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The Boston Globe

Metro

Yvonne Abraham

Longtime residents are lost in Chinatown’s building boom

Standing in Lie Li’s rundown apartment, you get a depressingly acute sense of how the old Chinatown is disappearing — literally — from under her.

Li, 61 and her husband, Zhong Chang Liang, 64, live on the top floor of a brick row house on Harrison Avenue. It’s a small place, with a beat-up vinyl floor, an ancient bathroom, and a couple of lonely cabinets in the kitchen. They crowd into one of the two bedrooms with their adult daughter. Until recently, an acquaintance rented the other room, the size of a walk-in closet.

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It’s not much, but it’s theirs. Or was, until their landlord sent an eviction notice in December. These are boom times in Chinatown, and the man who owns their building — like so many others here — wants to cash in.

Li and Liang don’t know where they’ll go. They can barely afford the $800 in rent they pay now. A stroke left Liang unable to work. Li makes about $600 a month washing dishes. “I don’t know how to do anything,” she says, an organizer from the Chinese Progressive Association translating her Cantonese. They’ve been waiting months for a spot in public housing.

“Life for us is very difficult,” said Liang, his eyes welling. “We don’t choose to be poor. We don’t ask for much, just basic things.”

But the boom won’t wait. Below their apartment, the building has been gutted, kitchens ripped out, walls taken down to the studs. The owner who didn’t put a cent into the place when it housed poor tenants is clearly willing to invest when it comes to people who can pay thousands each month.

It’s the same story all over Chinatown, where gentrification has been thrown into top gear by a few luxe developments — most recently Millennium Place, up on Washington Street, where condos average $1 million.

For decades, new arrivals made their homes in Chinatown’s row houses, finding affordable rents, jobs, and connections in a community they understood. People with little money and a desperate need for shelter will put up with a lot.

This world of silent squalor has long been largely unseen. Occasionally, however, it burst into view, as it did on a February night in 2012, when firefighters responding to a false alarm found desperate conditions at the See Sun building on Harrison Avenue. The mostly elderly tenants were evacuated and eventually relocated to South Boston.

The plight of tenants like Li and Liang is becoming more visible. But that doesn’t mean a solution is near. A few years ago, they began coming into the offices of the Chinese Progressive Association — first, because rising rents were forcing them to double and triple up in apartments. Then, because they faced eviction.

The city knows there is a crisis. Mayor Marty Walsh met with residents Wednesday night to discuss it. With help from nonprofits, city hall has been trying to slow the slide for poorer residents. (Although giving Millennium Place a $5.9 million break on its affordable housing contribution, as the previous administration did, didn’t help).

About 500 new units of affordable housing are being built here, or are in the pipeline. But it’s not enough to keep up: About 1,460 market-rate units are coming, too. In 2010, 47 percent of Chinatown was affordable. Even after the new units are completed, only 36 percent of the neighborhood will be affordable.

Of course, the market is the market. Landlords, some grew up in Chinatown themselves, have a right to use their property as they wish. And for decades, many in the city have longed for a vibrant, residential, middle-class downtown, because that’s good for Boston.

But the Chinatown that Li and Liang represent is good for Boston, too. This is a place that has always been alive day and night, where the streets are full of ordinary people of all ages, where residents can buy fresh, cheap produce at unlovely green grocers, where old men sit in the shade playing chess on summer afternoons.

Without them, Chinatown would be a characterless, Disneyfied version of itself, or, worse, an Asian West End.

And Boston would be a smaller, colder place.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.

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