We’ve discussed that our working definition of gentrification is a combination of the transfer of land and housing from lower to higher classes and the change of institutions to appeal to the tastes of wealthier residents. These two processes can be evidenced by the economic, cultural and demographic shifts in the area. As the average income of residents in Chinatown has increased and there has been an influx of wealthier people in the neighborhood, the sights have changed in order to accommodate these changing tastes as well. For example, an assortment of bubble tea shops, rolled ice cream places, and other “instagram-worthy” establishments now grace the streets of Chinatown where there were once Chinese tea parlors and traditional Chinese restaurants. This phenomenon is partly a bi-product of the rise of social media and its influences. Tourism and maintaining a certain caliber of attractions for tourists is also a cause of the gentrification taking place in the area as well. The arts are also involved as art galleries tend to be some of the first business to gentrify working class and industrial districts. Clearly, the cultural and social aspects are important and not to be neglected when discussing the causes and effects of these changes in the area.
Creating “Instagram-able” foods and desserts has become a priority for many businesses, but this is especially true of restaurants and culinary establishments in Chinatown. Every week there is a different trend, and so these places must adapt and innovate in order to keep up with the times. Perhaps it is a “millennial thing” to be obsessed with aesthetics. Even so, businesses have to stay up to date with the latest trends in order to compete with the ever increasing number of places to eat. Before social media, being “Instagram-able” was not a restaurants priority when designing their location and menu. However, now that is the first thing that the new generation of entrepreneurs thinks about. Social media is how many of these establishments get their customers, and so they do their best to appeal to that audience. On the other hand, this means that restaurants without all of the bells and whistles of newer ones are losing their customer base and are being replaced by more aesthetically pleasing places.
The changing demographics of Chinatown also accounts for the decline of traditional Chinese establishments. According to an article from BBC titled, “The Slow Decline of American Chinatowns,”
“The report on gentrification, published by the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, finds that from 2000-2010 the share of the Asian population has fallen from 48%-45% in New York’s Chinatown, 57%-46% in Boston’s, and 49%-30% in Philadelphia’s, and that the share of the white population rose in all three cities. As local government encourages commercial development, low-income families and small businesses have been displaced, the report says. The process is less advanced in New York, says Andrew Leong. But even there high-end stores, non-Asian restaurants and luxury apartment buildings have been spreading.”
Since the Asian, and more specifically Chinese, community has gone decreasing, the small traditionally run Chinese restaurants have been on the decline. The owner of Lao San Snack, Mei Rong Song, says, “My shop has Fuzhou specialty foods, and as Fuzhounese people stop living in this neighborhood there’s less and less demand for what I sell. I don’t know that I can stay for more than a year or two.” The new people moving into the area are less interested in youtiao and more interested in rolled ice cream. The previously mentioned report also states that, “Chinatowns are turning into a sanitized ethnic playground for the rich to satisfy their exotic appetite for a dim sum and fortune cookie fix.” Americanized and watered down versions of Chinese food are what sell the most, and the traditional foods have gotten lost in the process.
Chinatown once exhibited the Chinese culture vibrantly as it was and partly still is a dynamic immigrants centre. It has somewhat been able to retain its status as an immigrant gateway with its various services such as immigration agencies, Chinese doctors, phone card companies, banks, wire transfer firms, and nursing homes. This community of immigrants has preserved Chinese culture by mainly speaking Chinese in the tenement buildings and in business, and also with the Chinese signs in the street and the aroma of Cantonese food from the traditional Chinese restaurants that remain. The scene however, is changing, and gentrification is the catalyst. High-end stores, non-Asian restaurants, and luxury apartment buildings have been spreading throughout Manhattan and driving the Chinese culture out.
A main objective has been to make Chinatown more of a tourist hotspot that caters to the styles and tastes of the wealthy tourists rather than to those of the residents.Garment factories that once employed Chinese immigrants in the 80s have been replaced with doctor’s offices and gyms and the bakeries and herbal medicine shops that were once there have been replaced with contemporary art galleries that are able to pay four to five times the original rent. Additionally, we noticed many vacant buildings and empty storefronts. Mr. Ho from the Open Door Senior Center commented that many of the old East Broadway shops that he frequented had been closed. He mentioned that those who own stores that depend on Chinese customers are losing business and being forced out due to the high land taxes and rent. This goes along with the idea of making Chinatown less traditionally Chinese and more appealing to tourists and those with more expensive tastes.We also noticed that there was a significantly lower number of street peddlers gracing the sidewalks. New upscale businesses with crystal clear glass storefronts have opened, leaving the street vendors behind in the dust. The trendy Canal Street Market that opened is one example of how Chinatown is moving away from being an immigrant centre and more towards a commercialized tourist attraction. It exemplifies the new agenda for existing and upcoming businesses and residents of the area. The Canal Street Market is the epitome of “Instagrammable” locations and is full of wholesome eateries and craft/design shops that have little to no remnants of Chinese culture. An article from The New York Post reads, “This week, family-owned noodle and rice store Fong Inn Too, at 46 Mott Street, closed forever. The three-story building was recently sold for $2.7 million — a puny price by local standards but enough to spell the end of a business that had been on the block since 1933.” In its place came a slew of upscale non Chinese restaurants and a fancy new hotel. Slowly Chinatown is losing its charm; the iconic 1 Mott Street no longer houses Chinese cafes but instead an Ali Baba Organic Market.
The effects of gentrification can especially be felt in terms of the arts. Art galleries tend to be among the first businesses to gentrify working class or industrial districts. This can be seen in SoHo, Chelsea, Bushwick, and now Chinatown as well. Over 100 art galleries have opened in Chinatown, and about 60% of these have arrived in only the last three years. Low income tenants and small businesses are being pushed out and replaced with luxury condos, hotels and galleries that can afford the increasing rents. In order to stand up against this mass displacement, several organizations have been formed.The Chinatown Art Brigade created a pledge for the incoming business owners to sign that includes, “Learn about the history and contemporary situation of the place I am occupying. Find out which people I have displaced with my gallery, studio, cafe or bar,” and “Support the businesses that are essential to low-and middle-income people in my neighborhood.” The residents of Chinatown are not against the arts, nor do they have a strong hatred for artists. The problem is the historically damaging effect that these art spaces have on a community’s deep-roots residents. When a neighborhood flourishes with art galleries, hotels, high end stores, and fancy cafes, developers see the opportunity for a large profit. Not only do new art galleries cause the property values to rise as more affluent people move in, they also display a blatant disregard for the history of the people they are driving out. This is detrimental for the already existing community and culture in that area.
All in all, it is impossible to talk about gentrification in Chinatown without mentioning its cultural effects on the area. As fads and trends come and go, businesses adapt to the wants of consumers. Consumers want aesthetically pleasing over traditional culture. “Instagram-worthy” establishments are moving in and pushing out the restaurants and tea shops that have been there for decades. As the average income of the people in living in Chinatown increases, developers are modifying the area in order to appeal to their higher calibers of tastes. Art galleries are a strong force of gentrification as they are the first businesses to displace Chinese establishments. The social and cultural ramifications of gentrification in a neighborhood are undoubtedly important factors to discuss.