The Gentrification of Chinatown For Better or For Worse?

The Chinatown we all know today is one of the most well-known tourist attractions of New York. Located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York City’s Chinatown reigns as the largest Chinatown in the United States and is home to “the largest concentration of Chinese in the western hemisphere.” While known for its bustling streets filled with fruit and fish markets and souvenir shops, it is perhaps most well-known for its multitude of restaurants and its food culture.

According to a study done by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) on three East Coast Chinatowns, it was found that the predominant commercial use in New York’s Chinatown is restaurant and food at 26 percent. A closer look at the industrial uses of the neighborhood—the physical manufacturing and distribution of food—also reflect the predominance of the food industry with 33 percent. Moreover, the food industry also holds some power over the printing industry—which comprises 15 percent of industrial uses—“as restaurant menus and materials for wedding banquets used in local restaurants” are printed. It is clear by these statistics that the food culture of Chinatown holds a lot of importance.

Image of Fong Inn Too before it was closed down (Image from The Lady and the Firefighter)

However, recent gentrification threatens Chinatown’s food industry, as local restaurants and businesses are being taken down one by one. One such restaurant, family-owned noodle and rice store Fong Inn Too, has just been closed down forever, having been recently sold for $2.7 million in order to be replaced by “a new breed of uptown-style restaurants where few Chinese faces are seen.” Chinatown is known for its restaurants and food culture, being the part of Manhattan that “so readily offers better food for less money.” Now, however, gentrification is beginning to strip this community of its roots. It is replacing the local businesses with modern restaurants that are not run by local residents.

US Census data has shown that in the years between 1990 and 2010, the population of Chinatown has decreased by 7 percent, with its racial demographics showing only the white population of Chinatown experiencing an increase. Lower-income families and businesses are displaced by landlords that prefer to rent to people with higher incomes, and it just so happens that these people are typically younger non-Chinese, non-immigrant professionals. However, studies have shown that there is much less displacement than is commonly assumed. According to a study done by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, “existing residents are just 0.4 percentage points more likely to move out in a given year,” in comparison to those in a non-gentrifying neighborhood. They also found, in conjunction with another study done by the Furman Institute at New York University, that the residents who remain in gentrifying communities actually see “economic gain.” These studies show that while some residents are pushed out by landlords and are forced to move elsewhere, it does not necessarily mean these people are worse off.

Individuals that move to Gentrifying Neighborhoods (Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia)

In contrast, Professor Peter Kwong of Hunter College states in an interview with the New York Times, that “Chinatown’s economy is founded on the twin pillars of the garment and restaurant industries.” With the decline of the garment industry in the ’90s and its increasing decline today to only 2 percent of industrial usage, Chinatown’s economic stance relies mainly on its restaurants and food industry. Nonetheless, according to Kwong, the overall quality of merchandise is down, and it has become difficult to find a good Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. This should not be the case as any ethnic community is defined by its food culture. While some may argue that Little Italy is not truly Little Italy—that it is just an area with Italian restaurants—it is still known as a place for finding and eating authentic Italian food. The same should be said for Chinatown. Chinatown is supposed to be known for being a place to get good Chinese food, yet Kwong states that even good Chinese food is hard to find in the world’s largest Chinatown. With the increasing gentrification of the area, these industries’ futures are up in the air, as Kwong states that “some politicians and city planners want to see Chinatown turn into a thriving tourist destination… encouraging the luxury developments of upscale shops and services.” As the idea of making Chinatown a thriving tourist destination continues to be negotiated, the remaining stores and restaurants “are trying to cater to tourists in order to survive, selling souvenirs and T-shirts that you can find in other New York neighborhoods.”

However, the government fails to realize the consequences of such planning. They do not consider the impact of the displacement of longtime residents and on the businesses that are left. It is because of the politicians in favor of gentrification that the minority population of Chinatown continues to dwindle as the white population continues to rise. However, the study done by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia shows us that “demographic change in gentrifying neighborhoods doesn’t happen the way most people think it does.” The baseline of residents moving from a gentrifying area is just over 10 percent in a given year, and they found that the existing residents in their study were only 3.6 percentage points more likely to move than others. Moreover, in most cases, the people who leave gentrifying neighborhoods are not more likely to move to poorer communities, as people tend to think. Residents in these gentrifying neighborhoods are faring better than most would believe, as gentrification is “frequently associated with higher incomes and better economic results.”

As gentrification continues to take over Chinatown, the question still remains: Is the transformation of Chinatown a good or bad thing? Chinatown is not the only part of New York City that is being affected by gentrification. This issue expands to all of New York City, as gentrification is occurring in Harlem, Chelsea, Brooklyn, the rest of the Lower East Side, and more. Each of these places has its own character and culture that make up its identity, yet their identities are ultimately being lost in the midst of luxury condominiums, high-rises, and organic food markets. Is this the cost that must be paid in order to “improve” the livelihood of a community?