As Asian Population Booms, Chinatown Struggles

Carol Huang, an assistant professor at the School of Education at City College, moderates a panel on the gentrification of Chinatowns in Boston, Philadelphia and New York. Huang, at left, questioned Seth Pollack, a student at Queens College; Esther Wang, director of the Chinatown Tenants Union at the Committee Against Anti-Asian American Violence; and Samantha Varn, a graduate student at Queens College. (Photo by Justin Chan)

New York City’s Asian-American neighborhoods are struggling with problems that include gentrification, generic commercial development and the shuttering of iconic local businesses, according to a panel of community leaders and professors who gathered last week.

“Change is always inevitable,” said Esther Wang, Director of the Chinatown Tenants Union at the Committee Against Anti-Asian American Violence. “Our problem is that it’s not something the residents want. Gentrification is something that erases history and erases culture.”

The panelists were invited by the Asian American/Asian Research Institute at the City University of New York to speak on Friday at a conference, “The Power of Place: Asian American Neighborhoods, Politics & Activism Today.” The conference sought to raise awareness of issues affecting the city’s Asian population, which has grown by 30 percent over the past decade. Professors from CUNY and other universities joined community activists to discuss the future of several ethnic neighborhoods, including Manhattan’s Chinatown and the Indo-Caribbean neighborhoods of South Queens.

“Not all neighborhoods are created equal in their individual and collective quality of life,” said Paul Ong, a professor of urban planning, social welfare and Asian-American studies at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Disadvantaged neighborhoods are comprised of marginalized populations.”

Peter Kwong, a professor of urban studies at Hunter College, said that Chinatown, in particular, is no longer the neighborhood it was in the 1970s. The decline of the area’s garment and restaurant industries, along with the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, a few blocks south, have led to changes that have reshaped Chinatown’s business model, he said — and these changes are not all bad news.

“Businesses are diversifying now,” Kwong said. “Old businesses are reinventing themselves to be more efficient and more rational.”

Some Chinatown residents don't appreciate the area's development. (Photo from World Journal)

Because Chinatown is bordered by high-end residential and commercial areas such as Wall Street, Tribeca and Soho, Kwong explained, many in Chinatown are trying to make the area “conducive to professionals.” Since 9/11, the neighborhood has also become more tourist-friendly, as several hotels spring up.

But Wang, of the Committee Against Anti-Asian American Violence, said hotels will contribute little to the neighborhood’s economy because they offer few jobs to local Chinese residents, and they often replace Chinese landmarks and businesses. She offered as an example the construction of a hotel on the corner of Hester Street and Bowery that replaces the Music Palace, which was one of the last surviving Chinese movie theaters in the neighborhood. Another hotel is planned for East Broadway, where the Hong Kong Supermarket burned down in 2009, Wang said.

The influx of high-income residents into the neighborhoods have motivated landlords to increase rent, Wang said, and the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, she added, has made the situation worse.

“Bloomberg has really used zoning to really reshape neighborhoods in New York City,” Wang said. “Most of the zonings have either been increasing development in low-income neighborhoods or limiting development in wealthier neighborhoods.”

To assess the attitudes of Chinatown residents to the new development, CAAAV and the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center surveyed residents in the area. Their findings indicated that landlord harassment and housing affordability were the two largest concerns in the Chinatown community. Wang said that the agencies hope to use the information to “get residents engaged in the process.”

Academics and community activists mingled over lunch at a conference at CUNY last week on the future of Asian-American neighborhoods. (Photo by Justin Chan)

East Asian communities are not the only ethnic neighborhoods facing problems, said Darrel Sukhdeo, a writer and neighborhood activist who said that the city’s Indo-Caribbeans in the South Queens neighborhoods of Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park have also struggled, but he suggested that some of their problems are internal. Domestic violence and drinking are a problem in community, which is largely comprised of Hindus, he said. Since the 2008 financial crisis, Sukhdeo said, many Indo-Caribbean businesses have flailed.

“Real estate businesses dropped,” he said. “Construction trades businesses dropped. That affected shopping and buying in the area.”

Still, Sukhdeo said, he has been inspired by the area’s young people, who he credits with driving civic engagement in the community.

“I’m very encouraged by the new generation,” he said. “They have a new American mentality while keeping in touch with Indo-Caribbean culture.”

While in the past, the community’s leaders were older, now even teenagers are becoming involved in community efforts, Sukhdeo said.  “Young people are coming and saying, ‘How can we help?'”


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