Throughout planning history it has not been uncommon to “forget” certain groups of people. In fact, throughout the United States’ history this has been recurring, both within the planning profession as well as outside it. Idaho was not left out in exercising this trend. Idaho’s planning history, although short in comparison to other American cities, has experienced its share of ebbs and flows, successes and failures. Embracing diversity and equity planning, especially in regard to the Chinese immigrants of the area, has not been among Idaho’s triumphs.
The Chinese immigrated to Idaho and the West coast of the United States in troves during the “California Gold Rush” of 1848.
They weren’t the only ones jumping at the opportunity to rake in some gold; they were however, some of the only non-white ones doing so. By 1870 the Chinese outnumbered those prospecting gold in the Idaho market. (In fact, in 1870 almost 30% of Idaho’s population was Chinese!) Many of these immigrants intended to make some quick cash (or gold) and send it back to family in China, unfortunately most would never return home.
The Chinese were known as hard workers that would perform for less compensation than their white counterparts. They became commodities. Not traditionally miners, it was perhaps just as lucrative for the Chinese to make a living through railroad construction, laundering clothes, cooking food, or as seen illustratively in Garden City’s history, through gardening. After the profitability of mining dwindled, the Chinese became prominent as gardeners and agriculturists in the area. Developers in the Garden City area, such as Thomas Jefferson Davis, employed Chinese workers as gardeners to feed the growing population in the Boise area. Homesteading in the Boise area in 1863, Thomas Davis has been celebrated as an entrepreneur and pioneer of the area. After the initial gold rush dwindled, Chinese immigrants sought work in the Valley, most turning to gardening and farming in the Garden City area.
Garden City became known for its Chinese Gardens; however the cultivators of those gardens were still treated as second-class citizens. Besides the existence of Garden City, perhaps one of the only nods to their talent is the thoroughfare Chinden Boulevard, a combination of “Chinese” and “Garden”.
Idaho was not the only area “threatened” by an influx of a less-expensive and hard-working labor force. Nationally, the Chinese Exclusion Act publicized a wide held sentiment toward the Chinese. Stripped of any right to become citizens or bring family members to the United States, most Chinese immigrants were trapped. The Chinese were stuck among, or on the periphery, of communities disapproving of their culture and lifestyle. China Towns, such as the previously existent area in downtown Boise, and cities such as Garden City, illustrate how the “other” lived. This trend translated throughout Idaho, but is especially prominent in the highly populated cities of the time. For a comprehensive glimpse into Chinese cultural history throughout Idaho, look into this library.
The Chinese Gardens of Garden City and China Town in downtown Boise are now just relics of what used to be Boise’s Chinese culture and heritage. The Chinese Gardens dwindled because of a decrease in business and cheaper alternatives to antiquated agriculture and food production. China Town was torn down during Boise’s turbulent and destructive urban renewal era in the 1970s. Given the treatment the Chinese endured, perhaps it is impressive that the remnants of Chinese immigrant history stood as long as they did in Boise’s downtown. Nonetheless, a planning mechanism was responsible for its disposal in the end. Whether passively or actively discarded, it has been clear throughout Idaho’s history that marginalized populations are not the focal point of any planning efforts. For another lens into the lack of diversity in Boise’s neighborhoods historically consult this local blog.
Publications and memorials have been developed as an afterthought to remember the Chinese immigrants that helped to form the city known presently. John Evans, the mayor of Garden City acknowledged one of the city’s oldest Chinese families in 2010 with the Louis Family Recognition Day. A collection of articles, artifacts and books have been compiled in Moscow, Idaho as part of an exhibit at the University of Idaho. In place of the torn-down China Town have been erected photo-montages. Is it possible that all we have left to remember Chinese immigrants as part of Idaho’s history is a collection writings and photos?
As echoed throughout the history of many states in North America, the Chinese people, among other minority groups, were not supreme on the totem pole of consideration in terms of planning, or inclusion in cities period. This resulted not only from skin color but also their work ethic and tendency toward isolation (or preservation of culture, depending on your definition), believing their time in the United States would be short-lived. The Chinese were not able to integrate into American culture for various reasons, all of which contributed to the lack of consideration given them in planning and development efforts. They were seen first as visitors, second as a workforce and third as a people to be extracted.