How a Satellite Chinatown Is Changing the ‘Burbs

Ranch home in Montville, CT | Photo courtesy of Stephen Fan

Montville, Connecticut, a sprawling township north of New London, is home to the state’s only Chinese-bilingual elementary school. The aisle signs at Home Depot have been translated into Mandarin. The casino bus lines that feed into Sunrise Square, the Asian gaming section of the adjacent Mohegan Sun casino, draw in Chinese gamers and workers from Boston, New York, and beyond.

In the shadows of Mohegan Sun, North America’s second-largest casino, a Chinatown is born. It’s a product of New York City’s own Chinese communities, a satellite where the spirit of an immigrant enclave inhabits an unfamiliar form: the twentieth-century American suburb.

This transformation has been expertly documented in SUB URBANISMS, an exhibition on display through March at the Museum of Chinese in America in Lower Manhattan. With an eye for detail and anecdote, curator Stephen Fan employs a selection of maps, photographs, and interviews to demonstrate that suburban design is not nearly as stiff and programmed as we’ve come to believe.

Inside and outside their Montville raised ranch homes, the Chinese workers who have clustered around Mohegan consistently challenge the prescriptions of suburban architecture. Single-family homes become intergenerational residences or co-ops for cooks, busboys, janitors — as well as managers, marketers, and table-game dealers. Lawns have been planted with squash and greens; garages repurposed as bedrooms or porches. Chinese residents subdivide common spaces and paper over windows to dull the summer sunlight. Whichever side of the house faces south serves as a place to dry laundry — or fish. Zoning complaints in nearby Norwich tripled between 2002 and 2006.

Many of these workers migrated from New York after the September 11th attacks stifled Lower Manhattan’s garment and restaurant industries; others arrived from elsewhere as Mohegan, which opened in 1996, built its reputation among Asian gamers.

Its ties with New York remain close: a quarter of Mohegan’s clientele is now Asian-American, and many of them arrive on Chinatown bus lines that run scores of daily trips from the city. The Miss Chinese Beauty Pageant, a onetime New York Chinatown institution, is now held at Mohegan Sun. On Thanksgiving, thousands of New York City Chinese head to Mohegan and nearby Foxwoods for gambling, revelry, and a special program of Chinese entertainment.


Destination Casino Resort/Urbanizing Center | Map by Stephen Fan and Shane Keaney, courtesy of Stephen Fan

As a result, Montville and nearby Norwich have become two case studies of the immigrant suburb, a typology that is multiplying across the American landscape.

The adaptive reuse around Montville is in this sense linked to parts of South and East Los Angeles, where urban planner James Rojas has coined the expression “Latino urbanism” for the processes of reclamation and adaptation begun by Mexican and Central American newcomers. Other small cities and suburbs have grown into vibrant immigrant hubs: Rockville, Maryland, and Falls Church, Virginia, outside Washington, DC, Dearborn outside of Detroit, and Houston’s Gulfton. But these areas are all closely linked to huge core cities, and are often “urban” by metrics beyond appearance, such as residential density or physical size. Montville, as Fan observes, is more closely related to a New England mill town than to those urban peripheries.

The Chinese influx in Montville (from 100 residents in 2000 to 1,000 in 2013) and Norwich (300 residents in 2000 and 1,500 in 2013) has caused some consternation among the largely white majority. (City officials maintain those Census Bureau estimates are low.) Some of the reaction, gathered in a series of surveys between 2003 and 2012, carry the flavor of standard-variety xenophobia. In other cases, the concerns stem from Chinese workers’ violation of suburban norms — their housing arrangements, vegetable gardens, and habit of walking to work with little regard for private property lines.

Codes should adapt to — rather than control — changes in demographics and culture.This last practice has proved particularly galling. Many Chinese workers can drive, says Fan, but they enjoy the exercise. Their trek through the car-centric environment — at all hours, because Mohegan never closes — has hit a nerve, and resulted in a number of crashes, some fatal. (Mohegan Sun has offered workers reflective vests for the walk home.) Some locals call the route to the casino the “Ho Chi Minh Trail.”

“In a lot of ways, their choices align with progressive values,” Fan observed. The Mohegan Chinese live a millennial fantasy: they walk to work, grow their own food, and rent rooms in co-op houses. They share meals, transportation, and services. The content of Chinese “house rules” — exhortations to clean the shower drain and respect refrigerator territory, for example — will be familiar to anyone who has lived in shared housing.

It would be easy enough to pin this conflict on suburban fussiness. But in cities, too, the expansion of immigrant neighborhoods is a source of confrontation. Even in multitudinous Brooklyn, Fan points out, Chinese immigrants come under fire for drying fish outside. In Sunset Park, home to New York’s largest Chinatown, one goal of preservationists is to ban the stainless steel grillwork with which many Chinese homeowners adorn their row houses.

Meanwhile, Norwich has upgraded its comprehensive plan. Home gardens are now an officially sanctioned accessory use. In Montville, the building code is in many ways less restrictive than in New York’s Chinatown. Five unrelated adults may share a unit, as opposed to three in New York City (a rule that thankfully goes unenforced). The minimum bedroom floor area is smaller in Montville than in New York.


Ranch garden | Photo by Stephen Fan, courtesy of Stephen Fan

And codes should be more willing to adapt to — rather than control — changes in demographics and culture. In New York, old-fashioned code restrictions are out of line with demographic changes. There isn’t nearly enough housing for single New Yorkers, and outdated regulations prevent landlords from creating more. Hundreds of thousands of “accessory dwelling units” in yards, basements, and garages have proliferated across Brooklyn and Queens, with no legal recognition. Tenants in apartments that violate code in innocuous ways are less likely to report more serious hazards for fear of eviction.

For architects and urbanists who have long wondered what will become of the defunct architecture of sprawl, SUB URBANISMS sounds a hopeful note. Just as big box stores have become churches and server farms, so too residential suburbs can be adapted to accommodate higher densities, revitalized public space, and even a vibrant pedestrian culture.

SUB URBANISMS is currently on exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America, where it runs through March 27th.

Henry Grabar is a senior editor at Urban Omnibus. You can read more of his work here.