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Rising Real Estate Prices Remake New York's Chinatown

New York's soaring real estate prices have had a dramatic impact on scores of neighborhoods, including the city's famed Chinatown.

The area in lower Manhattan has long been a critical base for Chinese immigrants and their families, making it one of the largest concentrations of ethnic Chinese in the West. But now many are leaving as an influx of white professionals and students drive up the cost of housing.

Enough blame to go around

Peter Kwong, professor of Asian American Studies and Urban Planner at Hunter College, says developers eager to build high-rises are part of the reason for the shift. But he also blames outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “City Hall [has] been doing this throughout New York City, particularly Manhattan, Chinatown is the last area that has not been gentrified," he said.

A report released earlier this year by the New York-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund says there is a similar shortage of affordable housing in Chinatowns in Boston and Philadelphia. The report found an increase in luxury housing and hotels, and a decline in Asian businesses as well as family households.

In New York, Mayor Bloomberg's policies are credited for a significant decrease in crime, and many of his supporters say that rent increases are a sign of a city's economic progress.

But in Manhattan's Chinatown those rent increases have already pushed many former residents out. According to the 2010 Census, about 17 percent of Chinatown's Chinese residents, some 6,000 people, were displaced from the neighborhood since 2000.

As rents move up, immigrants move out

Sun Meirong, has been living in Manhattan's Chinatown since she first came to the United States from her native city of Fuzhou in 1990. Her restaurant is close to Canal Street, the gravitational center of the island's Chinatown and she says she has seen a significant decrease in customers, mostly Chinese immigrants.

"In the past during the thanksgiving holiday for example, there were so many people on this street outside, you could not walk. But starting from about three years ago there is hardly anybody on the street anymore. This is the change we see in Chinatown.”

Sun says that many of her neighbors have been evicted from their homes after landlords decided to renovate the buildings.

"After that they just sold to developers without considering to give it to the people who were living there in the first place: immigrants,” she says.

For Sun, what is happening in Chinatown is counter to the ideals America stands for.

“The U.S. is a country of immigrants, but many immigrants get here and do not have a place to live or cannot afford it," she says.

Opponents of gentrification try to reverse trend

Grassroots organizations in Chinatown are fighting what they see as the gutting of their neighborhood.

Li Hua, secretary of the Chinese Staff & Workers' Association, says that her organization collected thousands of signatures to stop recent plans for more luxury development in Manhattan's East Side.

“We have been protesting against it in all venues possible. At public hearings, with the administration's planning department, to the city council. We had people participating at every step, not just a few but hundreds. But Bloomberg charged on, they just do not care.”

With a new mayor elect ready to step into New York's city hall, some are hopeful that the trend for Chinatown and other low-income neighborhoods in New York will be reversed.

New Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to narrow the gap between the wealthy and the poor in New York and expand the available affordable housing in the city.

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