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.

By Elizabeth Dwoskin

published: April 20, 2010

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."

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.

The tenants got into a shouting match with the Madison rep, while Bakker and her apartment mates looked on in extreme discomfort. "They seemed surprised that we were there," she recalls. While she was taking photos of the apartment, one of the tenants crouched down and began banging her hand on the floor. The company rep seemed embarrassed and tried to calm the women down, which was futile because of the language barrier. "We didn't know what to do, so we just wandered around the building," Bakker says.

In the end, the students decided to go for the apartment anyway. Soon, a move-in date was set: May 7, 2009. A contract arranged through a real estate broker was signed. Bakker and her two roommates, also art students, got ready to move into their first New York apartment. But a few weeks before they were supposed to move in, someone from Madison Capital called and, as Bakker recalls, apologetically told them they had run into some unexpected problems.

"I assure you that we had every 'right' to rent you this apartment," a Madison rep e-mailed Bakker. "The people staying in the apartment are in violation of a court order that required them to leave the apartment in the middle of April. We had to take them to court when they decided not to move out when the court order said so. I am as frustrated and upset by the current situation as you are." To make amends, the company relocated the students to one of Madison's other buildings, on Christopher Street, where they lived during their summer break. Bakker and her roommates didn't really mind the inconvenience: "It was kind of a hole," she says of the Christopher Street apartment, "but we're art students, so we really didn't care." (She was pretty annoyed, however, when they tried to charge her for the Christopher Street hovel.) As a consolation, the company allowed them to put up an art show in two empty storefronts on the block, giving the students something of a career break: their first out-of-school gallery show—on prime Manhattan real estate.

Finally, in late summer, the students moved into 55 Delancey. The apartment was now empty, and it had been extensively renovated, with clean floors, a new fridge, and a fresh coat of paint.

Good luck for Bakker and her roommates. But what they didn't know was the background of the bitter fight between Madison Capital and the tenants of 55 Delancey and the neighboring 61 Delancey. The Chinese tenants had sued Madison for harassment, using a law recently passed by the City Council. Claiming that the firm was woefully behind on repairs to their apartments, was openly hostile to Chinese culture, and was trying to push them out of the building, the tenants had a couple of City Council members, a state senator, and several lawyers in their corner.

The art students, still grateful that Madison had so generously given them free gallery space over the summer, also didn't know that tenants in the buildings had had their own artwork—Chinese New Year signs—mysteriously and unkindly ripped off their doors only months earlier. Not a good sign. In fact, as one Chinese tenant says, "It felt like someone was giving me bad luck!"

And she was right. For the past few years, the Chinese tenants had been having a lot of bad luck. A previous landlord had refused to do repairs and was perceived as trying to push tenants out. Then Madison Capital bought the Delancey buildings in May 2008—less than a year later, it was sued by the tenants for harassment.

Madison had instituted a series of rules aimed at the living habits of the Chinese tenants, in essence saying, "Keep your door shut because of the nuisance of your cooking odors" and "Don't congregate in the hallways." The harassment suit raised more serious allegations, and it also didn't mince words about a particular irritant: the mysterious removal of Chinese New Year signs from the tenants' front doors. The suit alleged that "our landlord or someone acting on our landlord's behalf has ordered Chinese and Chinese-American tenants to take down cultural and religious symbols from their apartment doors" in late 2008, around the same time that the tenants' lawyer, Garrett Wright, of the Urban Justice Center, snapped a photo of a Christmas wreath hanging undisturbed on a neighbor's door.

Bakker and her roommates say they never found out what happened to the elderly women who had been living in what was to be their apartment. (It turns out that they weren't evicted. They had been relocated there, while their apartment, on the same floor, was being renovated. When Madison tried to move them back, the company says, they didn't want to go.)

The students didn't pry too much, and the language barrier, Bakker says, prevented them from speaking to their Chinese neighbors. But they soon got the sense that even if there hadn't been language issues, the neighbors wouldn't have wanted to talk to them anyway.

The century-old buildings at 55 and 61 Delancey sit between Allen and Eldridge streets, separated by Rocket Joe's Pizza shop; 61 is a narrow tenement, and 55 is bigger, with 30 units. Directly south, toward Grand Street, are Chinese groceries and bakeries. Allen Street, at the corner of Delancey, has been designated by the city as "Avenue of the Immigrants." You can tell the neighborhood's changing when you see Chinese stores selling kitchen and bathroom fixtures and storefronts displaying Buddhist shrines near the newish, hipsterish Fontana's, a bar where indie-rock bands from Mexico City play in the basement. Fontana's top floor looks as if it caters to more of a twentysomething bridge-and-tunnel crowd.

Trendy Asian fusion spots have sprung up, including Vanessa's Dumplings and the Happy Ending Lounge. The latter is a former "health club" that is now a swanky bar, unmarked except for the "Xie He Health Club" sign retained by the new owners. The place may no longer offer handjobs, but the crowd inside does bump and grind to DJ beats.

That's just the neighborhood. Inside the Delancey Street buildings, the differences between the apartments are more stark: The young tenants live in newly renovated two- or three-bedroom apartments and pay between $1,100 and $1,200 per person for rent. The Chinese tenants pay around $900 total for the same-sized apartments, some of which haven't been renovated in decades and into which they fit many more kids and relatives. The Latino residents, because they've been there the longest, have the cheapest rent: Yesenia Castillo, in 55 Delancey, says she pays around $620 for a two-bedroom with a good-sized kitchen and living room that she shares with two daughters, her husband, a brother, her mother, her sister, and her sister's husband.

Including 55 and 61 Delancey, Madison Capital boasts 11 assets in its "mixed-use" portfolio of Manhattan properties. It says the two six-story, walk-up buildings contain a total of 28 rent-regulated and 17 "free-market" apartments and calls them "a long-term, core investment."

These aren't slum buildings. In some of the rent-regulated apartments, the walls need paint, the leaks need fixing, the floors need to be redone, and the fixtures are cracked and old. In recent years, the buildings have been beset by hundreds of code violations—but they have a functional super and are far from "worst landlord" territory as described in the Voice's recent series.

The Chinese and Latino tenants are full of misconceptions about their new neighbors. Maybe it's the language barrier, maybe it's not. "They are nice, but they pay way too much rent!" retiree Ding Juan Zhang says of the young and hip. Castillo, who is 30 and was raised in the building, says she remembers "when you couldn't go outside 'cause of the shootings" and she had to steer clear of the local barber shop because "that's where people got shot." Now it's safer, but to her, it's still nuts. Her opinion of the new tenants is stronger than Zhang's: "These people are crazy!" She and the other rent-regulated tenants don't know exactly how much the new tenants are paying, but the building swarms with rumors and speculation. "They're paying $3,900 for that rat hole," Castillo says matter-of-factly of her neighbors on the fourth floor. "When my aunt was living here, she was paying $500." But she still remembers that apartment as a rat hole—the fact that it's been renovated under the new management hasn't occurred to her.

Neither cluster of tenants seems to really know how the other lives. The new tenants, for their part, appear to know nothing about the building's past—but plenty about its future. "We've heard they want to clean out the apartments and make them hipster-friendly," says Hannah Lavon, a 26-year-old graphic designer originally from Long Island.

Suspicions confirmed: After years of being under seige by old and new management of the buildings, the Chinese tenants have reason to be angry and suspicious. So it's probably no wonder that some of the new tenants say they get the feeling that the longtime tenants don't like them.

"They scowl," Bakker says. "When I come up the stairs, they aren't friendly," says Louisiane Remy, a 21-year-old Parisian pursuing a graduate degree in fashion design at Parsons. "They won't hold doors. They don't answer if you say hi. I used to think, 'Why are they so upset at me?' "

Some of the Chinese tenants insist that it's nothing personal, that they just see the new tenants as rich foreigners who are crazy for paying too much rent. Other Chinese tenants say they have nothing to talk about with the new tenants anyway: "Why would I say hi to them when they move so frequently?" says one. "They just come and go."

Many of the new tenants make a point of saying the Chinese talk too loudly. "You look out into the hallway, and you think someone is about to get shot," Bakker says. "Actually, they are just talking." Confused by her neighbors' behavior, Remy turned for help to one of her roommates, who is what the Chinese call "ABC": American-born Chinese. The roommate, who also works in fashion, explained to her that the Chinese—including her own parents—tend to bark their words: "I used to take it personally," Remy says. "Then I thought, 'Some things are just cultural.' "

Not all the new tenants are as understanding: "There's a lot of spitting and coughing things up," says Amy Lepley, 23, who works in hospital administration. "They are OK with the guttural-sounding clearing of the throats." She says that whenever she leaves things out in the hall, they are taken—and she assumes that her Chinese neighbors are the culprits. Lavon, the graphic designer, says she gets awakened at night by crying babies and the spitting sounds. "It's not optimal," she says, shrugging. "I guess it comes with the territory—living here." Waving the air in front of her nose and laughing a little, Lepley adds, "The fish smells are bad."

For several years, the owners of the Delancey buildings worked hard to get rid of the fish smells—by getting rid of the tenants responsible for them.

Before Madison Capital bought the properties from a Gheorghe M. Daniel in May 2008, they were operated by a management company controlled by a man named Nir Sela. Tenants and activists say that Daniel and Sela had successfully pushed out about half the tenants in both buildings in the previous five years—a strategy that accelerated around 2006.

