Manhattan’s Chinatown is one of the most popular places for afterschool hangouts for teens and dinner spots for adults looking for an enjoyable time after work. Spanning across many blocks, Chinatown is filled to the brim with good eats and treats. Because of its high population density, the neighborhood is quite lively and crowded. Hundreds of people can be found roaming the streets, from tourists visiting for the first time to residents running their errands. Chinatown is special in that it is transforming into a more affluent neighborhood. The balance between the old and the new is a fine line and many people are unsure as to whether or not this transformation is a good or bad thing. These new changes affect all parts of daily life and we have to analyze the positive and negative.
Chinatown is a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, next to the Lower East Side. It has always served as the gateway for thousands of immigrants from China. It is easily accessible for everyone because of its prime location in the heart of Manhattan. Furthermore, it is home to the highest concentration of Chinese people in the Western Hemisphere. In its early days, it was dominated by Cantonese speakers from Southern China. According to Over a Century of Food and Change in Chinatown from eater.com, Chinatown saw an influx of different Chinese immigrants in the later part of the 20th century. Fuzhounese speakers settled in the eastern portion of Chinatown, and established their own little part of the neighborhood, Little Fuzhou. Each brought their own regional cuisines with them.
We decided that interviews with people who were acquainted with Chinatown of the old days, that is way before our time, was best. We visited the senior center my grandmother frequents and learned some interesting information. As a well-respected part of the community there and generally well-liked by everyone, the people of the senior center were more than happy to talk to me. We spoke with Mr. Ma, the social worker, and Mr. Ho, the English teacher. Both men were well into the later stages in life and provided us with some valuable information and insight, not to mention funny stories.
Mr. Ma spoke of the early days while Mr. Ho focused on modern day. I thought this contrast was interesting and we had not intended to interview them from that angle. Mr. Ma first began working as a dishwasher making $300 a week in a Chinese restaurant in the eastern part of Chinatown, known as East Broadway today. Back then, it was not safe at all. Everyone was afraid to go there because of high crime rates. He earned his wages from the men who worked at the local garment factories. Unlike the women who brought their own lunches from home to save money for the family, the men ate outside every day. They longed for a taste of home and was one of the pleasures of life they could afford. Coffee at that time was 10 cents and a good-sized portion of shrimp with rice was 65 cents. According to Mr. Ho, all the garment factory jobs there are gone.
Nowadays, East Broadway is completely different. It is no longer unsafe to go there. Shops are found on every block corner and small businesses line the streets. Signs written in Chinese can be seen from both sides of the street showing how large the Chinese dominance is in the area. Mr. Ho told me the Chinese influence is leaving Chinatown. Many of the Chinese-owned shops are closing on East Broadway. Back in the ’80s, an entire apartment building could be bought for tens of thousands of dollars. Real estate prices rose in the beginning due to speculation and a growing number of upper-class residents.
According to Mr. Ho, the Chinese are losing land, losing history, and losing traditions. Chinatown is becoming not Chinatown little by little. The whites are moving in because of cheap rent.
Art galleries are the favored choice of business. We saw many of them on Orchard and Grand Streets, most of them not one block apart. Many businesses are closing their doors because they simply cannot compete with the rent prices the building owners demand. Whites bring in more value and more money. The owners see Chinatown as a hotspot and all of them are rushing to cash in on the next big thing. Current shop owners cannot afford the astronomical price hikes. Mr. Ho attests that $8000 rent is now $10,000. All they can do is close up shop and hope to find a cheaper place. Big markets have tried to solve this problem by renting out small stalls. However, those with the unfortunate placement in the back of the store are forgotten and rarely get costumers. Those businesses who depend on Chinese consumers are also losing business. They are being forced out.
What once was a cheap place to live is now expensive and those who cannot maintain their living there leave. Whites are able to afford the high-rise luxury apartments that quickly make their way up the blue sky. Construction in Chinatown has never been this rapid. According to Chinatown Buildings to Make Way for 11-Story Mixed-Use Development from curbed.com, three tenement buildings were demolished to make way for a taller one. In fact, there are many shiny new glass buildings tower over the original residential ones. Hotels and luxury condos spring up every day, catering to the richer. In doing so, they force out those who were initially there. They flock to the already existing Chinatowns in the outer boroughs to avoid high rent. Many buildings are demolished to make room for more high-rises and more hotels. The prospect of money to be made drives landlords to evict people. Illegal immigrants living in illegal sublets are at the most risk due to their statuses. On the fourth floor of 81 Bowery, there are 40 roofless cubicles that are home to poor laborers according to Pavement Pieces. Those who are not also find themselves at the short end of the stick when their landlords try to find loopholes to kick them out to make more money. It is disheartening to see one culture turn its back on its own.
Some of the most common types of Chinese businesses are restaurants, dim sum restaurants, jewelers, greengrocers, and fishmongers. The illegal businesses are ones that sell counterfeit products. Mr. Ho remarked that the police do not really care about this problem. If the fashion label in hand happened to notice the problem, then the police would care. My partner and I happened to see one of these sellers harass tourists who clearly did not speak English into buying his knockoffs. The garment factories of the past all moved back to China because of lower cost of production.
A report from the Asian American Federation, titled Revitalizing Chinatown Businesses: Challenges and Opportunities, found that the Chinatown economy has not returned to pre-September 11th levels. Business following the terrorist attack declined sharply due to its proximity to Ground Zero. Streets were blocked off and that led to decrease in business. They found that the total number of businesses increased 4%, total number of jobs decreased 5%, and the average wage rose 10%. Furthermore, the traditional jobs immigrants start out with are shrinking or struggling. Accommodations and food services jobs are experiencing slower levels of growth. On the upside, the health care and social assistance sector is increasing in the number of jobs along with arts, entertainment, and recreation. Both the finance and insurance industry and professional, scientific, and technical services see upward growth. However, there are challenges.
Chinatown’s customer base has shifted. More affluent people from all different backgrounds are moving in neighborhood. You can see these simply by performing Google searches and looking at rent prices. A good price for a one-bedroom is $2,500 according to curbed.com. The article acknowledges that Chinatown is a hot neighborhood to live in. But those businesses that have traditionally catered towards the Cantonese and Toishanese working-class find themselves losing customers. They must change the way of their business to meet with the demand of the new times. The drop in manufacturing jobs has reduced the number of Chinese who frequented restaurants and retail shops during the day and many of these people now work outside of Chinatown. Those businesses that depended on them are facing slower sales. In addition, the Chinatowns in the outer boroughs diminish the need for Chinese residents to visit Manhattan’s Chinatown for goods and services. The shorter commute time makes everyone happier.
There is a negative image of Chinatown that turns off visitors. Mr. Ho told me there are people working to fix this negative light. Communities pay to clean the streets out of pocket with no aid from the government. They realized that they needed to bring people and business back to the neighborhood and they had to amend it by cleaning the streets. Organizations gather people to pick up trash and remove waste. Hopefully, Chinatown will be clean enough to bring back all the lost business.
According to the BBC’s The slow decline of American Chinatowns, there are many people working hard to make sure Manhattan’s Chinatown does not end like the ones in Boston and Philadelphia and certainly not in Washington D.C. Those places have become tourist only places. However, everyone admits that Chinese people are leaving the neighborhood. More white people are moving into Chinatown because of rising real estate prices and Chinatown is becoming increasingly less Chinese.