Open City: Blogging Urban Change
One Chinatown’s Future: a Town Hall
By Konrad Aderer

 

Chinatown 2.0 Town Hall

Last Thursday MOCA hosted an “Open Town Hall” called “CHINATOWN 2.0—BRINGING CHINATOWN INTO THE FUTURE.”  Appropriately, I took the Chinatown bus from Sunset Park for the first time to get there, and blogged about that too.  For me it was a chance to update what I’d been reading and hearing about Chinatown since 9/11, first as a budding filmmaker, then as a budding sociologist. I’m starting with an abbreviated and abridged recount of what was said at the meeting, and my broader reaction after that.

The Town Hall: Chinatown 2.0 May 12, 2011.

In his introductory remarks,  moderator Ti-Hua Chang (Fox 5 News), described Chinatown’s situation as unrelentingly “bleak,” with a jewelry and garment district that hasn’t recovered since 9/11, and its streets still oppressed and occupied by the NYPD and the heightened security of the neighboring court district. Growing economic disparities reveal themselves in clashing images: a woman picks through garbage as Chinatown is threatened by a “new Soho”  of high-end consumerism, and local culture is hollowed out and replaced by curio shops and counterfeiters.

Peter Kwong (Professor, Asian American Studies and Urban Planning, Hunter College) noted that small businesses were getting pushed out by speculation and gentrification.  What Chinatown residents need is not just bare survival but a place to “live, work, shop and socialize.”

David Chen (Chinese-American Planning Council) envisioned the role of Chinatown as an “incubator, to give the immigrant shelter and wings to fly,” but pointed out that the realities there are market-driven.
He suggested that local zoning require new commercial developments to reserve 20 or 30 percent of their space for public nonprofit use.

The two younger panelists, who waited until the elders were done until offering their opening comments,  showed in their biographies differing models of personal reinvestment in Chinatown. Wilson Tang (proprietor, Nom Wah Tea Palace) inherited his uncle’s business and was the most enthusiastic booster of tourism on the panel.

Gigi Li (co-director, Neighborhood Family Services Coalition, vice chair of Community Board 3) who grew up in Chinatown after immigrating from Hong Kong, made a conscious decision to return to Chinatown as an adult and get involved in the community’s politics. In her role in reviewing liquor licenses she wants new businesses to be owned by Chinese Americans. “The worst thing  for Chinatown would be for us to let market forces and people who don’t have a stake in the community shape its future because we can’t reach consensus.”

Wellington Chen (Executive Director of the Chinatown Partnership Development Corporation),  sitting in the audience, took the sober view that “you can’t fight market forces.” He had looked in vain for a model for Chinatown to follow, and found none as far as an urban ethnic community in the U.S.  “Chinatown is depressed in many ways,” and most of the second generation refuses to come back and take over. As an architect he asserted that many of the aging residential buildings were not salvageable, as they could not be reconfigured cost-effectively for safety renovations or even elevators. They would have to be torn down eventually, for the safety of the often elderly residents packed into them.

The theme of improved low-cost housing preoccupied much of the discussion. Confucius Plaza, a publicly funded housing project for Chinatown residents built in 1975, was held as an example worth repeating. Corky Lee (“Photographer of Asian America”), a Confucius Plaza resident, gave a brief history and informed us that the development comprises 570 units for mid-low range income residents.

Paul J Q Lee (Chinatown business owner, actor and political candidate), gave a recap of the Mitchell Lama program which encourages building owners to provide affordable housing by use of a tax benefit which is currently expiring for many owners. “Uncle Harry is often the owner of the building, wants to cash out. Can we tell him, ‘no, you should rent it out for $90?’” The board of Confucius Plaza recently voted to extend the Mitchell Lama program for their building. The hope that a project like Confucius Plaza could be brought about again led to the subject of political power.

A positive recent example was the role of the Chinatown community in putting a stop to holding the Khalid Sheikh Muhammad trial in their backyard. Ti-Hua Chang recalled the enactment of a one-way toll into Staten Island, which led to increased traffic congestion, pollution and asthma in Chinatown, as a lasting consequence of not organizing.

The election of Council Member Margaret Chin and Comptroller John Liu were important, but incremental first steps (I didn’t catch a mention of Council Member Peter Koo; was it because he’s a Republican?). Gigi wanted to see more Asians on the community boards, and not only in Manhattan; the dispersal of Chinese settlement to Brooklyn and Queens could thus be made “a positive rather than a negative.”

Jeff Yang  (principal, OurChinatown.org) floated an idea to engage the “brain trust of the next generation” in Chinatown’s future by transitioning the local manufacturing focus to tech infrastructure, in the tradition of Silicon Alley. But Peter Kwong said the education level of new immigrants was too low for such a venture, and as for the next generation: “forget ‘uptown Chinese’…most don’t want to live here.”

Julie Huang (President of Kaimen Company), who’d been sitting in front of me tweeting for AALDEF, called on Chinatown stakeholders to build their relationships with non-Chinese elected officials. Several instances of Congresswoman Nydia M. Velasquez’ ongoing support of Chinatown issues were recounted, as well as the story of how Mayor Bloomberg steered a large windfall donation to restore the Columbus Park building.

Concluding thoughts to the town hall included:

  • The hope that the younger generation of Chinatown residents will stay.
  • A need for small businesses to innovate and diversify so that there are not only hair salons and bakeries on many blocks.
  • A call for every individual to find the one issue they care deeply about to get involved.

My Thoughts

The first thing that struck me that evening was the familiarity of the narratives of Chinatown’s challenges, how the impact of 9/11 still persists for the community in ways so distinct from the national narrative. When I participated as an interview subject in Narrative Remappings, it dawned on me how meaningful that title was. My own concern with the fate of Chinatown progressed through these narratives I started coming across over the past 9 years.  Though as a child growing up in Manhattan I saw Chinatown as “always there” –  an eternal, unchanging reality, the dominant theme among its stakeholders now is of vulnerability, of a place and community to be defended.

The way the meaning of a place like Chinatown transcends its physical location fits in with the concept of  “Spatial justice,” developed by a number of social science theorists from the later 20th Century through today. One of them was the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre defines “social space” as “a materialization of social being:”

Social space implies actual or potential assembly at a single point, or around that point…Urban space gathers crowds, products in the markets, acts and symbols. It concentrates all these, and accumulates them. To say ‘urban space’ is to say centre and centrality…” (The Production of Space, p. 101)

The loudest and most spontaneous burst of applause that night erupted when Wilson Tang said, “there is only one Chinatown.” There would have been no need to vigorously affirm that statement if it were a simple matter of fact. We know more than half of Manhattan Chinatown’s garment manufacturing has disappeared or gone to Sunset Park, and that many new Chinese immigrants are settling there, in Flushing and other parts of Queens and Brooklyn.

Though the grim persistence of the narratives that dominated last week’s town hall was depressing in the sense that we would all like to wake up to a stable, prosperous Chinatown, it was comforting in light of the fact that Chinatown’s problems are global problems, and here they were being confronted with a unity of purpose focused by the enduring bonds of place and community.

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Open City: Blogging Urban Change is an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Five commissioned writers, called Organizing Fellows, are working with community organizations and neighborhood folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown/Lower East Side (LES), Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn to collect oral histories and interviews, offer commentary about gentrification, neighborhood change, and produce new creative work around these themes. Read more.
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