Digital inequality and racialized place in the 21st century: A case study of San Francisco's Chinatown
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Digital inequality and racialized place in the 21st century: A case study of San Francisco's Chinatown by Emily Hong

Despite robust scholarship on the digital divide, little attention has been paid to its spatiality: how does the organization of physical space, especially the status of the built environment, affect digital access? These questions are especially neglected with regard to Asian Americans, who are thought to have consistently high levels of technological attainment. Nonetheless, certain Asian American communities, particularly those that are poor, working-class, or from refugee backgrounds, remain disproportionately disconnected from the Internet. In this paper, I examine the relationships between digital, racial, and environmental inequalities in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I show that historic disinvestment in Chinatown’s building stock, combined with campaigns led by ethnic Chinese people themselves to preserve historic structures and prevent displacement, have created a physical landscape that cannot support broadband Internet. As a result, many residents depend on inferior connections that diminish their life outcomes. I conclude that digital inaccess is the most recent manifestation of historical place-based racism through which Asian Americans have been constructed as outsiders and perpetual foreigners.


Towards a place-based approach to the digital divide
The making of Chinatown: Asian Americans and the racialization of place
San Francisco’s Chinatown today: Digital and physical inequality




‘We keep the Wi-Fi on at night’, says Jewel Chen, a librarian at the Chinatown Him Mark Lai branch library in San Francisco. ‘Even when the building is closed, people will come and sit on the steps for hours and connect to the free Internet.’ [1] Chen’s observation highlights the resource gaps in this neighborhood: today over half of the residents of San Francisco’s Chinatown lack home Internet access, with many living in affordable housing projects or single-residence-occupancy (SRO) hotels. Many in the community depend on the branch library as their sole point of Internet access. Long lines often form at the Chinatown library for 30-minute sessions on the public computers, and the library can barely keep up with demand. Technology-related programming now accounts for one-quarter of all library events, including sessions where teen volunteers and librarians teach neighborhood residents how to get online.

One library patron and a Chinatown resident of over twenty years, Wan Ling Liang, is a man in his mid-sixties who reports using the Internet only at the library. Ri Chi Zhou, similarly aged and also a longtime Chinatown resident, agreed, saying that he ‘does not know how to use a browser’, and can only access online news or e-mail with the support of library staff [2]. Despite their lack of home access and computer literacy skills, however, both Liang and Zhou view the Internet as an important tool of self-sufficiency and communication. Both were eager to use the Internet to learn English, acquire medical information, and view Chinese language social media.

The very low rates of Internet access in San Francisco’s Chinatown seem inconsistent with the city’s high-tech reputation. After all, the Bay Area is the epicenter of the American tech sector, and the Chinatown library is just a train ride away from the glittering campuses of Silicon Valley. Similarly, the persistence of the digital divide in this majority-minority neighborhood is also a departure from the conventional wisdom about which American populations are most affected by a lack of technological access. In popular media and political discourse, Asian Americans are not typically associated with the digital divide. They are much more likely to be portrayed as computer savvy and disproportionately successful in STEM fields, as ‘model minority engineers’ rather than poor tenement inhabitants struggling to check their e-mail (Fong, 1998; Paek and Shah, 2003).

Yet even in 2015, the digital divide persists among the Chinatown population in San Francisco. According to the most recent data, which specifically measured Internet access by City Planning district, only about 56 percent of Chinatown residents report having Internet access at home, compared with a city average of around 88 percent (Berman, et al., 2007). Place has an independent and compounding effect: Chinatown residents report lower rates of home Internet access compared to every other comparable demographic category in San Francisco, including Asian Americans, the poor, elderly, and those with low education.

Today, the Internet serves as a ‘gateway’ resource that permits countless other acts of survival, citizenship, and public representation, and there is significant concern over the implications of the digital divide, defined as the lack of access, physical or otherwise, to the Internet and other information technologies (Zickuhr and Smith, 2012). In the United States, the digital divide is also broadly correlated with other forms of social inequality, including those associated with race.

But while the racial dimensions of the digital divide are well documented for African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, the experiences of Asian Americans have been almost completely neglected. The evidence from San Francisco’s Chinatown, however, suggests that for at least some Asian Americans — particularly those who are poor and working-class — digital access continues to be a real and serious problem. In this paper, I suggest that the history of the neighborhood’s built environment, as well as the legal and regulatory landscape through which it was produced, is an important yet underappreciated piece of the puzzle.

In what follows, I explore how Chinatown’s long legacy of place-based racial formation continues to negatively affect residents’ digital access. To do so, I analyze scholarly and popular histories of Chinatown, data sets published by city agencies, and media coverage from local and national newspapers, as well as on-site observations and 31 interviews conducted in fall 2013. Interviews were conducted in person or over the phone with key community stakeholders, including librarians, staff, and patrons at the Chinatown/Him Mark Lai Branch Library; representatives from community organizations including Self Help for the Elderly, the Chinatown Urban Institute, and Chinatown Community Development Center; employees from the city’s planning and technology departments actively addressing the digital divide; and Chinatown residents. Interviewees were recruited on-site at a digital literacy workshop sponsored by the public library, where they were asked a set of standardized questions about their Internet use and residency. Questions were available in both Chinese and English, and interviews were administered with the help of a Chinese-fluent librarian (see Appendix for questions).

