Developers displace small businesses like Ai Hoa Market in Chinatown.
Over forty years ago, a family of Vietnamese refugees came together and opened up Ai Hoa Market in the heart of Los Angeles Chinatown. In the 1970s, Huy Hang, Ahn Ngo, and their daughter Linda took over the local supermarket from a family member. They would continue to serve the neighborhood with their wide selection of fresh Asian groceries, baked goods, seafood and poultry, and home products. Like other longstanding and immigrant-run small businesses found across Chinatown, Ai Hoa provided the neighborhood’s low-income residents, many of whom are elders and families, affordable and convenient access to important resources, as well as stable work.
But everything changed in 2018. Downtown developer Tom Gilmore — a big player in transforming the city’s urban landscape into one attractive and palatable for wealthy real estate investment in the last few decades — purchased the Hill & College Street block where Ai Hoa and surrounding businesses stood for a tremendous $15.375 million dollars. On the other side of the block, he had already spent $10 million in 2013 on four properties lining College and Broadway. These buildings housed herbal and souvenir shops, Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, and single room occupancy (SRO) apartment units where low-income residents lived. Down the street, he also had already bought two properties in the historic Chinatown Central Plaza in 2016 and 2017. In only a few years, Gilmore’s takeover of Chinatown — where the median household income falls under $20,000 — has totaled close to $30 million dollars.
In our current time, real estate capital carries disproportionate weight and power over how our cities change and grow. So when developers like Gilmore buy up property in working-class immigrant neighborhoods that have long been divested and considered worthless, distressed, or dilapidated, what follows can be guaranteed: displacement of poor residents and the cultural spaces, affordable housing, and small businesses that serve them to be replaced by visions of mixed-used development and boutique hotels that house majority if not all market-rate units. Color it red, name it something like “Jia,” “Blossom Plaza,” or “Harmony,” invite some Asian American creatives to paint a mural or open up the newest trending bar or restaurant, and pat yourself on the back for the revitalization (code word: gentrification) of Chinatown.
When Gilmore bought the property, he and his representatives reassured Linda and her family that nothing would change — an empty promise that meant nothing less than constant harassment, intimidation, and increases in rent and parking fees, all common tactics used by landlords to drive out residential and commercial tenants who they don’t see as profitable.
Pretty quickly, Linda noticed that Gilmore China Group and property manager (and Partner and Head of Acquisition and Leasing) Coco Kristal — who conveniently happens to live on the same property in the building used as Gilmore’s real estate firm’s office — failed to even be decent commercial landlords.
When Gilmore China Group renovated the parking lot, they gave Ai Hoa and surrounding shops only 24 hours notice, not enough time to find alternatives for customer parking which resulted in loss of business.
When Gilmore China Group demanded Ai Hoa replace the outdoor awning or they would hire someone to come change it, the family was required to pay for all the costs.
When rain leaked through the ceiling and damaged goods, Ai Hoa was forced to pay for the repairs on their own because previous encounters with Coco made them feel unbearably uncomfortable to ask Gilmore China Group for compensation.
Other commercial tenants of Gilmore have reported a number of similar issues. One even had to sue Gilmore China Group for illegally charging them a tax-related fee. That tenant won the case.
What started as little things grew into repeated harassment and growing unease for Linda and her family.
“With the old owner, you didn’t have to ask for permission. It’s your space, you’re renting it. As long as you’re not doing anything illegal. But ever since they took over, you have to ask permission. You feel constantly surveillanced. Like you can’t be yourself.”
Things got worse with time.
On top of constant harassment, Gilmore China Group kept Ai Hoa Market on a month-to-month lease and refused to explore a tenant lease agreement that provided long-term stability. They raised rents by 5%. They also required Ai Hoa to pay for parking expenses which totaled $4,500 to $6,000 a month. Employee parking used to be covered by the rent, and the cost to validate customers was lower. With all of this factored in, Gilmore had effectively given Ai Hoa Market a 40% rent increase.
Aware of the needs and low income level of the people who frequented the market, Ai Hoa didn’t want to raise prices on their products because they knew it would be unaffordable for residents in Chinatown. Reluctantly, they passed along some of the rising operating costs to their customers in the form of small increases in product prices and a higher purchase minimum in exchange for parking validation. However, it became very difficult to keep prices low, while sustaining as a business.
The decision to close did not come easy. Linda’s family tried exploring every option, including the possibility of selling their business — at financial loss to them — to an operator who would maintain it as an affordable full service grocery store that served the low-income community. When Linda proposed this, Coco responded with “Ha. Like who would buy the business?”
Chinatown’s residents are not getting wealthier. Minimal increases to the local median income come from the influx of middle to upper class professionals and artists into the neighborhood, who most likely have access to a car, mostly likely can drive to the Trader Joe’s in Silverlake, most likely see Chinatown as only a pit stop. The closure of Ai Hoa may only become an inconvenience for affluent newcomers. For many low-income residents, it’s a devastating loss. The options for affordable markets to walk to — similar to affordable places to live in — are quickly dwindling.
