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Keep Chinatown Beautiful

Principle: Start with the Petunias

By Meg MacIver

November, 2009

In Chicago, Chinatown is known as the place to go for dumplings, noodles, bubble tea, and bustling streets filled with new tastes, smells and sounds. But if you’ve only visited to eat, you’re missing out on the dozens of cultural events that make it one of Chicago’s greatest neighborhoods.  A new event, “Keep Chinatown Beautiful,” involves the community’s youth in celebrating and improving its favorite public places.

Chinatown Chamber of Commerce

“Keep Chinatown Beautiful” is unique among the dozens of other events hosted each year by the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.  Unlike the Summer Concert Series or the Annual Dragon Boat Race, at this event, no one comes simply to sit back and enjoy the show.  This day is a day of service: Each participant should be ready to break a sweat while re-painting streetlights, picking up trash, and planting flowers that brighten plazas and alleys.

“More than anything, we wanted the youth of Chinatown to be involved in this project,” said May Gohres, whose three children volunteer and are among the many children in the community who attend St. Therese School, the first local institution to partner with “Keep Chinatown Beautiful.” “We hope to inspire the young ones to take pride in and responsibility for their own community.”

Chinatown Chamber of Commerce

Under the leadership of Chi Can To, co-executive director of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, the group began to recruit more partners. In addition to help from the school, the project gained participants and support from the Chinese Christian Union Church and Yale Alumni Association.  Soon, more than 90 volunteers of all ages started meeting on the third Saturday of every month at Alan Lee Square to get to work making small but noticeable improvements throughout the neighborhood.

“Keep Chinatown Beautiful” is an excellent example of the power of Placemaking Principle 6: “Start with the Petunias.”  Beautifying public space is a simple but critical act because it sets the stage for all the interactions and celebrations that take place there. And, as Chinatown’s efforts prove, these improvements need not happen behind the scenes or by paid professionals.  Involving the community, and especially its young people, encourages new connections and the increased and continued use of these spaces.  Once you’ve worked hard to make a place beautiful, you’re more likely to return often and strive hard to keep it that way.

For a complete list of cultural events and celebrations in Chicago’s Chinatown or to get involved in this event, visit: