Close-up on Chinatown


Portions of this article have been updated.

On Chinatown’s narrow, winding backstreets, you can see young women carrying bags of raw fish and strange, gnarled vegetables that dangle from bamboo poles, peasant-style. In Columbus Park, the old matrons sit in knots under red banners proclaiming “fortuneteller” among a parade of characters indecipherable to English speakers. If Chinatown were really the foreign country it seems, Mayor Mike would have stationed troops on Canal Street to press back incursions from its borders. Chinese-language signs have crept onto storefronts from Soho to the former Yid bastions south of Delancey Street. But these boundaries are permeable in both directions. Non-Asian hipsters have begun to filter in, nesting in buildings tucked among Chinese greengrocers, fishmongers, and dim sum houses. Time was, the only way you could score a walk-up in this clamorous, exotic enclave was to inherit it from your Chinese grandmother. For a rent-stabilized pad, that’s still the way. But a few newly converted lofts or recently renovated walk-ups offer decent-to-luxurious digs at market rates. Susan Koerner, bartender at the chic border bar Lolita, recently moved into a renovated brick walk-up at Madison and Rutgers streets. It’s not cheap, she says, but it is more affordable than the East Village. “I have more space and it’s quiet, and I don’t have an East Village bar on every corner.” Since she’s below Canal, she also gets a 9-11 rebate of $250 a month for two years. While community activists complain that immigrants are being squeezed out, the landlords are mostly Chinese, so there aren’t the usual gentrification wars along ethnic lines. And the ma-and-pa character of the old Chinatown is subtly changing anyway, says Insignia-Douglas Elliman broker Nancy Loo, who notes, “Five of the Chinese restaurants on Mott Street are now owned by corporations located outside the neighborhood.”

Boundaries: Ever expanding, but for now Kenmare and Delancey streets to the north, Allen Street to the east, East Broadway and Worth Street to the south, Broadway to the west

Transportation: Almost any subway line will put you at Canal Street or other stops in Chinatown.

Main Drags: Canal Street, Mott Street, Pell Street

Average Price to Rent: Studios and three-bedrooms are rare. One-bedroom, $1800-$2500 and up ($1600 to $2500); two-bedroom, $2500-$3500 and up ($2500 to $3400).

Average Price to Buy: One-bedroom, $400,000 and up ($300,000 to $475,000); two-bedroom, $500,000 and up ($450,000 to $575,000).

Landmarks: Manhattan Bridge, Kim Lau Memorial Arch in Chatham Square, Confucius Plaza (Bowery and Division Street), Mahayana Buddhist Temple (Canal Street and Manhattan Bridge Plaza), First Chinese Presbyterian Church (Market and Henry streets)

Cultural Institutions: The Museum of Chinese in the Americas (70 Mulberry Street) “is the first fulltime, professionally staffed museum dedicated to reclaiming, preserving, and interpreting the history and culture of Chinese and their descendants in the Western Hemisphere.”

Green Space: Columbus Park (Bayard and Mulberry streets), a square lined with benches backed against fenced-off trees and flowers, and facing an asphalt playground and ball field

Famous Residents: Heroic World War II pilot Kim Lau, who flew a wounded plane long enough for his crew to bail out, and Ah Bing, who moved to an upstate farm and developed the Bing cherry.

Best Restaurants: Sietsema picks are Congee Village (100 Allen Street), the most “venerated” in Greater Chinatown, with its traditional fare featuring organ meats and “funky sauces”; for a bargain, try Dumpling House (118A Eldridge Street), where you can savor five pot stickers for a buck and, for 50 cents more, aromatic boiled beef and pickled veggies on homemade sesame bread.

Best Bars: The non-Asian crowd sips martinis at Double Happiness (173 Mott Street) and Lolita (266 Broome Street) while they listen to DJs spin jazz, electronic dance music, and more. Neighborhood newbies join old Chinese regulars on the red vinyl bar stools of former dive 169 (169 East Broadway), which features live bands on Thursday nights.

Happenings: The Chinese New Year, complete with chimes and Dragon and Lion dances commemorating the year of the dog, begins January 29, 2006.

Politicians: Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, state senators Martin Connor and Thomas K. Duane, Councilman Alan Gerson, and Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez—all Democrats

Crime Stats: The fifth precinct serves Chinatown, Little Italy, and the City Hall area. As of
October 16, 2005 it reported 3 murders, 9 rapes, 106 robberies, 62 felony assaults, and 120 burglaries.
(The fifth precinct serves Chinatown, Little Italy, and the City Hall area. As of October 20, it reported no murders, down 2 from last year; 9 rapes, up 6; 152 robberies, down 46; 83 felony assaults, down 31; and 177 burglaries, down 10.)