When wealthy property owners like Gilmore decide to significantly increase rents in working-class neighborhoods, they force Ai Hoa and other community-serving businesses to make lose-lose decisions between losing money to keep prices low or losing customers after increasing prices.
In the 2 years that Gilmore has served as landlord, his property management has caused lasting emotional distress and stress to the immigrant family-owned small business and surrounding neighborhood. Gilmore China Group forced Ai Hoa Market into a position where they felt as though they had no other choice but to leave, after serving the community for over 40 years.
But Ai Hoa did not leave quietly. With the support of the community, they fought back by speaking out and being loud.
In November, representatives from Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), Chinatown Consolidated Benevolent Association, Southeast Asian Community Alliance, and Chinatown Service Center publicly spoke out in support of Ai Hoa Market at a press conference. This was an opportunity for the family of Ai Hoa to tell their story and for residents to share their thoughts on Chinatown losing its last remaining supermarket. What we witnessed was representatives of Gilmore China Group passing out press packets and in the days that followed, spreading narratives meant to dismiss Ai Hoa’s real lived experiences.
Calling on the developer to keep the space an affordable full service Asian grocery store with the input and leadership of working class residents, the community delivered a petition with over 3000 signatures.
The outpouring of community support over the next few weeks encouraged Ai Hoa to fight to stay, at least for a few more months in order to transition the market to another operator. This meant Gilmore needed to genuinely work with Ai Hoa to provide a sustainable lease agreement and that Gilmore needed to meet with the community on its terms.
A few days before a community protest was scheduled to take place against Gilmore China Group, Peter Ng, CEO of Chinatown Service Center supported Coco in calling Linda to a hastily arranged meeting. Gilmore himself just so happened to be enjoying travel abroad in Rome.
During this time, Coco said that if the community — which includes elders and families — moved forward with the protest that weekend, she would call the police. It was clear that they were feeling the pressure of the community.
After negotiating, a proposal emerged: three months at discounted rent for Ai Hoa. Coco agreed to share the proposal to Gilmore for his approval. Ai Hoa’s owners cared deeply about Chinatown. If they couldn’t work with Gilmore for the long term, they believed they could at minimum work out an arrangement to keep the grocery store operating through the holidays and transition it to someone else who also cared about the community to take over.
Rather than consider the proposal, Gilmore refused to negotiate further. It was clear that he had already made his decision before talks began.
According to Gilmore, Coco and him understood Chinatown best. After all, they were property owners and residents. He accused Ai Hoa of “extortion” for publicly calling attention to their concerns and the rising costs of operating a business on his property. He also threatened to pursue legal measures because he had “no intention of yielding to pressure from [Linda] or any outside group pretending to represent Chinatown.”
A market that has served Chinatown and surrounding communities for over 40 years, immigrants and residents of color who called Chinatown home long before developers took interest in it, community leaders who advocated for equity and the wellbeing of the neighborhood’s working-class tenants and small businesses — the very people who make up the community, are the ones that Gilmore believes do not represent Chinatown.
Only when the community mobilized around Ai Hoa did Gilmore China Group publicly come out to make claims that they have Chinatown’s best interests in mind. A representative shared that Gilmore plans to build new mixed-income housing and retail which could include some type of hotel “because Chinatown needs one.” Chinatown does not need another luxury mixed-use development with a miniscule percentage of supposedly affordable housing.
Do Gilmore’s priorities lie in protecting his own self-image — one built off tearing down and renovating what he saw as dilapidated areas of Los Angeles — or truly preserving a working class community’s access to life sustaining, affordable fresh groceries and food? Treating tenants with respect? Holding himself accountable to his own privilege and access to power? How he has responded to the community loudly and unapologetically voicing their concerns and demands speaks to how far removed he is from truly caring about Chinatown.
This fight is about ensuring Gilmore keeps the former Ai Hoa commercial space a community serving market — but it’s also about fighting for all the small businesses in Chinatown who serve the low-income community and who are owned and run by immigrants and families. It’s about fighting for the community’s right to decide what happens to their neighborhood in the face of growing real estate capital and gentrification.
We’ve seen time and time again predatory landlords do whatever they can to pressure tenants to “voluntarily” leave without stirring up noise.
Developers like Gilmore China Group are trying to silence the community. They expect us to stay quiet when our community has already lost so much in such a short period of time — a full service hospital with emergency services, corner store markets like G&G Market and Tony’s Market, longtime family-owned restaurants like Pho Broadway and J&K Hong Kong Cuisine, and hundreds of rent controlled or extremely low-income apartment units.
In December, Chinatown came out to protest for a market — and for the neighborhood as a whole.