My research shows that the historic disinvestment in Chinatown’s building stock by elected officials, banks, and landlords, coupled with more recent campaigns by ethnic Chinese people themselves that preserve historic structures and prevent development in order to resist displacement, have effectively created a physical landscape that cannot support broadband Internet. As a result, many residents of Chinatown depend on inferior connections, namely dial-up service, mobile phones, and public library access, which limit their abilities to find employment, access social services, and address toxicity in their neighborhoods. We conclude that impaired digital access is the most recent manifestation of a long history of place-based racism through which poor and working-class Asian Americans have been racialized as second-class citizens.



Towards a place-based approach to the digital divide

The expansion of Internet-based information and communications technology (ICT) has indisputably led to new forms of inequality (Warschauer and Matuchniak, 2010). According to a study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in 2015 approximately 15 percent of Americans still do not use the Internet at all (Perrin and Duggan, 2015). Historically marginalized groups are disproportionately affected by digital access inequality. Senior citizens, Spanish speakers, adults with less than a high school education, and those living in households earning less than US$30,000 per year are the least likely adults to have Internet access (Perrin and Duggan, 2015; Zickuhr, 2013). These demographic differences in Internet use have been documented since the mid-1990s (DiMaggio, et al., 2001).

These findings ‘illuminate the ramifications of unequal development in the information age’, and emphasize the serious implications for impediments to digital access (Stern, et al., 2009). To quote the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (2015), in the United States, access to the Internet “is now necessary for even basic participation in society and economy.” The ways in which individuals engage online has clear consequences on wealth, health, and education outcomes (Castells, 2010; DiMaggio, et al., 2001; Warschauer, 2002). Just as importantly, unequal digital access contributes to differential patterns of civic participation (Neuman, et al., 2011; Wellman, et al., 2001). Research on DREAM activists lobbying for immigrants’ rights, for example, credits the use of digital media with their success in building a broad and effective coalition. ‘Some of the most innovative uses of ICTs for civic engagement and social change’, notes Costanza-Chock (2011), ‘come not from professionals in the digital media industry or in government but from social movement participants, organizations, and networks.’ Because the Internet has such far-ranging political repercussions, it must be wielded carefully to alleviate and not increase social stratification (Shah, et al., 2005). Indeed, without access to the Internet, social media, and related technologies, disadvantaged populations lack a crucial resource for mobilizing to improve their status, and will likely fall even farther behind (Hong, 2015).

The digital divide is also not just a question of ‘have’ and ‘have not’, as unequal skill sets and different modes of access also affect whether and how populations reap benefits. Even among ‘those who have made it online’, some populations are more successful with respect to the ways they navigate the ‘vast stores of information and decision-making guidance the Internet provides’ (DiMaggio, et al., 2001). Different types of access — e.g., home broadband vs. mobile vs. shared public library computer — are also significant, with home broadband use linked to the greatest positive uses of the Internet (Mossberger, et al., 2012a).

While research has shown that minority communities tend to have high rates of mobile broadband adoption and tend to rely on smartphones for Internet access, analysis has shown that mobile phone use has not erased gaps in participation online (Anderson, 2015; Mossberger, et al., 2012b). Mossberger and her collaborators (2012b) found that because of lower costs, mobile phones are the dominant form of Internet access for poorer populations, but that those who rely on mobile forms of Internet access are less likely to pursue online educational activities or engage with government information Web sites than those with home Internet access. Some have even described mobile connectivity as a second-class form of access, as the smaller screens and lack of application support often provide fewer opportunities for online skill acquisition or other benefits (Mossberger, et al., 2012b). Public libraries such as the Chinatown branch library seek to address these issues by providing stationary terminals with Internet connectivity, which are often attractive to patrons because library staff or volunteers can provide technological support. However, the highly visible nature of library terminals may prevent users from engaging in sensitive or private matters such as banking, communication with doctors, or legal affairs (Viseu, et al., 2006)

Causes of the digital divide are complex, and the most cited reasons for non-use are lack of interest, lack of digital literacy skills, and unaffordability. Barriers also tend to aggregate, and adult non-users of the Internet often cite both high costs and disinterest for their lack of use, leading Helsper and Eynon (2010) to conclude that policy strategies related to online engagement should be customized to the needs of the target group.

Given that most forms of social inequality in the United States are geographically organized, it is not surprising that uneven digital access is correlated with patterns of residential segregation (Graham, 2010). Urban populations are on average more digitally connected than rural populations, but racially segregated urban neighborhoods have some of the worst rates of access overall (Kim, et al., 2006; Mossberger, et al., 2012a). Yet it is not only the fact of living in a poor and under-resourced neighborhood that shapes whether or not a person can access the Internet. Other geographic factors, often visible only at the metropolitan scale, matter too. In an important study, Gilbert and Masucci (2011) examined ICT access and use among poor women of color in North Philadelphia and identified presumably ‘non-racial’ geographic issues, such as the separation of production and reproduction through zoning and the inadequacy of many public transit systems, as barriers to poor women’s digital access. In these ways, unequal digital access builds on long legacies of place-based racial formation — the ways in which racial categories are defined and given meaning through the organization of physical space (Barraclough, 2009; Brahinsky, 2014; Delaney, 1998; Gilmore, 2002; Pulido, 2000).

