NY’s Chi­na­town: ‘Cool kids’ are com­ing

It’s “not for ev­ery­one’,’ said a real es­tate agent about what is hap­pen­ing in the largest en­clave of Chi­nese peo­ple in the United States. New busi­nesses and new hous­ing de­vel­op­ments are mov­ing in at the fastest pace ever, caus­ing many long­time res­i­dents

China Daily (Canada) - - IN DEPTH -

At the cor­ner of Mott and Worth streets sits the Hamp­ton’s Mar­ket Place. Gourmet po­tato chips like Ket­tle and Deep River Snacks are next to rows of Chobani Greek yo­gurt. Three non-Asians eat bagels and lis­ten to mu­sic on their iPhones. There are no Asians. There is no Chi­ne­se­branded food.

Ten blocks north, New York City build­ing per­mits cover a green wooden wall. Be­hind it, rub­ble that once was the Golden Bridge Chi­nese restau­rant will be re­placed by a 22-story ho­tel by 2015.

In be­tween Hamp­ton’s and the would-be ho­tel site, are blocks of Chi­nese restau­rants, Chi­nese-owned small busi­nesses, and apart­ments above them that tra­di­tion­ally have housed large Chi­nese house­holds. It’s the center of his­toric Chi­na­town where gen­tri­fi­ca­tion has been go­ing on for more than the last decade. But in­ter­views with real es­tate bro­kers and res­i­dents show it’s oc­cur­ring at a pace not pre­vi­ously ex­pe­ri­enced, bring­ing in new busi­nesses and new hous­ing at prices that are push­ing out long-time res­i­dents and re­plac­ing them with younger, af­flu­ent pro­fes­sion­als.

A two-bed­room, two-bath­room apart­ment at 7 Es­sex Street, a con­do­minium that bor­ders Chi­na­town, is priced at $1.8 mil­lion, and a sim­i­lar-sized rental apart­ment is al­most $6,000 a month, ac­cord­ing to Corcoran Group Real Es­tate, which has the list­ings. Hester Gar­dens, a condo in the heart of Chi­na­town built in 2006, has a two-bed­room, two-bath unit for $4,900 a month. A one-bed­room, one-bath apart­ment in the build­ing that sold for a lit­tle more than $500,000 in 2006 went for $630,000 by the end of 2012, ac­cord­ing to Ci­tyRealty, a New York-based real-es­tate web­site.

The “cool” kids are com­ing to town, said Theresa Wu, a real es­tate agent at Town Res­i­den­tial, who said that the cur­rent gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is ush­er­ing in a new neigh­bor­hood, bring­ing in new pa­tron­age. “It’s a grad­ual change and maybe some can say it’s shrink­ing Chi­na­town, but it’s also bring­ing the hip­per… an in­ter­est­ing class of pro­fes­sional artists,” she said.

The Hamp­ton’s Mar­ket Place, it­self once a Chi­nese restau­rant, is lo­cated near the south­ern bor­der of Chi­na­town and next to the Civic Center, a small area in Lower Man­hat­tan that houses most of the city’s mu­nic­i­pal build­ings, in­clud­ing the New York City Supreme Court and One Po­lice Plaza. ‘Last fron­tier’

It’s the “last fron­tier,’’ says Mark Me­nen­dez, ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent and di­rec­tor of rentals at real es­tate com­pany Dou­glas El­li­man. “That’s the only re­main­ing area left to be­come gen­tri­fied and con­nect the Fi­nan­cial Dis­trict to Chi­na­town, and then it’ll be one flow­ing stream from the East Vil­lage all the way down to the Fi­nan­cial Dis­trict.”

The eight-story con­do­minium at 7 Es­sex Street was built in 2002, and was a “pi­o­neer” for condo de­vel­op­ment in Chi­na­town, said Me­nen­dez. “One of the first build­ings where they re­al­ized their full po­ten­tial took down the old struc­ture and built this beau­ti­ful new condo,” he said. “That’s kind of set the trend.”

Chi­na­town’s prop­erty and rental prices are in­creas­ingly at­trac­tive com­pared to pricier nearby neigh­bor­hoods of SoHo, Tribeca, and the fi­nan­cial dis­trict, he ex­plained.

