New York's Chinatown Endangered by a Boom
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
To New York City now and Manhattan's Chinatown. A variety of voices has some Chinese residents packing up and moving away.
From member station WFUV, George Bodarky reports.
(Soundbite of Chinatown)
GEORGE BODARKY reporting:
On Mott Street in Chinatown, cooked chicken hang in steamy restaurant windows. Gift shops clutter the sidewalks, selling line dance toys, red lanterns and other novelties. Tourists and locals compete for sidewalk space. Kim Banstein(ph) of Toronto takes it all in.
Ms. KIM BANSTEIN (Tourist): You can hear the language everywhere and there's definitely like a really strong culture.
BODARKY: It has the sound of a tourist destination, but it's also a living, breathing neighborhood. According to the 2000 census, nearly 85,000 people live in Chinatown. Roughly 55,000 of them are Asian. On a Sunday afternoon, a local fish market is crowded. Some customers pick through a large pail of live frogs as if they were choosing fresh fruit.
Through the years the Chinese population has expanded and so has the neighborhood, absorbing much of lower Manhattan's Little Italy. In the past, Chinatown saw waves of Cantonese immigrants, but today many of the newcomers come from the Fujianese region. Some long time residents say the influx of new immigrants has made the neighborhood dirtier and created a certain amount of social tension.
But there are bigger worries. The September 11th attacks have struck a major blow to Chinatown's economy. Rising costs have also taken a toll. Twenty-five-year-old Christina Seid's family owns the original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory on Bayard Street. It's been in business for over 28 years, but Seid says the past few have been a struggle.
Ms. CHRISTINA SEID (Owner, Chinatown Ice Cream Factory): It's much harder to do business now. The rents are crazy. Nowadays, it's hard to find a stable business. They just go. They open and close. We want a longer standing one.
BODARKY: All of these factors have sent some Chinatown residents packing for a brand new Chinatown that's emerged in Brooklyn's Sunset Park. Barely a word of English is spoken as hoards of recent immigrants frequent the fish and produce markets along the neighborhood's main commercial strip. About 25 percent of the community is Asian, and local realtor Nancy Feng(ph) says the numbers are growing.
Ms. NANCY FENG (Brooklyn realtor): Well, some people who are new immigrants in this country and they don't speak English. That's why they want to be here, to be convenient for their lives. It's cheaper than Manhattan.
BODARKY: The growing cost of living and doing business in Manhattan's Chinatown have neighborhood leaders and community activists concerned about the future of low income residents and mom-and-pop businesses. Jamie Gong(ph) is a lifelong Chinatown resident. He says the construction of luxury condominiums and the conversion of century-old tenements into high-end apartments have become common.
Mr. JAMIE GONG (Chinatown resident): So instead of paying $200 of rent, these new apartments, the rent will be $2000, but yet to the non-Asians this is cheaper than SoHo or mid-town Manhattan, where the rent will be $4000 a month.
BODARKY: But the allure of living in Chinatown for non-Asians isn't just economics. Blond-haired, blue-eyed Greg Lapkin(ph) rented his apartment above the Peking Duck House restaurant seven years ago. He says he wanted a place that felt far away.
Mr. GREG LAPKIN (Chinatown resident): People here love me because I've made an effort to pick up the language. They love that. So, I've been treated like really, really well. I have like a million stepfathers and stepmothers.
BODARKY: It's that tight-knit neighborhood feel that may draw outsiders to Chinatown, according to New York University history Professor Jack Chin. But he worries career-driven newcomers may be too busy to care about community.
For NPR News, I'm George Bodarky in New York.