The tenants had held protests and someone sicced the NYPD on them—the tenants think it was building management because the super escorted the cops into one of the tenant meetings. None of the tenants were arrested, but there was other turbulence: After a three-month rent strike in 2007, the landlord agreed to pay $3,000 in compensation for repairs to each apartment whose tenants had participated. Despite the buildings' having changed hands, Nir Sela's wife, Candace Sela—the two married in 2008—continues to serve as an attorney for Madison Capital. She insists that Madison hasn't formally evicted anyone—something that attorney Garrett Wright and other tenant activists who know the building agree is probably true. In fact, some tenants have taken buy-outs, while others whom Sela took to court left, she says, when Madison proved they weren't following rent-stabilization guidelines.

But tenants insist that after Madison took over the buildings, the harassment took on a different form. Among their complaints: The landlord's reps barged into their apartments with no warning and snapped photos. They put up video surveillance cameras that tenants insisted could see into their apartments. And then there was the sticky issue of the New Year signs, a sore point that came to a head at the end of 2008.

In addition, people whom one Chinese tenant didn't know began to question her when she and her family members walked into the building, asking who they were visiting and whether they had a right to be there. Then she was told that she needed to leave her door closed: Her cooking smells were bothering other tenants in the building. She was also ordered not to chat with her neighbors in the hallway.

But what really upset her was that she was prohibited from putting Chinese New Year and good-luck signs on her door.

Not uncommonly in New York, tenants in rent-regulated apartments face pressure to leave; some of it is underhanded and highly illegal, but some of it is quite direct and perfectly legal. Zheng Yi Lian says the landlord offered her $10,000 to leave. Her response, a common one by tenants in rent-regulated apartments, was: "You were offering me money, but where am I going to live?" In another case reflecting a common tactic by landlords, Madison refused to accept a rent check from tenant Qing Ling Shi, because the lease named only his wife, Jin Zhu Dong. Even after the couple showed their marriage certificate to Madison, the company refused the rent check. In the fall of 2008, Madison took the couple to court for not paying rent. Eventually, Madison had to accept their rent check, and they still live there.

Long-term residents weren't spared the pressure. "They tried to state that my mom wasn't a resident—that she lived in California," says Castillo. "My mom's never even been to California! First, they were offering my mother $20,000 to pick up and go. Then they wouldn't cash our checks—they said I was forging my mother's signature." And this happened amid family woes. "We were born here," Castillo says. "My daughters were born here. And all of a sudden, they want us to just leave. My mom had breast cancer at the time, and it was really stressful for her."

Madison did begin renovations on the buildings and claims to have spent more than $1.5 million on them—but not for the vast majority of the longer-term tenants, who say (and were eventually backed up in court) that the company was unresponsive to their requests for repairs. After installing new electronic keypads for the front door, Madison instituted a new policy: Each apartment got only two keys. The Chinese tenants, with their large families, couldn't get enough keys.

The tenants' meetings became more raucous. Finally, in January 2009, at the end of the Year of the Rat, 13 tenants in 55 Delancey and six in 61 filed their harassment-and-repairs lawsuit in housing court. The tenants asked the court to order that Madison make repairs, supply all the legal tenants with electronic keys, allow them to congregate in the hallways, and not call the NYPD on them. Further, the tenants demanded an end to the "nuisance" orders about cooking smells and the rules forbidding their cultural signs, like the ones celebrating the Chinese New Year.

In January 2010, the tenants reached a favorable settlement with Madison whose "so-ordered" terms were approved by a judge—the company can be held in contempt of a court order if it violates the terms. The landlord was required to make long-neglected repairs to the rent-regulated tenants' apartments. The settlement also laid out a list of rules the company had to follow. Tenants were now allowed to hang holiday signs—whether for Chinese New Year, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or Christmas—for 45 days leading up to a holiday and 45 days after. (The agreement doesn't say anything about wedding signs, which are commonly displayed year-round by Chinese tenants.) Madison was also required to allow a tenants' attorney (in this case, Garrett Wright) to personally inspect the buildings' video cameras to make sure they weren't aimed inside the apartments. (Wright found the cameras' angles to be OK.) In addition, the landlord was instructed to accept rent from lawful tenants, make copies of keys for their family members, and allow tenants to meet in public areas of the building.

"From our end, this is something the tenants really wanted," Esther Wang, of the advocacy group CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, says of the settlement. "They were the ones who made the decision to settle. It just laid out in writing a lot of what the tenants wanted. What we wanted to see was an end to the harassment, so we have a wait-and-see attitude."

