"AN ETHNIC THEME PARK WITHOUT ITS ETHNIC POPULATION"
New York City’s Chinatown is brimming with restaurants, bakeries, bars, nightlubs, botiques, temples, and gallaries. Visitors feel like they have been transcended into a foreign land with an old Shanghai flair. It is a must see attraction that tourists flock to. However, beneath the enticing exotic glamour lies a growing problem that remains unadressed. The vibrant culture and the bright red, bustling streets are only a distraction to a harsh reality slowly eating up the real residents of Chinatown: gentrification.
When immigration restrictions ended in 1965 during the Civil RIghts Movement, a huge wave of Chinese immigrants entered the United States. By 1980, New York’s Chinatown held the largest Chinese population in the nation. Barred from citizenship, Chinese immigrants flocked to Chinatown, and formed their own internal structure that offered jobs, housing, and medical care. As immigrants began filling up low-paying manual jobs, Chinatown’s economy relied on two pillars: garment and restaurant industries.
Though Chinese immigrants found Chinatown to be a thriving community, Chinatown was also plagued with poverty and gang violence. Asian street gangs also known as Triads and Tongs increased, as level of education decreased. A profile based on a 1990 and 2000 census of Chinatown reported that 60 percent of Asian adults living in Chinatown did not have high school diplomas, while 40 percent did not speak English. Stating that Chinatown has its own internal social issues that need to be addressed is an understatement.
Instead of directing funds and creating policies to address issues affecting the Chinese community in Chinatown, legislators are both indirectly and directly supporting a newer problem: gentrification. Realizing that Chinatown is one of the last ungentrified neighborhoods in Manhattan, an increasing amount of buildings that used to be factories and warehouses have been torn down and replaced with condominiums, boutique hotels, gyms, art galleries, offices that are willing to pay five times the rent. Many small businesses, unable to compete with new establishments owned by larger companies have been forced to close or relocate: displacing many low-income ethnic workers and their families in the process.
Furthermore, the influx of White residents in Chinatown has caused the demand and price of living spaces to skyrocket. In a neighborhood where the average income is $20,000 a year, residents need at least $60,000 a year to afford living units. Suddenly, low-income Asian immigrants and their families find themselves living in inhumane living conditions. Many find themselves crammed $9-dollars-a-night cubicles the size of a one-stall bathroom.
Currently, many politicians want to see Chinatown transform into a thriving tourist destination. With traditional business disappearing, some stores have been converted to “malls” while others are trying to cater to the tourist population by selling souvenirs and t-shirts. Legislators are encouraging the developments of luxury shops, services, and restaurants without even thinking about the displacement of immigrant families.
The more gentrification remains unadressed, the more displaced Chinese families are going to suffer. However, with the direction the community is currently heading, more and more homes and businesses will be destroyed for the sake feeding into the glamourized Chinatown that tourists want to experience. Sadly, as Peter Kwong, a professor at Hunter College and author of The New Chinatown, says:
“Chinatown will turn into an ethnic theme park without its ethnic population”.