Walk around Chinatown and bordering neighborhoods these days and you might notice a marked proliferation of hotels. Twenty, even ten years ago, these hotels would likely have been SROs (single-room occupancy), establishments serving a clientele of itinerant men or poor immigrants who cycled in and out of cheap bunks or otherwise tiny spaces. These SROs on the Bowery and elsewhere in the city are under serious threat now, as the existence of the SRO Law Project, can attest to.
Go on a tour of the twenty blocks radiating from historic Chinatown (around Pell and Mott) and you’ll see fewer and fewer of these. Instead there’s the looming 270-room Mondrian opening this month on Lafayette/Crosby with its “handcrafted cocktails,” gallery terrace, and $300-$500 a night rooms. Adjacent the funeral parlors and other small businesses along the rim of Columbus Park, a glass “Hotel Mulberry” sticks a finger in the eye of this traditionally low-rise neighborhood. Rather than, say, a small slaughterhouse on Grand Street with cages of chickens and rabbits, the “Solita” hotel stands.
That slaughterhouse wasn’t a pretty sight, but in the 1980s and 90s, it was a line of business extending far back into the neighborhood’s past. It was owned by a Chinese family, the man greeting you a dashing Chinese John Wayne, with many of its customers recent immigrants wanting the freshest meat possible for their families. You might be surprised to learn that for nearly a century before, that particular address was a slaughterhouse shack. In the early 1900s and operated by Italians, the meat was consumed by the then-burgeoning immigrant Italian community nearby.
Of course there’s also the rapid-fire transformation of the Bowery into a developer’s dream: boutique hotels including “The Bowery” and “Cooper Square,” luxury rentals, new commercial hot-spots including the Whole Foods, fancy bars, tapas bars. Walking along, you might wonder how long the lighting district and the restaurant supplies shops can last in this changing ecology. On your stroll, don’t forget to pass the former “Music Palace” theatre (at Hester) demolished just a few years ago. Music Palace was one of several Chinese movie-houses and cultural venues in the neighborhood where, from the 1930s through the 1970s, scores of Chinese immigrants and their kids would watch flicks (kung fu and other) as well as Chinese opera and culture shows. By the 1980s and 90s, Music Palace was the last of these theatres— and it became quite a lonely place. Music Palace’s demise ended the era of the Chinatown movie-house, but it might have also closed the curtain on a city rich with Yiddish theatre, the polyglot performance traditions of the Bowery, old Times Square. For many, the controversial rezoning of the Lower East Side a few years back left a sour taste, and the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, working with Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, is trying to stall the over-development of this historic stretch. Rumor has it in Chinatown that the Music Palace address will soon house a hotel, or possibly a shiny office tower like several already in the neighborhood.
Organizers at CAAAV and Urban Justice Center released a report in 2008, a portion of which notes the overbuilding of hotels. But you might also ask: why hotels—and why now? You speculate perhaps it has to do with the orientation toward a tourist-services economy put forward by the City and mirrored by the “movers and shakers” of Chinatown’s business class, especially after September 11th?
Maybe the current zoning that allows as-of-right hotel construction in some manufacturing-zoned areas is to blame? Maybe it even has to do with demand, the allure of staying, however briefly, in a neighborhood once rife with SROs, movie-houses, slaughterhouses, and the living history of working-class immigrants?
Wandering these old streets, what once was Rutgers’ farm or Delancey’s or Bayard’s—and long before that land that was no one’s farm or property—you might think of several generations of stories behind façade, beneath paint, or gone entirely. Do you remember? What was next to the post office on Canal Street before it was a drab, high-end Sheraton? Will you remember? What was life like in parts of Chinatown, SoHo, Little Italy before the Mondrian?