The Fight for Chinatown

As Chinese populations in Chinatowns around the country shrink, residents of New York’s Chinatown clash with the city over its future

Feb 26, 2016 at 1:13 PM ET

In Manhattan’s most culturally distinct neighborhood, long-term residents are fighting for their way of life.

Xue Yu Zhu, 56, lives at 113 Madison Street in the heart of Chinatown, nestled between the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge. “The landlord wants to kick out all the Chinese people and rent to white people. So they’re always harassing the tenants,” said Zhu.

Zhu has lived in the same cramped two-bedroom apartment since she came to the United States from Fuzhou, China, almost two decades ago. She shares the apartment– which has moldy ceilings, a broken window, and trash littering the stairwell–with her husband, daughter, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law, for $1,700 a month. “This used to be so crowded right here,” she said, as we passed by Chinese restaurants, shops and street vendors outside of her apartment. Some storefronts were closed, and the vendors and customers were sparse. “Now there is barely anyone.”

According to Zhu, her landlord has been giving her notices since last year directing her family to move out, and an apartment in her building that was previously $1,700 a month was rented to new tenants for $3,900. The landlord did not respond to requests for comment.

Between 2009 and 2014, the number of Chinese Americans living in Manhattan’s Chinatown dropped from about 47,000 to 38,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Surveys. (Undocumented residents figure into the ACS summary file statistics, however, those questioned are not asked about their legal status.)  Residents of the neighborhood typically have less money; the average median income was $37,362 for a four-person household in Chinatown 2013, significantly lower than $85,900 for the rest of the city, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Some families that have been priced out of Manhattan’s Chinatown have moved to other Chinese enclaves in New York like Sunset Park in Brooklyn or Flushing in Queens. But for many Chinese immigrants working and living in Chinatown, the neighborhood is the only place they have known since arriving in the U.S., and leaving can seem like an insurmountable challenge.

“This is where people live, work, socialize, shop. Most of all it is a network. It’s not just people and a place, it’s a social structure and social institutions,” said Peter Kwong, professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College. “Immigrants need a place like that to survive and maintain themselves in the U.S.”

Chinatown residents like Zhu rely on the community for their way of living. She says she does not know the public transit system well, since everything she needs is in Chinatown. Zhu used to work in two different garment factories in the neighborhood that have since shuttered, and is now is a home attendant. “I’ve lived here since 1999. My family is here. I work here. All my friends are here. I don’t speak English and I don’t have much money,” she said. “Where am I supposed to move?”

New York is not the only place seeing its Chinatown demographics change, as Chinese populations in similar communities nationwide are shrinking.

“Chinatowns around the country have traditionally been low-rent neighborhoods,” said Margaret Fung, Executive Director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “The problem is in many Chinatowns, the immigrant community is being priced out by new development that’s raising property values.”

In Chinatowns around the U.S., the number of Chinese immigrants living in those neighborhoods is steadily decreasing, while other demographics move in. Between 2009 and 2014, the percentage of Chinese Americans living in most major Chinatowns around America dropped, from 81 percent to 72 percent in San Francisco, 29 percent to 27 percent in Los Angeles, 44 percent to 32 percent in Seattle, 74 percent to 48 percent in Philadelphia, and 43 percent to 37 percent in Boston.

Since these neighborhoods have historically been poor, developers buy up properties, build luxury apartments, and rent them for more money to people who can afford them. In some cases, like in the opening and quick closing of a Walmart in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, that residential development is sometimes paired with commercial use, as reported by Curbed Los Angeles. A report by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education found that in New York, Philadelphia and Boston, local government zoning policies were facilitating the shift of these Chinatowns from Asian and working-class neighborhoods to more white and affluent ones.

“Chinatowns around the nation are being threatened,” said Fung.

The fate of Manhattan’s Chinatown lies with Mayor Bill de Blasio, and his Department of City Planning. The policies that they enact for the neighborhood will determine what types of development will happen there and, ultimately, if the Chinese immigrants who depend on its community and stable rent can afford to stay. Advocates from the Coalition to Protect Chinatown & the Lower East Side say the area started changing drastically when the East Village was rezoned in 2008 under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That rezoning sought to preserve the historic aspects of the East Village, and thus new luxury development began moving south into Chinatown.

