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A Neighborhood Holding Its Breath

Air pollution and the future of Chinatown

Max Cyril

Jarriah Cockhren, Owen Hudson, Jaiden Innis, Julia Laquerre



Inequity is in the air in Chinatown. It’s hot and it smells like rubber and gasoline. Exhaust fumes and asphalt baking in the sun. The hum of traffic chugging through the city marks the passage of time.

With a population of approximately 150,000, Chinatown is vital to the broader Boston community. It’s a hub of cultural continuity and preservation, social activism, tourism and culinary delights. Despite that, its residents have long been exposed to some of the highest levels of air pollution in the state of Massachusetts.

The construction of I-90 and I-93 carved deep scars into the neighborhood. The expansion of highways brought faster travel time and exceptional convenience for those living in the suburbs, but at the cost of exposing local residents to toxic living conditions which can contribute to developing lifelong disabilities and health impairments.

“The history of Chinatown, in a lot of ways, is a history of a series of encroachments that have led to this polluted environment,” says Lydia Lowe, currently director of the Chinatown Land Trust. Lowe, who worked for the Chinese Progressive Association for 30 years organizing and leading community groups fighting for cleaner air and better public transportation, explains that the neighborhood was not recognized as residential until 1900. “[That’s] why it has probably the least amount of permeable surfaces [which can absorb harmful particulates] of any neighborhood in the city, the least tree canopy, and also became victim to urban renewal and the construction of two interstate highways that cut through Chinatown.”

Traffic related air pollution is one of the primary causes of air pollution in urban areas. Emissions from trains, buses, and cars release a hazardous mixture of organic compounds, particles, and gasses from diesel exhaust as well as non-combustion emissions such as road dust, tire wear into the atmosphere, leading to damaging health conditions and poor air quality. Ultrafine particulate matter are tiny airborne particles primarily emitted by vehicles. These particles are defined by their long-lasting nature in the atmosphere and microscopic scale, roughly one-thousandth the width of a human hair, and can be monitored by the Air Quality Index.

A study done by the Environmental Protection Agency found that Chinatown has the highest levels of fine particulate matter of any neighborhood in the state. That’s a concern because they’ve been proven to have a detrimental impact on serious health conditions. High rates of inflammation, asthma, and cardiovascular complications are all linked to living in close proximity to highways and ingesting high levels of these particulates. “We also did some studies that showed that there was a correlation of higher blood pressure…among Chinatown residents,” Lowe adds.

Studies have linked long-term exposure to ultrafine particulates to declines in cardiovascular health and lung function. Their infiltration into the body has proven to cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and early onset asthma.

Christina Fuller, associate professor of environmental engineering at University of Georgia, led a study exploring the relationship between concentrations of ultrafine particulates and race/ethnicity and socio-economic background in Boston. By focusing on areas alongside highways and public transportation routes, Fuller and her team found that not only are levels elevated in those areas compared to residential and open spaces, but that Asian communities in Boston are in the areas most affected.

Chinatown lies in the heart of downtown Boston.

Interstate 90 and 93 carve directly through the neighborhood.   

As a result, particulate matter density in Chinatown is the highest in the entire state of Massachusetts.

Furthermore, adults in Chinatown face the highest asthma levels of any neighborhood in the greater Boston area.   

Community Action vs Urban Development
The construction of 1-90 and I-93 brought a new source of pollution, but also attention to the environmental costs of urban development. It was part of a new wave of activism for environmental justice for minority neighborhoods throughout the second half of the 20th century.

On February 12, 1969, a group of more than 2,000 gathered at the steps of the State House to implore acting governor Francis Sargent to halt the construction of a major highway expansion project in Roxbury’s Southwest Corridor. Peter Furth, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northeastern University, describes, “Melnea Cass Boulevard is right where that new freeway was gonna go. We demolished everything to make room for it. And then, once that freeway was stopped, we built this new road… Activists from many different communities joined arms and stopped that freeway project.”

Almost 30 years after the success of the Southwest Corridor protest, the Chinese Progressive Association gathered on the same State House steps to celebrate their victory over a proposed highway ramp expansion in a campaign fighting for Chinatown’s health and independence. After government officials proposed a further expansion of the Central Artery in the creation of a connection ramp which would exacerbate the vehicle traffic in Chinatown.

These issues are not new to the community. “There’s only so much studying that you can do to say this is bad,” says Lowe. “We already know this is bad.” Because Chinatown is so heavily occupied by renters, many residents don’t feel they have a say in issues such as local air quality.

“Probably the biggest obstacle is just the feeling that the problem is so big. You know, it’s easy to feel powerless and that it doesn’t really matter that much what we do,” Lowe explains. Combatting this sense of helplessness is a large part of what local non-governmental organizations such as the Chinese Progressive Association and the Chinatown Land Trust hope to achieve.

1996 – People from the Chinatown Central Artery/Tunnel Task Force and officials study a map of the Central Artery/Tunnel Project as they discuss the DD Ramp.


At the Chinatown Gate on the southernmost tip of The Rose Kennedy Greenway, the 1.5 mile long parks project created in the aftermath of the Big Dig, Christopher O’Conner walks along, methodically picking up trash.

“I’ve lived in the city for 54 years and I could tell when I leave the city, you can breathe,” says O’Conner, a Boston resident working for The Greenway as he cleans the area around the Chinatown Gate.

“I go to doctor’s appointments and they ask me how long I’ve been smoking,” says O’Conner. “I’ve never smoked in my life… That’s city living.”

In order to be successful, local organizations must work with state and city officials. Resilient Chinatown is an initiative of the Chinatown Land Trust, which is applying for a grant from the city to develop a micro energy grid in Boston, build up to 700 units of affordable housing, and improve local parks and vegetation in the area. But coordinating with large bureaucratic entities can lead to a delay in action.

“With something like the Orange Line or the Red Line, the MBTA owns the tracks they ride on as well as their trains,” says Furth. “But for the buses, the MBTA doesn’t own the streets, they don’t own the traffic lights. so there we need cooperation between the city and the MBTA. We’re seeing that but we need more aggressiveness on both of their parts.”

Despite concerns of feasibility, Lowe gets excited when describing another initiative, Reconnecting Chinatown. “[The project] would involve decking over the Mass. Turnpike, to the south of Chinatown, and creating a combination of development and, and a large open space for the community.”

“I think it’s really important for us sometimes to think big about what’s really possible,” says Lowe. “When you think big and you get people involved and activated, sometimes things aren’t impossible.”