Chinatown Residents Fight Gentrification


The ongoing war between the forces of gentrification and the middle and working classes of the “old New York” has hit Chinatown too.

A new organization, calling itself the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, has taken aim at what it says are three threats to the neighborhood: a lack of affordable housing, a rezoning plan that could push upscale high-rise development from the Lower East Side to Chinatown, and a potential Business Improvement District that they say would tax small businesses out of existence.

The Coalition’s biggest battle thus far has been over rezoning laws, which Josephine Lee, a leader of the newly formed Coalition, calls racist for its exclusion of neighborhoods of people of color from protections against luxury and high rise development. According to Lee, the rezoning plan “excludes Latinos and Chinatown” and would encourage taller, pricier development to move East and into Chinatown by setting limits on development in trendier parts of the Lower East Side.

“All we’re asking for is accountable development” said Lee who is also a member of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association. “If you have a whole community that caters to tourists, where will community needs go—the doctors, the grocery stores? Where will residents go? They will be priced out their community.”

Another potential culprit in the changing neighborhood is ‘inclusionary zoning’ laws, that allows taller development in exchange for developers setting aside 20% of new housing units for affordable housing. However, community activists say this is inadequate to ensure the neighborhood stays affordable.

“They’re not going to build housing affordable for the people in the area” said Hoon Kim, another member of the coalition, who works with the group National Mobilization Against Sweatshops. He said the standard for what is ‘affordable’ sets the bar too high for residents in the area, using a measure derived from median income for the metropolitan area. Lee says residents would have to make $60,000 a year to afford to live in the units, in a neighborhood where the average income is around $20,000 a year.

Debate also continues over a proposal to create a Business Improvement District for Chinatown. A total of 59 BIDs have sprung up over New York, providing marketing, beautification and public safety services to its members according to the City’s Department of Small Business Services. Two groups—the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation, and the Rebuild Chinatown Initiative—have begun advocating for the formation of a Chinatown BID, a process organizers say is at its “embryonic” stage. The Coalition opposes a BID because it would add one to five percent to property owners’ taxes, forcing businesses operating at the margins into closing.

“[The BID] is a tool, a marketing tool. If I didn’t believe this was helpful to Chinatown, I would drop it immediately.” said Wellington Chen of the Chinatown Partnership LDC. “The discussion is whether Chinatown will participate in the party, or will it be on the floor scrubbing.” Chen points to the BIDs that surround the area, and to Chinatowns around the country that operate under BIDs as reasons residents should invest in forming the district. At least one business owner with the Coalition takes issue with this approach.

“The Boston Chinatown, the LA Chinatown— they’re horrible shells of what they used to be, and much of the reason is that they’ve been taxed out” said Jan Lee, who also took issue with the comparison to other neighborhoods in New York. “Other BIDs in New York City have anchor businesses such as Lincoln Square for Lincoln Center, or 34th St. which has Macy’s. Trying to tap landlords in a place like Chinatown, the same equation doesn’t apply.”

Ultimately, community activists point to the visible liveliness of Chinatown’s streets as the best reason to fight the impending changes. “It would be different if Chinatown were a depressed neighborhood, if there was no commerce there” said Rob Hollander of the Lower East Side Residents for Responsible Development. “It’s a low income but viable neighborhood. Not every neighborhood has to be about luxury.”