Citywide, Mayor de Blasio has made affordable housing a priority of his administration, and seeks to preserve or create 200,000 affordable housing units in his Housing New York plan. But Community Boards across the city have overwhelmingly rejected the proposals, arguing that if the mayor’s rezoning plans were enacted, they would force out long-time residents and change the landscape of neighborhoods.

“De Blasio claims to be this progressive beacon, but he is ignoring our community’s needs,” said Jei Feing of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown & LES. “Do they really care about the people of this community who built this community and made it what it is?”

While most New Yorkers can agree on the importance of maintaining affordable housing, its precise definition is where fights erupt.

Mayor de Blasio’s citywide rezoning proposal would require developers to set aside 25 to 30 percent of new buildings’ square footage as affordable housing. Affordable would be defined as no more than 60 percent of the area’s median income. The Chinatown Working Group is an umbrella group of community organizations and small businesses tasked by the local Community Board with creating a rezoning plan. They proposed numbers that starkly contrast the Mayor’s. Their plan would require developers to set aside 40 to 50 percent of new buildings’ square footage as affordable housing. Affordable would be defined as no more than 50 percent of the area median income.

Or more simply: the Chinatown Working Group’s plan calls for significantly more affordable housing units at significantly lower rents than the Mayor’s plan.

The Department of City Planning rejected the Chinatown Working Group’s rezoning plan when it was submitted a year ago, which they had been developing in conjunction with the Pratt Center for Community Development since 2008. “We know there is a diversity of opinions on the future of Chinatown in this community. It is now up to Community Board 3 to re evaluate these varied ideas and put forward a feasible and focused proposal,” said Joe Marvilli of the Department of City Planning. “We are hopeful that a consensus on the community’s top planning objectives can be reached so we can engage in further constructive efforts.”

Thomas Angotti, professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, is concerned about the Department City Planning’s response to the Chinatown Working Group’s proposed plan. “I think it’s a good piece of work. I don’t agree with everything, but any community plan involves compromises. It’s a product of extensive conversation and research, and it was a democratic process,” he said. “I found DCP’s rejection to be disturbing. It shows a lack of respect for the process.”

Plans to preserve Chinatowns have been put forward in other parts of the country. Next City reports that comprehensive plans that address issues from residential development to green space to police engagement have been adopted in Boston and San Francisco’s Chinatowns. And in Chicago and Honolulu, where plans have been adopted as well, the Chinese communities in those Chinatowns are actually growing.

In New York, longtime Chinatown residents, like Xue Yu Zhu who lives on Madison Street, are fighting back against the changes in their neighborhood. “In order to protect me and my family, we need to protect the whole community,” she said. Zhu is working with the Coalition to Protect Chinatown & the LES, organizing her neighbors to participate in recent demonstrations in the neighborhood and at the Mayor’s mansion. “I can fight with the landlord about my eviction, but even if I win it will happen again and again. That’s why we need to come together and get the mayor to prevent displacement in Chinatown.”

In December, tension rose about the city’s rezoning plans at a town hall meeting hosted by the Coalition to Protect Chinatown & the LES. In front of an angry crowd of 500 in the auditorium of Seward Park High School in Chinatown, Tommy Lin, Director of Constituent Services for the Mayor’s Office, walked to the front of the stage. Lin was asked answer why Mayor de Blasio had not enacted the Chinatown Working Group’s rezoning plan.

“I sympathize with the Chinatown Working Group. I live in Chinatown,” said Lin to the crowd. “As of now the Department of City Planning has rejected your plan as too ambitious. We need to figure out what to change to make the plan acceptable for both sides.”

Lin was met with a chorus of boos, and the crowd became more riled up as he spoke. Wing Lam, Executive Director of the Chinese Staff and Worker’s Association, walked to the front of the auditorium and grabbed the microphone.

“You say you’re from the community, but where have you been? Our Chinatown is pretty much gone. Because we are Chinese, we are Spanish, we are African American, we are poor. That’s why they ignored us,” yelled Lam, his words translated to English, Spanish and Chinese. “We want equal treatment. Is that too much to ask?”

By now the crowd had worked itself into a frenzy, cheering in support of Lam’s question. Lin returned to his seat in the auditorium without responding.

And until the Mayor and Chinatown community reach a deal on the future of the neighborhood—a deal that could answer questions for the rest of the Chinatown’s across the country–that question will remain unanswered.