When Hipsters Move in on Chinese: It's Ugly

A Delancey Street displacement drama, in which both sides—Chinese families and new tenants—seem pretty clueless about each other.

It's supposed to be good luck for the Chinese to plaster New Year signs on their doors. But a persistent fight on Delancey Street over those signs proves that, in any language, it's the Year of the Hip in some parts of Chinatown.

Inside 55 and 61 Delancey, adjacent buildings on the border of Chinatown and the Lower East Side, new and old tenants live side by side but in parallel universes far, far away from each other.

"It's very clear in this building: It's, like, young white kids and Chinese families," says one of the new tenants, a recent NYU grad hoping to become an actress—call her "Mary W." "And they always leave the door open, and there's this guy in his boxers eating hot soup—look, this is Manhattan: Neighborhoods change, neighborhoods become yuppie. I don't feel I'm doing anything criminal by living here. I don't know, maybe I'm being naïve. It doesn't feel like an issue to me, but maybe that's 'cause I'm on the good end of it."

There goes the neighborhood.
Jared Gruenwald
There goes the neighborhood.
Life in 55 Delancey: Rice soup, kids, haircuts in the hallway
Jared Gruenwald
Life in 55 Delancey: Rice soup, kids, haircuts in the hallway

The new tenants, mostly white, are in their mid-twenties. Many go to nearby art colleges—Parsons, the School of Visual Arts, Cooper Union—or are working their first jobs out of school. Some commute to schools in less desirable places, like Long Island. Many have moved in within the past year; their apartments have that Ikea/thrift-store feel. The other residents are working-class Chinese, most of whom immigrated to New York from Fujian province in the '90s. (Also in the mix are a handful of Dominican tenants who were raised in the building and thus predate the Chinese.)

The newcomers are mostly surprised—or thrown off—by the buildings' long-term Chinese tenants, who chat with each other in a strange language, leave their doors open so their neighbors can see them eating soup in their boxers and sandals, and let their children play in the hallway. These newcomers, meanwhile, do their thing: They rush out of the buildings with their cell phones pressed to their ears, go on Snapple runs because there's no food in the apartment, throw house parties, and stumble home drunk from nearby bars.

These two groups don't speak each others' languages, but the depth of their misunderstandings goes even deeper than that. The two universes may be parallel, but the one inhabited by the Chinese tenants is shrinking, despite their recent, and favorable, court settlement with the landlord over strong-arm tactics they felt were being aimed at pushing them and their culture out of the buildings.

The landlord, Upper East Side real estate investment firm Madison Capital, doesn't exactly boast of the buildings' location, not even using the word "Chinatown" and referring to 55 and 61 Delancey as being "in the heart of the Lower East Side."

But even the new, hip tenants know better: "This block, it's like hard-core Chinatown, and below, it's like chic, chic Lower East Side," says Mary W. Most of her friends live on the Lower East Side, she says, but she prefers Chinatown. "It's fun, you know, to be able to get dumplings for a dollar, but then go out to all the cool bars and hang out with all the NYU kids," she says. Pointing to nearby Eldridge Street, she adds, "These streets—it feels like a community. It's not, for me—but it's a community. Like, one day I was so sick, I was almost going to faint, and I went into a pharmacy, and there were all these medicines I had never heard of. But I like that! And three streets down, everyone is white, wearing flannel shirts, and has a beard."

Gentrification has been happening in the city for only the past 400 years. This is just one of its stories.

In spring 2009, Anna Bakker, a 19-year-old from Baltimore, was looking for an apartment to move into for her sophomore year at the School of Visual Arts. She was excited to find a three-bedroom place available at 55 Delancey. She still didn't know that much about New York, but the building seemed ideal. The apartment was billed as renovated, and it was close enough to school, to Williamsburg, to trains—the B/D and J/M/Z were all within short walking distance—and to all the cute Lower East Side bars. Plus, she and her skater boyfriend liked the idea of cheap groceries on nearby Grand Street and the general grittiness of Chinatown. Rent, too, was a lot cheaper than in nearby Soho or the Lower East Side.

But when the three friends-of-friends went to the building to view the apartment, along with a representative of the landlord, Madison Capital, things didn't seem right. Instead of an empty, newly renovated pad, they found a Chinatown family in a shabby apartment. Inside were two older Asian women. Mattresses and plastic trash bags full of children's toys were strewn on the floor. There were cooking-oil stains on the walls of the filthy kitchen; in the tiny bathroom, clotheslines had been strung up and were loaded down with laundry.

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