Much of the scholarship on race, place, and the digital divide to date has focused on African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. Asian Americans, meanwhile, have been almost completely overlooked. This focus makes sense, perhaps, given the much larger size of these populations in most U.S. urban areas, and the statistical difficulty of working with a relatively small population size (Smith, 2013). There is also a pervasive assumption that all Asian Americans have become economically and socially successful, an assumption that underlies the ‘model minority myth’ (Fong, 1998; Kim, 1999; Paek and Shah, 2003). Indeed, the limited data that does exist shows that Asian Americans have high technological attainment. According to the Pew Center, since 2000, English-speaking Asian-Americans have shown consistently higher rates of Internet usage than whites, blacks, and Hispanics (Perrin and Dugan, 2015).

However, like other evidence marshaled in support of the model minority myth, this data obscures as much as it reveals. Many Asian American groups in the United States, particularly those who are poor or working-class or who come from refugee backgrounds, do in fact struggle with accessing the Internet and using it to their full advantage. A crucial but underappreciated reason for this fact can be traced to the physical spaces where poor and working-class Asian Americans have historically lived and worked, and where many continue to reside: the Chinatowns, Japantowns/Little Tokyos, Little Manilas, and other ‘ethnic’ neighborhoods that have existed in many American cities since the late nineteenth century.



The making of Chinatown: Asian Americans and the racialization of place

As with the Black American community and the redlining practices of the nineteenth century, for Asian Americans in the United States, residential segregation by neighborhood has been a historical tool of creating race and class divisions that support cumulative disadvantage (Gangadharan, 2012). In an important intervention in theories of race and racial formation, political scientist and Asian American studies scholar Claire Jean Kim (1999) has argued that Asian Americans in the United States, regardless of their income, education, and integration levels, have been persistently marked as ‘foreign’ and thus historically excluded from participation in American society.

The idea of Asian Americans as ‘perpetual foreigners’ has clearly pervaded negative judgments, such as the perceptions of Chinese people as sexual predators, cultural invaders, and bearers of communicable disease that erupted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Anderson, 1991; Brooks, 2009; Molina, 2006; Shah, 2001). But it also undergirds more recent and apparently more positive stereotypes, such as the model minority myth, which emerged in the 1970s and asserts that Asian Americans have achieved greater educational and occupational success than other ethnoracial groups because of their (supposedly foreign) cultural values of hard work, sacrifice, and familial obligation (Fong, 1998; Paek and Shah, 2003). Both of these stereotypes mask important differences within the Asian American population, like persistent poverty, as well as the role of U.S. immigration policy after 1965 in selecting a comparatively privileged immigrant population. They also set Asian Americans in opposition to other racial groups, such as African Americans and native Americans, with whom they may share much in common (Kim, 1999), including the problem of impaired digital access.

As with all other racial groups in the United States, the racialization of Asian Americans has been a fundamentally spatial process. In the case of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans, the formation of ‘Chinese’ as a racial category has rested on the creation of ‘Chinatown’ as a geographic entity (Anderson, 1991; Lin, 1998). As Anderson (1991) has argued, the very notion of ‘Chinatown’ was the creation of the dominant white social class in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to contain Chinese-owned housing, businesses, and economic activities to certain districts. These segregated and neglected spaces allowed for Chinese immigrants to be physically separated, targeted for state and extralegal violence, and to be made into the ‘Other’ in order to protect sociospatial structures of white supremacy (Kim, 1999).

The history of San Francisco’s Chinatown exemplifies these processes. San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in North America, and racial discrimination, threats of displacement, and enclave defense have defined this neighborhood from its beginnings (Pamuk, 2004). The first waves of Chinese immigration to the United States were fueled by employment opportunities during the California Gold Rush of 1849 and construction of the transcontinental railroads during the 1860s and 1870s. Expulsed from the mines through such discriminatory policies as California’s Foreign Miners Tax (1851), and as railroad work diminished, Chinese migrants moved to San Francisco and other urban areas on the West coast (Almaguer, 2008; Brooks, 2009; Molina, 2006; Shah, 2001).

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Chinese population of San Francisco had become concentrated in the 24 square blocks around Portsmouth Square Plaza, a region that became known as Chinatown. They were systematically excluded from San Francisco’s formal economy through policies such as the Pole Act (1870) and the Laundry Ordinance (1870), while other city laws such as the Cubic Air Ordinance (1870) targeted their living conditions, over which, as renters, they had little control (Brooks, 2009). In this way, the formation of San Francisco’s Chinatown, like other Chinatowns studied by scholars, was the sociospatial product of white racism and nativism that helped to constitute, not merely reflect, the notion of Chinese people as both perpetually foreign and inherently inferior.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, Chinatowns were regarded as slums, public health hazards, or vice districts riddled with opium dens. Once created, Chinese neighborhoods served to reaffirm white nativist views of the Chinese peoples’ innate foreignness and inassimilability, serving as further ‘proof’ of the need for even stricter and more discriminatory policies. Chinese migrants were ultimately banned from migrating to the U.S. altogether by the Exclusion Acts of the late nineteenth century. Those already present in the United States were prohibited from applying for naturalized citizenship and, as a result, were restricted from serving on juries, testifying in court, and owning property in some states (Almaguer, 2008; Brooks, 2009; Molina, 2006; Shah, 2001). These policies, as well as the physical spaces that undergirded them, remained in place until the mid-twentieth century.