“What we’ve seen over the last year es­pe­cially is a lot of what I would say is a ‘spillover’ from the Lower East Side (LES), the area north of Canal Street,” said Me­nen­dez. “That’s more at­trib­uted to af­ford­abil­ity, num­ber one, be­cause I think Chi­na­town was never looked as a pri­mary desti­na­tion for renters. So now they’re un­der­stand­ing that there’s a value there be­cause it wasn’t pri­mary and it’s also close to the LES and the Fi­nan­cial Dis­trict makes it con­ve­nient for down­town­ers to walk out into their nightlife or if they’re work­ing in down­town.”

New York’s Chi­na­town is not alone in feel­ing the im­pact of the shifts in com­mu­nity de­mo­graph­ics. Chi­na­towns in Bos­ton and Philadel­phia also are see­ing a de­crease in their Asian pop­u­la­tion, de­spite US Cen­sus num­bers show­ing oth­er­wise, ac­cord­ing to an Oc­to­ber 2013 re­port by the Asian Amer­i­can Le­gal De­fense and Ed­u­ca­tion Fund (AALDEF). And the white pop­u­la­tion — de­spite de­creas­ing across Philadel­phia and Bos­ton — is ac­tu­ally grow­ing faster in the three Chi­na­towns than the cities them­selves.

The vis­i­ble in­crease of re­tail­ers not as­so­ci­ated with the neigh­bor­hood is usu­ally the start of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, Me­nen­dez said. In Chi­na­town, bars, restau­rants, bou­tiques and cof­fee shops have been pop­ping up be­cause own­ers are find­ing them­selves priced out of the more ex­pen­sive sur­round­ing ar­eas.

“Once those shops and restau­rants start open­ing up, then the res­i­dents fol­low. Peo­ple start hang­ing out in the neigh­bor­hood, they start to be­come a lit­tle bit more fa­mil­iar with

It’s‘ a grad­ual change and maybe some can say it’s shrink­ing Chi­na­town, but it’s also bring­ing the hip­per…an in­ter­est­ing class of pro­fes­sional artists.” THERESA WU A REAL ES­TATE AGENT

it,” he said. “So they start vis­it­ing those places, and the neigh­bor­hood be­comes much more vis­i­ble and then they un­der­stand that ‘Well, hey, I’m kind of hang­ing out here any­way, the rents are a lit­tle bit af­ford­able, this could be a great op­tion for me.’”

In ad­di­tion to lo­ca­tion and ac­cess to cul­ture, a lower cost-of-liv­ing in Chi­na­town also holds a lot of sway over po­ten­tial renters be­cause of the much higher costs else­where in the city, said Me­nen­dez.

“In Chi­na­town, you have a lot of dif­fer­ent mar­kets: you have pro­duce, fish, meat, butch­ers, all th­ese things that are ev­ery­day life mar­kets, com­pet­ing against each other in a very small area. So prices for pur­chas­ing th­ese goods are much more com­pet­i­tive than other neigh­bor­hoods,” he said. ‘Mass ex­o­dus’

Greg Gon­za­lez, a 26-year-old na­tive New Yorker who is Asian and His­panic and has lived on the out­skirts of Chi­na­town for most of his life, said he has no­ticed the “mass ex­o­dus” of lo­cals due to rent hikes. “The in­fla­tion of rent is lead­ing to peo­ple leav­ing, and it’s not just them ei­ther. There are lo­cals who leave and try to move back at a later time, but they can’t be­cause the rent’s just got­ten too ex­pen­sive,” said Gon­za­lez, who works in the fash­ion in­dus­try.

Apothéke, a bar that opened on Doy­ers Street in Chi­na­town in 2008, is a fre­quent draw for the younger, hip­per crowd, some­thing Gon­za­lez called a “gim­micky” at­trac­tion. “There have been a lot of es­tab­lish­ments in Chi­na­town that have tried to push that kind of scene, like the speakeasy on Doy­ers, which has that ‘off-the-beaten path’ feel,” he said.

“Res­i­dents in the area have be­come more eth­ni­cally di­verse. Mom and pop restau­rants, teashops, and those herbal shops that sell Chi­nese herbs are no longer turn­ing prof­its from year-to-year,” he said.

