown earlier this month.

Glance out a window of the newly opened Pao Arts Center in Chinatown, and the view is dominated by concrete — specifically, an expressway entrance ramp that nearly six decades ago ripped a hole in the neighborhood’s soul.

The just-opened arts center is conceived as part gallery, part classroom, and part meeting space. It occupies space in a mixed-use development called One Greenway, a lovely but generic-looking high-rise that hardly feels like part of an ethnic neighborhood.

That’s because it is in an area that was snatched away from Chinatown under the banner of urban renewal. The homes of an estimated 200 to 300 Asian families, which once stood on the site, were demolished during the early 1960s.


But unlike a similar urban renewal bulldozing of the West End, which would become a cautionary tale for urbanists nationwide, the demolition of a huge chunk of Chinatown is nearly forgotten Boston history.

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“Many people who were here at that time got this message from the city that residents really don’t have a say in what happens in the neighborhood,” said Giles Li, executive director of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. “I think the Chinatown community felt the effects of losing it.”

But little by little Chinatown is being knit back together. The new center — at the intersection of Kneeland and Albany streets — is meant to serve several pressing needs. Chinatown doesn’t have a cultural center, or a real meeting place. The neighborhood group that spearheaded the development of the center hopes it will become both of those.

The neighborhood center began laying plans for the arts center three years ago, Li said. The developer of One Greenway was required to set aside space in the building for community use, and the group began to question residents about what they wanted. They found that, more than anything else, neighbors wanted a place to congregate. When residents were asked what spots they most associated with Chinatown, they named outdoor sites like street corners and a couple of tiny parks. That spoke to a community with almost no place to call its own.

“We hope this will be that ‘third space’ — not home, not work — where people can come together and see each other in a different way,” Li said.


The center includes a gallery that will be devoted to the artwork of Asian and Asian-American artists. In addition, there is meeting space and several classrooms. It will eventually have an artist-in-residence, whose work will include neighborhood outreach.

“Our aim is to make this really community driven,” said Cynthia Woo, the center’s director. “We think that’s the way to get people in the space.”

The $1.2 million project was funded by local philanthropists, including its namesake funders, Eleanor and Frank Pao. They are major donors to several local arts organizations, Li said, and jumped at the chance to contribute to a project in Chinatown.

Bunker Hill Community College has also been a major partner in the development of the space. The school is already offering five courses at the center, and plans to have a permanent relationship.

The development of an arts center is a new venture for the neighborhood council, which has historically focused on providing basic services to its predominantly immigrant client base. But residents are clamoring for more than basic services, Li said.


“We know there’s a lot of other things that impact success and help people thrive,” he said. “We took stock and really thought about our role as an anchor in this community, and what would really support the growth and development of his community as a whole.”

Like many other Boston neighborhoods, Chinatown is in the midst of significant transition. But as it goes through its newest major change, Li hopes the residents who have helped build it will have an influence that was missing years ago.

“People in the community want to have a say in what happens in this community,” Li said. “We hope we’re giving people an opportunity to reclaim the narrative.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.