The Decline of East Broadway?

Storefront for rent on East Broadway (Photo by Xiaoning Chen via World Journal)

East Broadway in Chinatown used to be called “Little Fuzhou” thanks to the influx of immigrants from Fuzhou, China, starting in the 1970s. But in recent years, the once bustling hub of small businesses has been quickly declining with fewer people on the street and many empty storefronts. An estimated 30 percent of the shops on East Broadway have closed in the past three years. Those that are still there are struggling.

In the 1980s and 1990s, many immigrants from Fuzhou moved to New York and settled on East Broadway. The street, which used to be occupied mainly by Cantonese and non-Chinese, gradually grew to be dominated by Fuzhou immigrants. In its heyday, East Broadway was one of the most dynamic streets in Chinatown. But in the past decade, skyrocketing rents in Manhattan have triggered the formation of a few new satellite Chinatowns outside of the borough. And East Broadway today is no longer the ever-growing magnet for businesses and immigrants.

Zhenwen Wu, president of the New York Business Association, a community organization that advocates for businesses on East Broadway, said that during the good old days before 2010 when small businesses in Chinatown were at their peak, it was very hard to rent shop space on East Broadway. But only a few years after that, especially after 2015, the number of businesses in the area dropped nearly 30 percent.

Philip Lam, a real estate agent who has been working in Chinatown for 20 years, said from 1995 to 2003, when he was the broker for the shopping area of Triple Eight Palace, a complex of restaurants and a shopping mall, the booths there were coveted and the rent was even higher than it is now. Prospective businesses often had to wait for an empty space to show up. “That was a time when you could always make money as long as you were able to obtain a stand,” Lam said.

Lan said the golden age for commercial rentals in Chinatown was between 2001 and 2011. Then the occupancy rate began to drop. His real estate business was also declining because of this. In 2013 he decided to move his company from Chinatown to Flushing.

Lam said the real estate market in Chinatown is still hot, and the rents are still going up. But it is too expensive now. So many Chinese have been moving to Queens, Brooklyn and even Connecticut where the rents are relatively lower.

Zhaoyin Li, who has been running a wedding shop in Chinatown for more than 15 years, said it is more and more difficult to do business there. Li said between 2006 and 2008, he often got seven to nine orders per month, and now receives only one or two per month. He said many immigrants from Fuzhou live in Sunset Park and Flushing now. And many wedding shops on East Broadway have closed and moved to those neighborhoods too.

Aimin Wang, who runs East Travel & Tour, an intercity bus company in Chinatown, said passengers coming to Chinatown from other states are visibly fewer. In the past, there were few Chinese supermarkets and restaurants outside Chinatown, so many people took the bus to Chinatown for shopping and dining. Now there are many Chinese supermarkets and restaurants in other boroughs and states. Chinese immigrants don’t have to take a long-distance bus to the Manhattan Chinatown anymore.

In addition, he mentioned, in the past, many people from other states came to Chinatown to buy pirated designer bags. Now the police have been cracking down on bootleg merchandise with an iron fist. Chinatown is no longer able to offer bargains to tourists and therefore its charm has reduced.

The restaurant industry in Chinatown has also been hit hard. Xuewen Lin, a Fujianese community leader, said that in the past, all Fuzhou immigrants held their wedding banquets in Chinatown, and there were often 20 to 30 banquets on a busy night. All the family and friends of the couple would come to Chinatown from all over the city and the country to attend. They’d live there and dine there, contributing to the local economy.

But now with Chinese supermarkets and restaurants mushrooming in Flushing and Sunset Park, many Fuzhou immigrants have moved to those neighborhoods. And they are starting to accept the idea that a wedding banquet does not have to be hosted in the Manhattan Chinatown. In addition, the second generation of Fuzhou immigrants are more mainstream than traditional Chinese. The traditional banquets offered by the Chinatown restaurants no longer fit their needs.

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