“There are some newer es­tab­lish­ments on Pell Street and other streets, and as far as dis­plac­ing older folks, some of the mom and pop stores might have closed be­cause of in­crease in rental pres­sure,” said John Leo, a com­mu­nity board mem­ber in Chi­na­town. “Chi­na­town is sort of a ‘hip’ place, so there are a lot of nonAsians mov­ing in, more af­flu­ent [peo­ple] mov­ing in.”

Christina Seid, co-owner of the Chi­na­town Ice Cream Fac­tory that has been in busi­ness for 37 years, said that she’s seen an in­crease of re­tail­ers that don’t nec­es­sar­ily cater to the Chi­nese im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion.

An ac­tivist group in Chi­na­town, the Com­mit­tee Against Anti-Asian Vi­o­lence (CAAAV), said real es­tate de­vel­op­ment “greatly ac­cel­er­ated” in the wake of 9/11 and un­der for­mer mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pro-real es­tate poli­cies. More de­vel­op­ments

Zon­ing laws — reg­u­la­tions that de­ter­mine how a plot of land can be used, whether for com­mer­cial, res­i­den­tial, or other — have “tended to in­crease de­vel­op­ment pres­sures in low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods where peo­ple of color live, while lim­it­ing de­vel­op­ment in white, wealthy neigh­bor­hoods,” CAAAV said in a re­port in 2011 about re­zon­ing in Chi­na­town.

To pro­mote busi­ness de­vel­op­ment and eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity, CAAAV said that city com­mis­sions like the Depart­ment of City Plan­ning have en­cour­aged de­vel­op­ers to build lux­ury apart­ments, ho­tels and other es­tab­lish­ments that have dis­placed lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. Build­ing reg­u­la­tions tend to limit the height of build­ings in whiter, wealth­ier neigh­bor­hoods, while in­creas­ing build­ing heights in poorer neigh­bor­hoods of color, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Landown­ers see that their prop­er­ties can be con­verted to higher, more dense res­i­den­tial or com­mer­cial build­ings that can of­ten go for higher prices and jump on the chance to do so, push­ing out ten­ants and small busi­ness own­ers, said Ja­son Chan, di­rec­tor of the Chi­na­town Ten­ants Union.

“Un­for­tu­nately high-end lux­ury con­dos are com­ing in south of De­lancey, and a lot of for­eign buy­ers are pick­ing up th­ese old ten­e­ment build­ings and con­vert­ing them into high-end rental prop­er­ties or condo prop­er­ties,” said Louis Adler, a real es­tate agent at Real New York.

Landown­ers have been “land bank­ing” for years, or buy­ing prop­er­ties to sell for profit in the fu­ture, said An­drew Leong, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of le­gal ed­u­ca­tion and im­mi­grant law at the Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts Bos­ton and an au­thor of the AALDEF re­port. “This is their time now to cash in, so they will sell or part­ner with de­vel­op­ers with deep pock­ets so that they can reap the ben­e­fits of be­ing able to de­velop a lux­ury concierge build­ing,” he said.

Rec­og­niz­ing that land in Chi­na­town is valu­able and that many of the low-in­come fam­i­lies can­not af­ford to pay the lev­els of rent that younger, more af­flu­ent pro­fes­sion­als can, land­lords are us­ing dif­fer­ent tac­tics to evict ten­ants, in­clud­ing ones that skirt le­gal gray area, he said.

Il­le­gal sub­di­vi­sions in Chi­na­town apart­ments have long ex­isted, with mul­ti­ple fam­i­lies cramped to­gether in the same apart­ment, us­ing makeshift di­viders to carve up space. Land­lords have known that th­ese sub­di­vi­sions ex­isted, Leong said, but never went about en­forc­ing any rules.

“But now all of a sud­den, the land­lords say, ‘Hey, that’s il­le­gal!’ And so they’re bring­ing in hous­ing in­spec­tion, and they’ve been do­ing that since the 2000s and on­wards be­cause of the es­ca­la­tion of land val­ues. They’re mak­ing the city of New York en­force its over­crowd­ing pro­vi­sions in or­der to evict the ten­ants,” he said. Hous­ing in­spec­tors don’t ques­tion land­lords how long they’ve known of th­ese il­le­gal­i­ties, and be­come “merely agents of evic­tion for the land­lords,” he added.