Partly as a result of this rampant discrimination, over time San Francisco’s Chinatown became a ‘self-sufficient and insulated community, with its own unique government and politics’ (University of California Berkeley, Bancroft Library, 2009). Thus, Chinatown leaders were well poised to resist threats to transform the neighborhood in later years, even if doing so required that they rely upon and reinforce ideas of an innate Chinese racial difference in what Umbach and Wishnoff (2008) describe as “strategic self-orientalizing.”

For example, after the 1906 earthquake destroyed almost the entire neighborhood, the city government considered a motion to displace the Chinese population away from the city center to the outskirts of the Richmond district. Drawing upon their internal organization and histories of self-sufficiency, while also appealing to white San Franciscans’ notions of Chinese exoticism, Chinese neighborhood associations saved their community’s traditional location by convincing city leaders and white landlords to rebuild the neighborhood in a distinctive ‘oriental style’ to boost tourism. The community’s history of resistance and resilience in the early twentieth century remains explicit in the neighborhood’s built environment today — the ‘familiar curved eaves, colorful street lanterns, recessed balconies, and gilded facades’ instantly associated with Chinatown (University of California Berkeley, Bancroft Library, 2009).

As a result of geopolitical realignments at the global, national, and metropolitan scales after World War II and into the Cold War, the racial positioning of the Chinese in America began to shift in the mid-twentieth century. During the 1950s and 1960s, many anti-Asian exclusionary laws were reversed, and the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 overturned the racially discriminatory national origins quotas that had guided U.S. immigration policy since 1924, opening the gates to substantial Asian migration for the first time in a half-century. Because a key pillar of the new immigration law favored immigrants with needed occupational skills and money to invest, those Asian immigrants who entered the U.S. after 1965 tended to be wealthier and better educated than their historic counterparts (Daniels, 1988; Hing, 1993; Wu, 2008). This demographic difference meant that many wealthy Asian Americans immigrants were able to integrate into upper middle-class, majority white residential neighborhoods, creating the idea that Asian Americans are a ‘model minority’.

At the same time, the older Chinatowns in San Francisco and other U.S. cities became more decisively associated with poor and working-class Asian American who continued to struggle with poverty and discrimination. In the mid-twentieth century, these neighborhoods were often targeted for redevelopment because their long histories of racialized disinvestment and civic neglect qualified them as “blighted” under federal urban renewal programs. For Asian Americans in San Francisco during this period, according to Lai (2013), rallying around and identifying with one’s neighborhood ‘became a means to build movement, engage in the land struggle, inscribe the landscape with counter narratives and memories of place, and build coalitions’. Some, though not all, of this mobilization drew upon the tried-and-true tactic of ‘strategic self-orientalizing’ (Umbach and Wishnoff, 2008); more commonly, activists struggled to preserve affordable housing and prevent displacement.

An important battle, for example, developed around the International Hotel, a single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel that was demolished in 1979 despite significant community opposition. Numerous organizations were established during this struggle, including the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) and the Manilatown Heritage Foundation. Their continued activism eventually led the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to pass a zoning ordinance that required housing on the site in 1982. A renovated I-Hotel was reopened to new tenants in 2005, nearly 30 years after the initial eviction; in addition to providing affordable housing, the property offers many social services.

Throughout the 1980s, Chinatown resident organizations also secured the passage of zoning ordinances such as Proposition K, the ‘Sunlight Ordinance’, which stopped the construction of high-rise buildings that would have cast a shadow on Portsmouth Square, a small park that sits at the boundary of Chinatown and the Financial District. In addition, during this period the neighborhood was designated a mixed-use business district to protect both its residential uses and small businesses (San Francisco Planning Department, 1995). Through these efforts, Chinatown activists succeeded in preserving many of the neighborhood’s historic structures, as well as the ability of residents to stay put. However, in the process, the longstanding framing of the neighborhood as “distinct” was officially codified into city law [3].

In the years since then, ‘enclave defense’ and racialized conflicts over space have remained a recurring part of life in San Francisco’s Chinatown and the Asian American experience on the West Coast more generally (Lai, 2013; Viruell-Fuentes, et al., 2012; Lin, 1998). Even today, Lai (2013) argues, ‘battles over the control of space remain in Asian American urban neighborhoods, and if anything, they have intensified given resurgent gentrification in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles.’