Gilmore has more than enough money to have given Ai Hoa an equitable lease agreement or let them operate their last few months rent free to account for all the emotional distress caused to them and to transition to a new market operator without a gap of services to the community.
Gilmore is not short on cash. Just this past year, he agreed to a 10-year deal with the Art Center College of Design which allows them to rent out his 11,500 square foot property for just $1 a year. It’s telling that Gilmore’s prized properties in Chinatown are art galleries. He provides free rent to artist spaces at the same time that he starves Chinatown of its last full service grocery store. This is his vision of Chinatown — one where the well off wine and dine and look at overpriced art while Chinatown’s longtime working class residents go without access to basic services and can no longer afford to live here. Why not give back the property to Chinatown’s residents free of charge?
Moving to Los Angeles in 1998, Gilmore prides himself with leading the “largest resurgence of real estate investment and development the city has experienced in nearly a century.” Throughout the 2000s, his firm Gilmore Associates ushered in a wave of luxury development throughout Downtown, constructing thousands of luxury market-rate units and condominiums. After helping transform Downtown into a playground for the rich at the expense of the poor and houseless communities, Gilmore turned to Chinatown.
Developers like Gilmore heavily lean on the narrative that they are good neighbors who care about Chinatown. In reality, it’s the exact opposite.
Since coming to the neighborhood, Gilmore China Group has done nothing for the working class community. They converted their Central Plaza property into the high-end gallery ToCo Haus with the help of SCI-Arc faculty Elena Manferdini, utilizing it to host private parties and exclusive art shows. They rent out their property spaces to one-night-only parties that evoke a long history of fetishization and orientalization of Chinatown: “the Red Altar [which] is more than just an art gallery… it’s an exploration of [the artists’] most feverish dreams and darkest fantasies… [with] a hosted bar, interactive art installations, DJs spinning music throughout the night, and of course, incredible art… all in the spooky streets of Chinatown Los Angeles.”
Gilmore previously sat on the Board of Directors of the Chinatown Business Improvement District (BID), an organization most known for holding large scale events like Chinatown Summer Nights, which brings in dozens of outside food trucks and young creatives to Chinatown to drink and party. Under all the marketing tailored to attract artists and foodies with disposable incomes, the BID works with developers and city officials like Gil Cedillo to “revitalize” Chinatown.
The BID exists to turn Chinatown into an investment playground for the rich. It has never prioritized the livelihoods of working-class residents and immigrant small businesses, and it does not represent the wider Chinatown community. Developers like Tom Gilmore, New York-based Atlas Capital, and the Riboli family of the San Antonio Winery flock to BID because the group serves their interest to profit at any means necessary. George Yu of the BID has become the go-to person to participate in the erasure of Chinatown as a multiracial working-class immigrant neighborhood that is gentrification, even if it means violently harassing houseless individuals and street vendors and driving out elders and families from their homes and businesses.
The harm that the BID helps actively bring to Chinatown outweighs everything arguably perceived as beneficial:
Luxury projects like Atlas Capital’s 725-unit mixed-use development College Station (which CCED is suing for having absolutely ZERO affordable housing) that drive up real estate speculation, leading other developers to buy up property in Chinatown and evict low-income tenants in order to flip buildings and make a huge profit.
Art galleries and celebrity chef restaurants that do not serve community needs, but convince many that a modern aesthetic or newfound “recognition” of Chinatown as a hot destination equates to progress when in reality, it fails to translate to any real socioeconomic gains for the working-class neighborhood.
Harassment and policing of houseless people, adding to the criminalization of Black and Brown poor people all across the city.
When we see developers and the like hang out with entities like the BID to talk about the future of Chinatown, it’s obvious that the neighborhood is nothing more than an investment playground for them, a venue to host their art parties and wealthy friends while the poor are left out to dry.
Only a day after rejecting Ai Hoa’s offer for negotiation, Coco Kristal gathers with George Yu and Shirley Xiao of the Chinatown Business Improvement District (BID), industrial designer and artist Nelson Wah (former exhibitor at ToCo Haus), and Peter Ng of Chinatown Service Center at trendy wine bar Oriel. Her caption reads: “don’t mind us chat about the future of our beloved Chinatown.” Where are working-class tenants in this conversation of Chinatown’s future? [November 2019]
This last winter, Ai Hoa officially closed down after holding out as long as they could in order to focus on their new store location in South El Monte. But the fight for Chinatown is far from over.
We call on all developers to stop buying up our neighborhood for their profits.
We call on all landlords to put a complete end to their silencing, harassment, and poor treatment of commercial and residential tenants.
We call on residents, community leaders, and allies to join us in the fight for Chinatown, a fight that extends to working-class communities of color all across Los Angeles, the country, and abroad who are fighting for their right to the city — to have full control and say in what happens to their neighborhood and to be able to live and thrive in places they call home.
Chinatown Community for Equitable Development builds grassroots power with low-income and immigrant communities through organizing, education and mutual help.