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Curious Louis: The future of St. Louis’ 'unofficial' Chinatown

Business owners in Jeffrey Plaza on Olive Boulevard say they have not been receiving updates about a proposed development that would displace them.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Business owners in Jeffery Plaza on Olive Boulevard say they have not been receiving updates about a proposed development that would displace them.

St. Louis once had a thriving hub for Chinese immigrants moving to the city. Historical records show in 1894 there were about 1,000 people of Chinese heritage living in St. Louis, many of whom had moved to the region from California in the middle part of the century.

A St. Louis Public Radio listener wanted to know how so many Chinese businesses came to exist at Olive Boulevard near Interstate 170 in University City. The listener also wanted to know why hasn’t there been more expansion of Asian businesses there. 

Many of the first Chinese residents in St. Louis lived in the area where Busch Stadium is today, owning and operating restaurants, grocery stores and laundries. Residents also opened schools and founded Chinese associations, notably the On Leong Merchants Association. The area was commonly known locally as “Hop Alley.”

But by 1966, the city’s growing Chinese neighborhood in downtown St. Louis was demolished to make way for Busch Memorial Stadium. Hundreds of families were displaced and moved to other areas of the city. Well-known markers of the city’s Chinatown, including the merchants association and Asia Cafe, also had to relocate.

Asia Cafe and the merchants found new locations at the 1500 block of Delmar (Asia Cafe became the Asian Food Products store). Many of the Chinese families who lived downtown moved to other parts of the city and St. Louis County.


New neighborhood

Olive Boulevard, near Interstate 170, was the new hub for Chinese culture by the 1990s. Jeffrey Plaza, 8635 Olive Boulevard, is a part of this well-known businesses district. (see map above).

Max Tsai's family has owned businesses on Olive for years. He is the chief executive of AccuHealth Urgent Care in a strip mall across the street from Jeffery Plaza. He said he has seen growth in the community's Asian and Asian-American population over the decade. He believes it mirrors the increase of Asian students at nearby Washington University. Today the university estimates about 30 percent of the student body is Asian. 

“Most of the people who came here in the beginning were students. They came for education,” Tsai said. “And then their families may move over. Some of those who weren’t in academia, weren’t in specialties like medicine, they were the ones that actually started to do grassroots business; mom and pop businesses.”

Former Olive Boulevard business owner Judy Mei came to St. Louis in 1976. She said then there were probably only a few hundred Chinese people in the area. Now, she guesses the numbers could be in the thousands. She said for many Asian families school districts are an important factor drawing them to areas such as Ladue, Chesterfield and Creve Couer. 

Asian population today (US Census Bureau)

  • St. Louis: 9,200
  • St. Louis County: 34,000

Newspaper clippings at the Missouri Historical Society show some Chinese residents had hoped the area on Olive Boulevard would turn into an official Chinatown, complete with an arched gate similar to ones in Chicago or San Francisco.
University City officials welcomed the cultural influx, but there has been pushback over the years on renaming the section of Olive Boulevard Chinatown. Some say the name would ignore the myriad of cultures represented in the area. People can find Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Jamaican and Ugandan influences all in the same business district. Instead, the area is known as the Olive Link. Chambers of Commerce for the city and Asian American entrepreneurs also have addresses on Olive.

Efforts to re-brand the area came as recently as 2009, when a University City business district design proposal stated: "The concept of an American melting pot of goods and services that caters to all ethnic groups is more acceptable and could facilitate festivals and other public events that will assist in growing businesses along the Olive Boulevard corridor."

More change to come?

Novus Development, known for building shopping centers and subdivisions, has been in talks with University City for months. The developer is eyeing 50 acres of land near the Olive Boulevard business district to build a multi-million dollar. mixed-use project, complete with space for a large retail store, luxury apartments and a senior living facility.

But could a new shopping center mean displacing residents and businesses again?

Interim University City Community Development Director Rosalind Williams tried to ease people’s fears at an April Tax Increment Financing Commission meeting. She reminded residents the council has not yet approved the Novus proposal. If the project does get the green light, construction could begin in the summer of 2019.

Williams said the plan would use commercial revenue to pay for residential improvements that could tackle decades-long economic stagnation.

“This model will provide that funding that we hope to be able to leverage for banks funding and other kinds of funding and it’s an opportunity to address those issues of decline and neglect,” she said.

For business owners worried about how relocating would affect them, Williams said the city is working on incentive plans for business owners who are concerned about the costs of moving.

The Novus development proposal is a portion of a larger business redevelopment plan in University City’s Ward 3. The city has yet to approve $54 million in Tax Increment Financing money and another $16 million in Community Improvement District funds for the project, Novus President Jonathan Browne said.

MORE: See plans for the TIF project at Olive and I-170

“While we’re not directly involved in those projects. We are the economic engine of those projects,” Browne said. “So just wanting to back up for a minute and look at the big view off what this TIF is doing and what it’s there for is more than just the commercial development.”

A major retailer, on which much of the development is being centered, has not been named. Yet, developers have projected millions in revenue.

Community in flux, again

Business owners in Jeffery Plaza on Olive Boulevard are confused by these plans. They say much of what they know so far has been hearsay from residents or other businesses owners. Many of them are worried about where they will go if the project is approved.

“We don’t feel like we have a lot of control over what happens if the development moves forward or not,” said Pho Long Restaurant owner Tuyen H. He didn’t want to give his last name. “It takes longer than a month move-out time to build a restaurant. You know what I mean? At least I’d like to get a head start.”

Hear more from the people in this story:

Tuyen, Pho Long Restaurant
Easton Romer, De Palm Tree
Daejong "DJ" Lee, East East Food Market

Novus owns Jeffrey Plaza now. Acupuncturist Wenying Cui owns a small shop in the plaza. He said, like other business owners there, he was notified by letter this year about a new landlord and a new temporary lease. He said he didn't have any other information about what could happen. Some his neighbors say poor communication with the developer and the city have made them feel unsure about the future of their businesses.

Browne said there is a possibility for businesses to come back to the shopping center once it’s constructed. He said he understands that most businesses could not sustain being out of commission for a year. Browne suggested that there could be vacancies east of the potential development that businesses could move to in the meantime. 

Still, Daejong “DJ” Lee, of the East East Food Market, 8619 Olive Boulevard, worries about his livelihood.

“I do this for a living. This the only income I get to pay for my bills and house; to pay for my son at college,” he said. East East has been a fixture of Jeffrey Plaza for about 30 years.

“You need a community”

Major changes to the Olive Link area could fray the sense of community.

Judy Mei first came to St. Louis in 1976. Back then, she said she would travel to Chicago to find the Chinese goods she wanted. After more businesses started moving to Olive Boulevard, including a noodle company, it made access to the products she was used to more convenient.

She worries that if rent becomes too high after the area as has been redeveloped some people may not be able to afford to move back.

“You can have the food you want and groceries you want,” Mei said.

But more than that, there is a community.

“The Chinese doctor speaks the same language. It’s easy for us,” she said. “Yes, you need a community to put everybody together.”

Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland (Oregon). Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.

Ashley Lisenby is the news director of St. Louis Public Radio.