Paradoxically, community defense tactics can contribute to vulnerability: to resist displacement, minority stakeholders often assume positions that explicitly reinforce essentialist notions of race and oppose redevelopment, even in instances when some degree of renewal might work to alleviate poor housing and other environmental conditions, such as improved Internet access (Lin, 1998). Our task, then, is to consider how historical battles over the control of physical space in poor and working-class Asian American neighborhoods continue to affect the experiences of those communities today, including by shaping access to the Internet and related technologies. A key legacy of place-based racial formation in Chinatown is that the neighborhood is one of concentrated minority poverty, wrapped in restrictive, complex planning codes that have been layered on as part of successive neighborhood defense movements. A central challenge facing the neighborhood today is how to modernize its physical infrastructure, including that which is needed for improved Internet access, without upsetting the delicate balance that has allowed Chinatown to survive over the years despite intense competition for urban space.



San Francisco’s Chinatown today: Digital and physical inequality

Today, San Francisco’s Chinatown continues to be a ‘gateway for immigrants to find work, learn English, receive social services, and participate in community activities’ (City and County of San Francisco, Office of Economic and Workforce Development, 2013). The neighborhood offers significant affordable housing (2,200 units), much of it permanently protected, in a city that famously suffers from its lack. Approximately 40 percent of all housing is single-room occupancy. It is the most densely populated area west of New York City, with 115 people per acre, four times the average density of San Francisco (American Planning Association, 2013). The neighborhood is also home to numerous social and cultural organizations that cater to the needs of new immigrants, including Chinese radio stations, a Chinese-language YMCA, numerous Chinese businesses, and the Chinese Hospital (City and County of San Francisco, Office of Economic and Workforce Development, 2013).

While Chinatown today is a vibrant neighborhood with rich community life, it still struggles to meet the basic needs of its residents, who are disproportionately poor and modestly educated. Currently, over 75 percent of Chinatown residents are foreign born, with most migrants hailing from Asian countries; indeed, 84 percent of the neighborhood’s current population identifies their race/ethnicity as Asian, compared to 33 percent for San Francisco as a whole. Chinatown is a very low-income community, with a median household income of just US$18,368, compared to the San Francisco city average of US$71,416. Chinatown residents have significantly less formal education than San Franciscans broadly — 73 percent of Chinatown residents have a high school education or less, compared to 29 percent of the city’s population — and are much less likely to speak English at home. Finally, this is a population of renters: fully 91.3 percent of Chinatown residents occupy rental housing, compared to 62 percent of San Franciscans; see Table 1 (San Francisco Planning Department, 2012).


Table 1: Digital access and socio-economic indicators.
Source: a. SF Neighborhood Socio Economic Profiles (2006–2010), San Francisco Planning Department, May 2012; b. Berman, et al., “Digital inclusion in San Francisco,” UC Berkeley, June 2007; c. “City and County of San Francisco 2013 city survey report,” Office of the Controller, May 2013.
IndicatorChinatownSan Francisco average
Race/ethnicity, percentage Asiana84%33%
Age, 60+ yearsa35%19%
Education, high school or lessa73%29%
English language use, homea14%55%
Housing, renter occupieda93%62%
Median household incomeaUS$18,368US$71,416
Internet use, homeb,c56.21%88%


Chinatown’s modern demographic characteristics speak to the history of exclusionary practices that concentrated Asian minorities spatially into the district, but predictably, these demographic characteristics also strongly correlate with disparate rates of Internet access. Chinatown is one of two neighborhoods in San Francisco with the lowest rates of home Internet access (the other is Bayview Hunter’s Point, which is predominantly African-American); both neighborhoods report rates of home Internet access ‘far below average’ (see Figure 1). According to the most recent data, only 56 percent of Chinatown residents report having Internet access at home, compared with a city average of around 88 percent (Berman, et al., 2007). Crucially, place matters above and beyond demographic characteristics alone: Chinatown residents report lower rates of home Internet access than every other comparable demographic category in San Francisco, including Asian Americans, those earning less than US$25,000 annually, those with low education, and those older than 65 (see Table 1 and Figure 2). Moreover, unequal access is not improving with time: according to 2013 city survey data published by the San Francisco Office of the Controller, the digital divide exists in San Francisco more or less to the same degree and in the same localities as in 2007, when the last comprehensive study was conducted (City and County of San Francisco, Office of the Controller, 2013).


Map of home Internet access in San Francisco by neighborhood
Figure 1: Map of home Internet access in San Francisco by neighborhood. Published originally in “Digital inclusion in San Francisco,” a report by SF TechConnect and the City and County of San Francisco, 2007; reproduced with permission.



Rate of home Internet access by subgroup
Figure 2.


There appears to be a strong correlation between home Internet access and access to city resources. County supervisorial districts three, six, and eleven had the highest percentage of people reporting no home Internet access. These same districts also report trouble using city services, including parks, libraries, public transit, and customer service operations, at rates higher than city averages, further suggesting a spatial dimension to inequality in San Francisco (see Figure 3).


District level statistics on households without home Internet access
Figure 3.


Furthermore, between households with and without home Internet access, those without home access are more likely to report difficulty accessing city services (Figures 4, 5). The relationship between Internet and city services access is made explicit in the city’s current connectivity plan, which opens by stating that “Internet connectivity is a basic building block towards the creation of a responsive and supportive community,” and that “San Francisco’s municipal and county government relies heavily on the Internet to communicate with residents and to provide modern services” (City and County of San Francisco, Committee on Information Technology (COIT), 2015).