Some other land­lords use scare tac­tics to get ten­ants to leave, he said. They hire “con­sul­tants’’ who are ly­ing to ten­ants to get rid of them, ac­cord­ing to Chan of the Chi­na­town Ten­ants Union. In­tim­i­dat­ing peo­ple

“New York City hous­ing law pro­tects any­body, re­gard­less of im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus. But you have th­ese con­sul­tants who will go and say ‘You need doc­u­ments to be able to live here and if you don’t pro­duce them, you have to leave.’ If you’re new to the coun­try and you don’t know th­ese things, then you’ll ob­vi­ously be in­tim­i­dated by th­ese folks,” he said.

The Chi­na­town Ten­ants Union works with im­mi­grant ten­ants to help them un­der­stand what’s le­gal and what’s not, but in­for­ma­tion on hous­ing laws and ten­ant rights is of­ten only avail­able in English. Some im­mi­grants aren’t even aware that they had laws pro­tect­ing them, and out of fear of­ten oblige land­lords’ evic­tions and try to move else­where.

De­spite the rapid pace of changes in Chi­na­town, some, like real es­tate agent Wu, say there are ben­e­fits.

“There are newer, more ex­pen­sive restau­rants open­ing in the area, but there are also Chi­nese-Amer­i­can and Chi­nese-owned ones open­ing as well,’’ she said. “I think you al­ways have to see both sides. I def­i­nitely agree rents all around are com­ing up, but we also have to think about why it’s hap­pen­ing and does it make sense for the neigh­bor­hood,” she said. “It’s ac­tu­ally redefin­ing and pulling Chi­na­town to­gether, and telling a dif­fer­ent [story], be­cause Chi­na­town has al­ways been seen as the last neigh­bor­hood you talk about, but now peo­ple are go­ing there for restau­rants and cafés.”

Chi­na­town will never be one of the top three or even top-five Lower Man­hat­tan res­i­den­tial ar­eas, Wu said, but the hy­brid of Chi­na­town pric­ing and in­creas­ing avail­abil­ity of new shops and restau­rants makes it an at­trac­tive place for new renters, which is ul­ti­mately good for a neigh­bor­hood, she said.

“When you have that in mind, bal­anc­ing the fact that you can still get won­ton soup for $5 and [then also] cleanse juices and a meal, it cre­ates an in­ter­est­ing com­mu­nity. It’s not for ev­ery­one, but that’s be­com­ing the new Chi­na­town. It’s re­shaped the Chi­na­town,” Wu said.

But oth­ers ques­tion what ben­e­fits a new Chi­na­town can give its res­i­dents.

Wash­ing­ton’s Chi­na­town is the Chi­na­town that Leong said he and oth­ers fight­ing against gen­tri­fi­ca­tion fear New York and other Chi­na­towns will be­come: “an ex­otic Dis­ney­land lo­ca­tion for the well to do,” with no real com­mu­nity where “real peo­ple, work­ing class peo­ple can live and work”.

Chi­na­town res­i­dents be­ing dis­placed af­fects more than just Chi­nese im­mi­grants and the com­mu­nity, Leong said. Peo­ple don’t think about how dis­place­ment in one neigh­bor­hood has a larger im­pact on the city and coun­try at large, but it does, he said.

“On a so­ci­etal ba­sis, in the end, we still pay the cost, be­cause at the same time we see gen­tri­fi­ca­tion hap­pen­ing and dis­place­ment hap­pen­ing, there’s a di­rect cor­re­la­tion to home­less­ness,” he said. “We’re still go­ing to have to grap­ple with home­less­ness. For some rea­son, peo­ple to­tally dis­con­nect that from rent-con­trol laws, from gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, from dis­place­ment.

“One of the things I’m try­ing to pro­mote is to look at things in a much more holis­tic man­ner, and not to say, ‘We only have to look at gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. We only have to look only at rent con­trol.’ We have to look at things in a mul­ti­ple-is­sue ori­en­ta­tion.” Con­tact the reporter at amyhe@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

PHO­TOS BY AMY HE / CHINA DAILY

A site on one of Chi­na­town’s main streets will be the home of a 22-story ho­tel by 2015, which will re­place what was a Chi­nese restau­rant.

Signs on a small busi­ness, which like many oth­ers in Chi­na­town, face ris­ing rents.

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