Priced Out of New York’s Chinatown

New York, Manhattan, Chinatown, Overseas ChineseWalking through Manhattan’s Chinatown last week, I noticed that the neighborhood’s nowhere near as crowded as it had been when I was a kid.

In the ’80s, when my family lived in Kingsbridge, up in the Bronx, there weren’t any Asian grocers near us and the local supermarket sold questionable fish (though the meat was okay). So on weekends, my parents would drag us all the way down to Chinatown to shop for produce and fish.

I loathed those long trips to Chinatown. Taking the 1 train all the way to lower Manhattan took forever, and when we arrived at our destination, the sidewalks were dirty, smelly and loud. It seemed like everyone was shouting in Cantonese. The streets were always packed with shoppers, families, tourists, food carts, hawkers selling I Love New York tee-shirts, workers wheeling in boxes of deliveries — really, you could hardly find your way through without doing some pushing. In short, the neighborhood was bursting at the seams.

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Photo by Flickr member Video4net

Located just a 15-minute-walk away from World Trade Center, Chinatown suffered after September 11 as much of Lower Manhattan was closed off for months. With police blockades everywhere, pedestrians and tourists were driven away and restaurants and stores started going out of business. Even today, Park Row, where the city’s police headquarters is located, remains closed, a lingering sore spot for local residents, who sometimes have to show identification papers to police officers.

Today, Chinatown is still vibrant, but it’s emptier. Much less shouting in Cantonese these days, anyway, since most of the recent arrivals are from Fujian province (rather than Guangdong, like previous immigrants), as Ben Ross notes.

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The hipsters have arrived

What’s happening? Real estate prices have gone up, making apartments expensive for the neighborhood’s residents, nearly a third of whom have a household income below $17,000. Young professionals have moved in (check out apartment rental prices on Craigslist), creating the kind of culture clashes that have always made New York City exciting, if not always pleasant for everyone. (See the Village Voice’s feature on hipsters moving into Chinatown.)

I wondered if longtime residents who got priced out of Chinatown had moved to another part of the city. Or had they left New York altogether, as Mr. Deng from my first trip on the Chinatown shuttle had thought?

I asked my friend Tom Yu where everyone had gone. Tom, who grew up on Avenue C, now develops affordable housing as the executive director of the Downtown Manhattan Community Development Corporation.

Tom’s answer was two-fold. First, many residents haven’t gone anywhere. Chinatown’s restaurant workers and low-skilled laborers can’t afford to move to another neighborhood — Flushing, for instance, is solidly middle class — so they’ve moved in with their neighbors.

Several families often squeeze together into a one-bedroom apartment. One family inhabits the bedroom, another the living room, and so on. Tom told me he’d seen apartments with so little space that people slept in 3′ x 6′ wooden boxes attached to the ceiling.

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See, your commute ain't so bad after all

Other people have taken the opposite approach and adopted a satellite existence, with New York City in the center. It’s gotten so expensive to live in New York that people are taking jobs in other states, and then heading back to New York for their days off. These days, there’s so much competition for jobs that people have to go farther than ever.

How far away do they go, I asked Tom, thinking maybe people found restaurant jobs in New Jersey or Pennsylvania.

“Ohio. Florida,” Tom replied. “Before, you could work in Manhattan and live in Brooklyn. But now you need interstate buses to make a living.”

Monday and Tuesday have become known as the “Fujianese weekend.” Chinatown’s restaurants are packed with weddings on those days as people try to live their personal lives for a few brief moments. And then, when Tuesday night rolls around, they hop on a bus, headed back to a random town in the middle of a far-away state.

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