Trouble accessing city services
Figure 4.



City services and Internet access
Figure 5.


San Francisco municipal policy-makers understand the extent of the city’s digital divide, and they are actively working to address it. In a recent U.S. Federal Communications Commission proceeding that considered the expansion of Internet service subsidies for low-income households, Mayor Ed Lee filed a letter affirming that “San Francisco is a city that continually seeks to serve its residents more efficiently and effectively through digital services, and any gap in broadband access means reduced civic engagement and use of municipal services” (City and County of San Francisco, 2015). The city has invested in a free wireless network, dubbed “#SFWIFI,” that is available in public parks. It also recently announced a new initiative to extend Comcast’s Internet Essentials discounted service rate program to seniors, who had previously been excluded by eligibility requirements based on whether or not the household had children eligible for subsidized lunches through SNAP (City and County of San Francisco, Committee on Information Technology (COIT), 2015; CBS San Francisco, 2015).

Still, despite the city’s efforts, it is not the most important player in attempts to address the digital divide. While San Francisco has a limited municipal fiber network that currently provides free access to certain city buildings, Internet service to households is largely provided through private companies. These companies generally find it financially unattractive to build out infrastructure in places with poor financial projections or many geographic obstacles (City and County of San Francisco, Committee on Information Technology (COIT), 2015). As a legacy of the neighborhood’s long history of discrimination, neglect, and resistance, Chinatown’s built environment is characterized by old, deteriorating infrastructure and unusually complex planning codes. This has created economic, planning, and physical barriers to municipal and corporate broadband investment in the neighborhood.

Indeed, one of the most important barriers to Internet access in Chinatown is the age and character of the building stock. The expansion of broadband Internet service, be it wireless (delivered over the radio spectrum as Wi-Fi) or broadband (delivered through fiber optic cables), necessitates build outs of physical infrastructure. For different reasons, neither of these approaches can currently be supported by the current built environment.

According to data from the American Community Survey, administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, the residential building stock in Chinatown is some of the oldest in the city: 70.7 percent of all housing units are in buildings constructed in 1939 or earlier. By comparison, the average percent of housing units in this age range across the city is 41.89 percent (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015). [4] The San Francisco Planning Commission’s annual Housing Inventory indicates almost no change or turnover in the Chinatown housing stock in the past five years, suggesting a relatively static state of housing conditions in the neighborhood (San Francisco Planning Department, 2015).

As previously suggested, the age of Chinatown’s building stock is, in part, the result of the legal achievements of anti-displacement and historic preservation campaigns over the last century. While activists succeeded in creating a buffer against successive waves of development in the neighboring Financial District and Nob Hill that threatened Chinatown’s very existence, they also had the effect of limiting the flow of capital investment and removing incentives for landowners to proactively invest in building maintenance. Among the improvements that are desperately needed, but not frequently made, are those required for Internet access.

This point is widely acknowledged and lamented by contemporary community service providers. In an interview, Malcolm Yeung, the Deputy Director of the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), said that Chinatown has faced ‘constant pressure’ for ‘higher and better uses’ in the face of rising property values in San Francisco. ‘The building stock is slowly deteriorating’, he added, noting the ‘tension’ between preserving the neighborhood and maintaining habitability ‘gets worse every year’ [5]. Omar Masry of the San Francisco Planning Department agreed, saying that Chinatown’s degraded housing stock has prevented laying down the infrastructure necessary for broadband [6]. Anni Chung, President and CEO of Self-Help for the Elderly, likewise attributed Chinatown’s lack of Internet infrastructure to the neighborhood’s architecture, property ownership patterns, and state of the built environment [7].

Expanding Internet to Chinatown through the wireline approach would entail an expensive public works project consisting of excavating streets and accessing underground cables. This would be a ‘truly anachronistic approach to solving the IT access problem in old buildings and developments’, says Phil Chin, a board member of the CCDC [8].

However, even Wi-Fi services are not immune from the difficulties imposed by Chinatown’s built environment and legal landscape. While Wi-Fi services have a lighter infrastructural footprint than broadband, they still rely on the placement of routers. They are also subject to extensive regulations and permitting procedures. To make installations for community or individual use, wireless service providers need permits from the Department of Building Inspection and environmental review from the Planning Department. To deliver Internet service, wireless Internet service also need a clear line of sight from the service provider’s radio antennas to the building that is being served. Physical barriers like other buildings can restrict availability, and signing up for wireless generally requires rooftop installations of hardware (Geier, 2013). It is hard to imagine low-income, Chinese-speaking individuals navigating these multiple hurdles, most of which, as renters, they have little control over. Without assistance, it is much more likely that these communities will remain relegated to “inferior forms” of access provisioned through the public library or via mobile technologies.

The historic nature of Chinatown, as one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and a place where community organizations have worked hard to prevent the destruction of historic buildings, further complicates matters. ‘It depends on whether historical resources are used’, says Brian Roberts of the San Francisco Department of Technology, referring to whether any hypothetical wireless installation could occur in an area with one or more protected historic landmarks [9]. Chinatown has many such landmarks. Some are specific to the ethnic Chinese community, such as the Tin How Temple (the oldest Chinese temple in the United States), and some are not, such as a plaque commemorating the location of the first public school in California; all, however, are subject to more restrictive permitting laws and related fees. Thus, Chinatown’s built environment confounds matters even in a situation — the provision of wireless Internet — that appears to be less physically rooted in place.

