Academic journal article Chinese America: History and Perspectives

Activating Legal Protections for Archaeological Remains of Historic Chinatown Sites: Lessons Learned from Oakland, California

Academic journal article Chinese America: History and Perspectives

Activating Legal Protections for Archaeological Remains of Historic Chinatown Sites: Lessons Learned from Oakland, California

Article excerpt

(Original title: Rediscovering Oakland's San Pablo Avenue Chinatown)

While state law protects archaeological resources, a major redevelopment project planned for the site one of Oakland's earliest Chinatowns showed community members they had to struggle to get the developer to meet their legal obligations. This paper discusses a few of the lessons learned in activating legal protections for unique and significant archaeological sites.


The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) not only protects historic buildings and landscapes, it protects unique and significant archaeological remains. (1) City Planning departmental reviews of whether a development project will adversely impact the environment are therefore legally required to assess potential "impacts" to historic buildings and potential archaeological remains. If the project will impact a resource, and the impact cannot be avoided, the project is required to "mitigate" the impact in a manner that compensates for the damage to or loss of an irreplaceable cultural resource. In designing mitigations, the guiding principal is that after the project is complete, the mitigated resource should be at least equal to the resource that was destroyed. For a potentially unique and significant archaeological site, if a project cannot be designed to avoid impacting the site, the site must be studied and excavated by a qualified archaeological team, an extensive report published, and the archaeological documents and artifacts curated in a permanent repository accessible to researchers.

That's the theory, anyway But when a national development corporation started the Environmental Impact Review process for a project that would redevelop the site of one of Oakland's earliest Chinatowns, we found there's nothing automatic about the process of assessing and mitigating a project's impacts. It's up to community members to activate the legal protections for significant cultural resources.

In our case, the site was what long-time Oaklander Edward Chew records as the site of the "'official' Chinatown" of the late 1860s and 1870s, created along San Pablo Avenue near today's 20th Street. Chew writes that this Chinatown was established after city authorities refused to allow the rebuilding of the first "'official' Chinatown" on Telegraph near today's 17th Street, after it was destroyed in a fire. The next year, the City extended its main street, Broadway, northward through the former Chinatown site. The dislocations continued; residents of the San Pablo Avenue Chinatown were "consigned" to live at the City's industrial south shore, and the Charter Avenue Chinatown site (today's Grand Avenue) resulted from an 1880s redevelopment of the San Pablo Avenue Chinatown site. Very little is known of these historic Chinatown sites, although their existence is well established through a few mentions in historic newspapers and the federal census. The paucity of information about the Chinatowns underscores the legal significance of any potential archaeological remains.2

While the draft Environmental Impact Report for the project acknowledged that the project area had a high likelihood of containing archaeological remains of the historic Chinatown, it initially made no provision for archaeological study Instead, the only "mitigation" was to have archaeological monitoring during construction. This procedure usually fails either in adequately mitigating the archaeological resource or in keeping the project on schedule, or--most frequently-both. (3) A pre-construction archaeological study was essential for the developer to be able to meet the legal protections for potentially unique and significant archaeological remains.

To activate the legal protections, community members spent countless hours spreading the word about the archaeological issue, calling and writing City Council members, and speaking at public meetings. …

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