9:04 am Jul. 12, 20102
For more than 40 years, Chinatown has been expanding and contracting, taking in pieces of the Lower East Side and Little Italy, where non-Chinese ethnic enclaves have aged, assimilated and dissipated into the rest of the city in a natural immigrant cultural cycle. But despite the odd attempt by neighborhood advocates to organize recognition and zoning protection for the neighborhood, the evolution of Chinatown’s borders—as long as it has simply been a question of where Chinese residents and business-owners are—has been fairly unceremonious and matter-of-fact.
“That’s kind of blurry,” said David Ng, a tofu maker in Chinatown who owns his own property, a business started by his grandfather 78 years ago. “I’m thinking Lafayette should be the border, down to Broadway.”
“In the past, Chinatown’s gone up to Houston Street,” he added.
But apparently things are less matter-of-fact when someone tries to make Chinatown’s growth official and monetize it, as when a local businessman decides to form a business cooperative whose jurisdiction would include parts of neighborhoods outside its traditional boundaries, including pieces of TriBeCa, NoHo, Little Italy, the Lower East Side, and Soho.
Then the polite indifference among Chinatown’s neighbors on the Chinatown question goes away, fast.
“We don’t have the old tenement buildings they’ve got in Chinatown,” said Kurt Trenkman, an on-site owner and operator of eight buildings in Soho which were put up by his great-grandfather in the late 19th century. “When you go into Chinatown and you walk up and down Mott Street, you see lots of Chinese people in the market buying things...We don’t have those kinds of open markets and that’s where a lot of the filth comes from and the foot traffic and the congestion.”
“I don’t want to pay taxes to clean fish heads off of Mott Street,” said Sean Sweeney, the outspoken director of the Soho Alliance, relating what he said was a direct quote from a property-owner from the area of Soho affected by the proposal.
The businessman in question, Wellington Chen, is executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation, an organization that provides street cleaning and other environment-improvement services in its eponymous neighborhood. Chen is proposing a Business Improvement District for Chinatown and selected neighborhoods around it. (The city plays host to 64 BIDS, which provide area-specific auxiliary services (sanitation, public safety, tourist information) by collecting regular fees from property owners. Chinatown sits at the center of a cluster of BIDs, and Chen, observing the benefits of these sister endeavors, wants a piece of the pie.
“It’s the difference between going back to the old way or going into the future,” said Chen of his recent proposal, which he advocates on the grounds that it would profit participating business owners individually and help bolster the character of the neighborhood by supporting small businesses against pressure from developers and chain stores. “It’s the difference between light and dark.”
Greater Chinatown is not yet rallying to the cause. “Wellington, by going into Soho, has opened up a can of worms that he is not ready for,” Sweeney said.
CHINATOWN HAS NOT HAD A HARD BORDER IN OVER HALF a century, not even one commonly acknowledged by residents.
In the late 19th century, Chinatown was an immigrant community clustered around the Five Points district, now Columbus Park. Slow growth until the middle of the 20th century meant boundaries that were more or less fixed: Canal Street to the north, the Bowery to the east, Worth Street to the south and Baxter Street to the west. With the Immigration Act of 1965, the size of the Chinese community exploded, leading to encroachments on borders throughout the 1970s, and again throughout the 1980s as families reunited in the new world. Toward the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, further immigration was fueled by the impending Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in 1997, leading to a massive influx of wealth into the neighborhood, and the acquisition of more adjacent properties.
Throughout all of this, the area was characterized by the presence of a vast number of individual businesses in a relatively small area.
“Most of the businesses in Chinatown are very small businesses,” said Susan Chan of Manhattan Florist in Chinatown. “They’re just there to make ends meet.”
Immigration holds strong, and above what the government has planned for, and the area generally recognized as Chinatown continues to grow.
Travel guides, although they are far from consistent, now commonly identify Chinatown as an area stretching from Delancey to Chambers, East Broadway to Broadway.
Judging only by the number of people who live and work in Chinatown, these borders are actually very modest. In 2003, the average density of Manhattan hovered around 82 people per acre, but the number jumped to 189 in Chinatown. There has been a steady demand for new commercial and residential space since then.
“Ten years, Chinatown is expanding,” said Stephen Cheng, a Chinatown realtor who has operated in the area for 20 years. “Building ownership changes hands to Chinese people.”
But the borders of Chinatown have shifted in both directions. Along Delancey Street, which resembled Canal Street or Mott Street in 1989, the Chinese population is decreasing, proportionally, as is the Chinese population north of Canal. And while the contested region of Soho, between Howard and Canal from Center to Mercer and from Howard to Broome between Center and Lafayette, excluding a lot on the corner of Broadway and Howard, is predominately Chinese in residency and ownership, that may be changing too.
“It used to be more Chinese 15 or 20 years ago,” according to Trenkman. “We had some of those Chinese sweatshops. Now it’s more of the young computer firms.”
Regulations have been put in place to keep Soho in particular from bearing too close a resemblance to Chinatown. The M1-5a/b zoning in Soho, which includes the disputed area, allows for artist lofts as joint residence and work facilities, almost guaranteeing that the type of businesses that typify Chinatown can’t spread from Canal to Houston.
And the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission seemed to reaffirm this by including the contested properties in the Historic Soho Cast-Iron district.
Jan Lee, a businessman who just moved his storefront off of Mott Street after 18 years and whose family has owned property in Chinatown for over a century, strongly opposed the Chen’s greater Chinatown BID on the grounds, among other things, that it would be an inefficient and unnecessary alternative to a Soho-native arrangement. (Lee favors a nonprofit that seeks to use stewardship jobs as vocational training and rehabilitation for local homeless people, which he estimated would cost a little more than third as much per building as Chen’s proposal.)
Chen says the BID, or some formal mechanism for creating a more cohesive neighborhood, is a necessary counter to the vitiation of the area’s Chinese cultural identity.
“[The BID] is a mechanism perfect for a place like Chinatown,” he said. “We lack respect, and I’ll be damned if we don’t get a place at the table.”
But, perhaps appropriately for such a mutable neighborhood, it’s hard to tell who he’s speaking for.
“We like to keep this area as Soho,” said Cheng, the realtor, who manages a building on the contested part of Lafayette Street. “We think that name is more prestigious.”