Madison attorney Sela calls the settlement a "win-win" situation, adding, "What they have now is a higher standard of living than they've ever had!" She points out—and appears to be correct—that the Delancey buildings are in much better shape physically than they were under the previous owner—when her husband was managing them. Madison has installed new windows, doors, and flooring in much of the building.

The company, she says, inherited nearly 300 building-code violations and took care of them, and has spent $1.5 million on renovations. Of course, some of the clean-up is court-enforced.

But even after the settlement, which Wright says the landlord has complied with so far, tenants are still nervous. "No one is going to open their door to you," an elderly Chinese tenant in 61 tells the Voice. "Everyone here is on edge." He was wearing white slippers over socks, and the smell of cooking oil exuded from his cramped kitchen. "I'd like to be able to put up my sign," he says, "because it says, 'Happy New Year.' And that's saying a good thing!"

The fact that he can indeed put up his sign seems lost on him, as he says, "Other people can put up decorations. So why can't we?" Many of the Chinese tenants say they didn't bother to put up the Chinese New Year signs this year, anyway. "We fought for it, and now we can, but you know, we're not even going to do it anymore!" one woman says angrily.

A certain paranoia still courses through the Chinese residents. "Yeah, they give you new keys, but then they take your information!" says one tenant, who doesn't want to be named. "Right now, the cameras are looking into my apartment!" exclaims Ding Juan Zhang, who points at the cameras and then points into her apartment, which has Chinese calendars, a small shrine, and good-luck signs covering the walls. "Of course we're scared of them," says the elderly man, referring to the landlord—a landlord who, he says, took more than a year to fix a ceiling leak. "We don't speak English, so it's easy for them to bully us."

Madison's lawyer, Sela, doesn't talk like a bully, but she does liberally sprinkle the word "regulations" into conversation about the building. "Madison Capital is a high-end company, and it has regulations. Anytime you have a new management and a new owner, there are changes," she says. "But you can't have a site without laws and regulations."

On the other hand, Sela also insists that Madison officials "want to make it, and keep it, Chinatown. They aren't trying to change the culture. They are committed to the culture." She points out that Madison Capital's people sit on the boards of various community organizations and are trying to find an Asian fusion restaurant to place in its empty storefront next to Rocket Joe's.

But there's still that nagging question about the Chinese New Year signs on the doors.

"When you say to someone who is from China—well, it's difficult to explain to someone who hangs up Chinese New Year signs year-round," Sela says. "You can't hang up Chinese New Year symbols year-round. There are dynamics and parameters. There were things on the doorway that were fire hazards. So there have to be some standards."

The flavor of the neighborhood aside, Sela says, "I don't think a community should be broken apart, and I don't think Madison Capital feels that way, either. But when you have 10 tenants in a 500-square-foot unit, it's difficult for many of the neighbors, and it's difficult to manage."

'There's a clear separation between those who have had their apartments renovated and those that haven't," says Lee Smith, a 24-year-old studying fashion marketing who lives in 61 Delancey. "I don't know what the situation is, but I assume it has to do with their rent."

She's right: She doesn't know.

As to lifestyle questions, Remy, the Parisian, figures that her neighbors spend a lot of time in the hallways simply because they live in crowded apartments. "They are used to many generations of one family living in a single apartment," she says. "They're big families." Lavon adds, "They are a more collectivist culture, so they keep wandering in and out of each other's apartments, which throws me off."

She considers what she said and admits, "I don't know. They're always there. People have an assumption of privacy in New York. You don't just hang in the hallway. But for some reason, in this building—you know, they feed their babies in the hallway. I don't understand why they don't just go inside their apartment. It's very weird, but, whatever, it's their culture." On the brighter side, she calls the building "the perfect location" and says, "All my friends are jealous."

Whether people in Manhattan—the most densely populated county in the United States—really have "an assumption of privacy" is debatable. But it is true that the buildings' tenant meetings seem private to many of the new tenants. They don't mind not being invited to the meetings—which, they say, involve a lot of shouting—and they take it as just more evidence that they are disliked by the Chinese tenants. They assume the meetings have nothing to do with them anyway. "I think those are for people who own their apartments," Remy guesses. "Not for people like us, who just rent." Wrong again.

Bakker, making dinner one recent evening while listening to punk rock, says she has accepted her neighbor's glares as a fact of life and tries to be as friendly as possible. "Maybe her friend lived here," she says, shaking her head.

Some of the newbies are finally recognizing that the building has a history, even if they aren't sure what it is.

When told some of the background of the long-term tenants' tribulations, Lavon says, "It sucks, and I didn't know this before I came. Maybe it did happen—it probably did, even. I'm sorry it's happening, but—" she pauses, then shrugs—"I like the apartment."

Additional reporting and translation by Fatimah Surjani Ortega and Zoe So

edwoskin@villagevoice.com