Erica Lam recently served as ACDC’s Massachusetts Promise Fellow, supporting the See-Town Tours and an after-school program for Dorchester youth. Erica also happens to have grown up in ACDC’s development at Oak Terrace in Chinatown! Here, she shares her family’s experience of finding stable and affordable housing and how through her work at ACDC, she has become an advocate for the community.
How long have you lived in Chinatown?
When I was born, my parents didn’t have enough money to afford a place of their own, even with both of my parents working--my mom working two jobs. For the first few years of my childhood, I didn’t get to live in the same house as my parents and my older brother. They initially lived in the basement of my grandparents house in Quincy, while I lived in Dorchester with my cousins, aunt, and uncle--the eight of us under one roof.
While we were lucky to have relatives nearby to help out and take care of my brother and me, this also meant that he and I grew up in separate homes and neighborhoods and with different families. I lived with my aunt and uncle in full house with cousins my age, and where quality time with family was the foundation of my early childhood. My brother on the other hand, grew up with my grandparents and was the only child in his house. Because I only saw him on weekends, for a long time, I had no idea of what his home life was like.
When ACDC’s Oak Terrace development opened in 1995, my mom won the lottery for an affordable housing unit. We moved into Oak Terrace in Chinatown when I was 3 or 4 years old, and I continued to live there for 23 years.
How did having affordable housing help your family?
Winning the housing lottery for Oak Terrace changed our lives because that was when my family started living together under one roof. The transition of moving to a new neighborhood and home life was initially difficult for me as a child because I didn’t have my cousins to play with anymore--it was more quiet at home. My parents were now focused on paying the rent and saving money.
For my parents, having a place of their own created an empowering sentiment of being able to provide for their own family. They weren’t as dependent on extended family, which lifted a major emotional burden for them. Having our own place was also motivation for them to work harder to continue building stability for us.
What was the best part of growing up in Chinatown?
The best part of growing up in Chinatown was how the stores, restaurants and schools were easy to get to, and that alleviated pressure from my parents. My parents worked all the time, but because there were so many cheap restaurants in Chinatown, we were able to feed ourselves. I was also really close to all of my schools, so I felt safe traveling the short distances to and from school. I was one of the lucky few who got to sleep in a little more and wake up just in time for class.
What does Chinatown mean to you now?
Now, Chinatown to me is a home where I can never move back to. I feel like I was lucky enough to grow up in this community, but aside from the fortunate few who can get an affordable rental or condo, it’s impossible for me to afford it now. It has changed so much. There are more franchised boba shops and restaurants, and many of the local mom and pop shops that I went to as a kid are gone--outpriced by the skyrocketing property value. Chinatown felt like a neighborhood when I was younger. I hold onto memories like the ice cream truck coming around in the summer and kids rushing towards it, but nowadays, it’s nothing like that. It seems more and more like a business district where people pass through to get to their next meeting.
What is your hope for Chinatown’s future?
My biggest hope for Chinatown is that the elders and children don’t have to fight as hard to stay because they’re not being pushed out by developers and landowners. I really hope that this neighborhood will go back to being a place where people feel safe to start local businesses without the fear of being outpriced. I hope that new residents, especially those who have moved into the luxury condos and rentals in Chinatown, recognize the value and strength of this community.
How does it feel to be working with the community that you grew up in, working towards those hopes?
For me, having the opportunity to work in Chinatown with ACDC was a wave of emotions. Chinatown nonprofits played a formative role in my upbringing, starting with Red Oak, BCNC and eventually becoming a youth at Boston Asian YES--all within the same block. Giving back to my community wasn’t something new--it was something I always wanted to do, but never knew where to get started.
When I first came to ACDC, I was super excited because I was able to really dive deep into the history and current challenges of my community. Once I learned about investors buying out buildings and about the families who were evicted, I felt shock and anger. I thought, “How could they do this? Don’t they know the impact they’re having on Chinatown? Why do we need another hotel or luxury apartments that the community folks can’t afford?” I started noticing the empty lots in the neighborhood, learned of their hefty price tags and was amazed that such a small piece of land can be worth so much. This new insight was followed by more anger and questions like, “How is it that not more people have noticed this and how outrageous this situation has become?”
Working on the See-Town program and giving Chinatown tours for folks who were mostly new to the community gave me an outlet to plug in stories of Chinatown. With this opportunity, I felt empowered to become an advocate in the fight against big developers whose projects often displace longtime residents and contribute little to no benefit to the local community. I began to think more critically and ask more questions. I shared with my friends and colleagues what I learned and encouraged them to support local businesses. I even started conversations with my little sister about these issues and invited her to a tour so that she could learn more about the community that she’s still growing up in. I hope that she can arm herself with what she has learned and start fighting for her home as well.
I recently moved into a house with friends in Dorchester’s Savin Hill neighborhood, but some of my family still lives in Chinatown. I grew up with the foundation that family is important and to me, and Chinatown is a part of my family. I know more about my community than I did 6 months ago. I’m resolved to continue staying current on community issues and continue using my voice and story to help others see that their stories are just as important and relevant to the changes happening in our community.