Other regulatory and bureaucratic hurdles related to public utilities and environmental regulation pose significant problems too. A community or city-led effort to improve Internet access would need to use public property to install street boxes or routers, or to connect to fiber optic cables. Roberts elaborated on the regulatory landscape and the many interrelated barriers it raises:

To install infrastructure in the public right of way, you need authority from the CA Public Utilities Commission, in the form of a facilities-based Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN). You would then get a Utilities Condition Permit (UCP) from the City’s Department of Public Works — This is pretty ministerial with the CPCN. If you do not have access to existing conduit you would need to get a trenching permit. To place a cabinet, you would need a Surface Mounted Facilities Permit. For areas where the utilities are above ground on poles, you would need to join the Northern California Joint Pole Association. [10]

Furthermore, complying with state regulations on telecommunications providers is more important than municipal laws, so any city effort to install new Internet infrastructure might have to escalate their campaign to the state level, where statewide environmental regulations, like the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), can create additional hurdles [11]. Seeing as Chinatown residents struggle to get adequate services within their own city, the idea of them orchestrating a campaign to proactively change the statewide provision of Internet service is wildly unrealistic.

The administrative and financial hurdles of expanding Internet access are difficult even for service providers like AT&T. In order to implement the private AT&T U-verse service in San Francisco, the city’s Planning Department (2011) granted a CEQA Categorical Exemption to build 726 utility boxes using the public right of way. Their action caused unexpected public outcry. When the San Francisco Board of Supervisors denied a citizens’ appeal to block the installation, community organizations sued in the San Francisco Superior Court (Hoge, 2012). According to Roberts, the ‘DPW gets tons of complaints about the AT&T U-verse boxes’, which are about four feet across, two feet deep, and four feet tall [12]. Organizations like San Francisco Beautiful continue to protest the boxes, which they call ‘outdated technology that blocks and blights our sidewalks’ by creating new targets for graffiti (San Francisco Beautiful, 2014).

The controversy over U-verse boxes is not the first time San Franciscans have been in an uproar over Internet infrastructure projects. Political fights shut down a well-meaning 2006 effort by EarthLink and Google that would have provided free Wi-Fi to all of San Francisco in 2006 (Associated Press, 2007). Statutes like CEQA and the California Public Utilities Code Section 7901, a state law that dictates how telegraph or telephone corporations may construct lines of telegraph or telephone lines, as well as municipal regulations such as SF Department of Public Works Order 175,566, which sets forth regulations for the installation of Surface Mounted Facilities, are the source of lots of ongoing and past litigation, confirmed one AT&T representative. It’s likely that a smaller effort by the city to make community fiber or wireless network installations would face similar opposition.

In order to bring a creative, Internet-only venture like Google Fiber to San Francisco, the Department of Technology ‘would have to come up with a new process’ to let them build in the public right of way, says Roberts [13]. He also added, ‘anecdotally, the head of Google Fiber has said the company would be reluctant to build anywhere in California due to CEQA’ [14]. For these reasons, both bottom-up and top-down efforts to extend Internet access to poor urban communities like Chinatown via infrastructure improvements are unlikely to be realized.

Beyond the legal and technological barriers, there is the wider social context of San Francisco’s extraordinary gentrification, much of it propelled by tech industry growth, to consider (Brahinsky, 2014; Stehlin, 2015). As documented in an article on San Francisco’s housing crisis by technology journalist Kim-Mai Cutler, demographic shifts have caused both technology firms and their employees to move towards the urban core from Silicon Valley. At the same time, the city’s historically conservative approach to growth, once again linked to preservationist movements like those seen in Chinatown, has meant that not nearly enough housing units have been added to compensate for this growth (Cutler, 2014; Matier and Ross, 2014). Rents for available new units have soared, making those reliant on rent-controlled properties more vulnerable to eviction and being pushed out of the city altogether. Late 2013 and early 2014 saw the publication of articles such as ‘The San Francisco exodus’ in the Atlantic and op-eds in the New York Times with titles like ‘What tech hasn’t learned from urban planning’ (Arieff, 2013; Metcalf, 2013). These tensions highlight the depth of the relationship between Internet and spatial access in San Francisco: thanks to the Internet sector, the city experienced some of the highest rates of job growth in the U.S. between 2010 and 2014, but it has also wrought a terrible housing shortage and sharp increases in the cost of living. Given this context, any effort to implement municipal Internet or widespread upgrades to Chinatown housing stock might incur more harm than good for the neighborhood.

Thus, the residents of Chinatown are stuck in a Catch-22: without improved Internet access, they are likely to fall further and further behind the rest of the city, but because the neighborhood has been so chronically neglected (or, from a different perspective, successfully preserved), there seem to be no realistic options to meaningfully improve high-quality broadband access without incurring unbearable costs. Furthermore, significant improvements to Chinatown’s Internet infrastructure could make the location more desirable to real estate developers who are catering to wealthier populations and technology companies looking to build San Francisco headquarters, thereby exposing the neighborhood to new and more intense threats of displacement.

This creates a difficult quandary for community leaders and organizations: the poor health of the neighborhood’s building stock presents an obstacle to the new provision of broadband Internet technology and infrastructure, but attempts to remake or rebuild the neighborhood could come at a heavy price. Even minor renovations could reduce the supply of affordable, if low quality, housing and commercial stock that so many residents depend on for basic survival, thereby upsetting the delicate balance that has allowed this neighborhood to serve a unique Asian American population, amid intense competition for space, for well over a century.




Individuals ranging from President Obama to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler have applauded the Internet era as an engine of innovation and prosperity. Tech-idealists have similarly pronounced that the societal transformation made possible by the Internet will have positive repercussions for all. However, this vast potential will not be realized without a careful consideration of the multiple causes and effects of digital inequality. In this essay, we have argued that the built environment — the product of enduring legacies of place-based racial formation — must be considered much more fully in understanding how the digital divide is not just produced, but actively perpetuated.

The example of San Francisco Chinatown illustrates that digital inequality is just the most recent manifestation of historic, spatial inequities between neighborhoods created through ongoing processes of racial formation. Discrimination and resistance are both part of this story: their cumulative effects are registered in the physical landscape, which in turn shape the provisioning of digital access. In this light, digital inclusion and exclusion with regard to racialized spaces can be seen as a social justice issue; this is particularly true given the role of the Internet in determining the life outcomes and economic opportunities of already marginalized peoples in the twenty-first century.

To ensure that Internet technology meets its potential to democratize information and power, rather than reinforce systemic inequalities, both policy-makers and community leaders in San Francisco may need to shift their digital divide tactics to more fully embrace the specificities of place. Policy-makers should regard Chinatown’s issues of housing access, environmental health, community preservation, and Internet access more holistically. Putting greater resources towards the protection and improvement of affordable housing — especially the inclusion of infrastructure for improved Internet access in new affordable housing proposals — while streamlining the regulation and mechanisms of upgrading housing stock and other elements of the built environment can ameliorate economic and environmental disadvantages. For leaders and organizations in Chinatown, it may also be necessary to move beyond an adversarial relationship of threat and resistance with city agencies. While all possible solutions are no doubt imperfect and complicated, such moves to incorporate Internet access into sustainable community plans hold promise for bettering the lives of Chinatown residents and helping this neighborhood adapt to twenty-first century challenges. End of article


About the author

Emily Hong is a Policy Program Associate at New America’s Open Technology Institute, and graduated from Yale University in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies.
E-mail: emily [dot] hong [at] aya [dot] yale [dot] edu



Figure 1 was published originally in “Digital inclusion in San Francisco,” a report by SF TechConnect and the City and County of San Francisco, 2007; it is reproduced here with permission of the authors. The author would like to Laura Barraclough for her significant support and encouragement in the preparation of this manuscript.



1. Jewel Chen, 2013, personal communication.

2. Ri Chi Zhou, 2013, personal communication.

3. San Francisco Municipal Code, §803.1–2.

4. Another recent report on the digital divide in San Francisco, prepared for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in April 2015, found that 82 percent of households citywide had home Internet access, a four point increase from the figure of 78 percent established by the 2007 study. It did not It did not conduct breakdowns in data by neighborhood, but confirmed that San Franciscans without access are still more likely to be lower income, older, lesser educated, or people of color (City and County of San Francisco, Board of Supervisors Budget and Legislative Analyst, 2015).

5. Malcolm Yeung, 2013, personal communication.

6. Omar Masry, 2013, personal communication.

7. Anni Chung, 2013, personal communication.

8. Phil Chin, 2013, personal communication.

9. Brian Roberts, 2013, personal communication.

10. Brian Roberts, 2013, personal communication.

11. To conduct this data analysis, the zip code 94108 was used to approximate Chinatown.

12. Brian Roberts, 2013, personal communication.

13. Brian Roberts, 2013, personal communication.

14. Brian Roberts, 2013, personal communication.



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Appendix: Internet use survey questions


EnglishChinese translation
1. Where do you live in San Francisco, and how long have you lived there?1. 請問您現在在舊金山哪裡居住? 在那裡已居住多久?
2. Do you usually use the Internet? If so, how many times per week?2. 您平時上網嗎?
3. Do you believe information found on the Internet is trustworthy?3. 您覺得網上的信息可靠嗎?
4. If you use the Internet, what do you use it for, and where do you use it? (At the library, at school, at home)4. 如果您有上網,您主要是用互聯網做什麼 您平時在哪些地方上網 (學校, 圖書館, 家裡)?
5. Where do you get information about your neighborhood and your city? (voting locations, transportation changes, business information, community events, etc.)5. 您平時是通過哪些渠道了解住房, 納稅, 和其他城市事務?



Editorial history

Received 19 October 2015; revised 17 December 2015; accepted 28 December 2015.

Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

Digital inequality and racialized place in the 21st century: A case study of San Francisco’s Chinatown
by Emily Hong.
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 1 - 4 January 2016

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