The Once-Forbidden City Chinatown Through the Years

Of the many distinct neighborhoods in New York City, a select few have established their reputation to such a degree that they've become urban entities of literary proportion. Greenwich Village is one, Harlem is another. Manhattan's Chinatown - a two-square-mile area loosely cordoned off by Kenmore and Delancey Streets on the north, East and Worth Streets on the south, Allen Street to the east, and Broadway on the west side - is a third.

Say "Chinatown," and people immediately think of crowded open-air markets, steaming noodle shops, hanging lanterns, traffic of all descriptions at all hours, and the rapid-fire staccato of Mandarin and Cantonese spoken loudly over the din. New York's Chinatown represents a thick slice of foreign culture dropped directly into the socio-ethnic stew that is Manhattan. The neighborhood is home to more than 350,000 people - the largest population of Chinese in the Western Hemisphere.

Hard Work, Little Reward

The first Chinese immigrants to arrive in New York City were primarily men from China's Guangdong Province who moved east after disembarking in California and toiling to build the Central Pacific Railroad system. These men had left their families and their wives and children back in China, intending to either send for them once the men had established themselves in the west, or to return to China with their earnings.

For a number of reasons - none of them pleasant - it didn't work out quite that way for most of them. Railroad workers were paid a pittance for backbreaking labor, and the Chinese workers in particular were willing to work for almost nothing. This instilled a deep resentment in American and European laborers, who felt that they were being undersold by this new wave of cheap manpower from the East. Consequently, blatant discrimination and physical violence against Chinese newcomers was not uncommon, and eventually, a new set of stringent labor and immigration laws were passed that limited the number of Chinese immigrants allowed into the country, and dictated where they could and could not live once they got here.

Among these, the Chinese Exclusion Act - passed in 1882 and not repealed until 1943 - prohibited newly arrived Chinese men from bringing their families into the country. This legislation slowed the wave of immigrants to a steady trickle comprised almost entirely of men, and turned New York's Chinatown into a curious neighborhood of bachelors. This - combined with the expatriated Chinese community's reluctance to dissolve into the American "melting pot" by keeping traditional forms of dress, declining in many cases to learn English, and basically sustaining itself without outside help - made New York's Chinatown both a magnet for suspicion and misconception. The area also became a novel destination for curious Victorians, who would traipse through the neighborhood hoping to catch a glimpse of an opium den or gawk at the locals as they went about their day. Early New Yorkers' view of Chinatown and its inhabitants didn't end at mere curiosity, however. The Chinese were viewed as heathens, treated as less-than second-class citizens, and forced to stay within the confines of their neighborhood. Prejudice, combined with tight borders, created problems in and of itself. According to Donna Lentol, a broker with Douglas Elliman's downtown office, "Because of the waves of immigration into the Lower East Side, people kind of broke off into different groups, and that's how the various neighborhoods got formed."

No Room, No Rest

Because of its insularity and inability - self-imposed and otherwise - to expand outward into surrounding neighborhoods, toward the end of the 19th century, Chinatown's bachelor population was highly concentrated and isolated from outside influences. The overwhelming majority of resident men worked within a block or two of where they lived, in one of Chinatown's handful of industries - textile production was an economic mainstay of the neighborhood, along with hand laundries and restaurants.

Even with the immigration quotas and limitations placed on the community, the streets of Chinatown were crowded, and living conditions in many of the buildings were far from what would be considered healthy or pleasant. A single-room apartment in the un-windowed middle of a tenement building might house nine or 10 men, crammed onto wooden bunks built into the walls.

Nearly everything in Chinatown at the turn of the last century - from the industries to the tenement buildings to the legal system - was controlled and regulated by affiliations of businessmen and community leaders called tongs. The tongs of Chinatown handled legal disputes, social services, and neighborhood protection, among other things. From time to time, disputes arose between tongs, and violence occasionally erupted on the streets - the Tong Wars, as they were called by outsiders at the time, stymied New York's police force and made what was already a mysterious, exotic area of town even more peripheral. Throughout World War I, the Great Depression, and Prohibition, the Exclusion Act tightened its grip, and Chinatown became even more of an island unto itself.

After the Wars

As the rest of the country staggered under the weight of war and economic collapse, the denizens of New York's Chinatown - already well acquainted with privation and hardship - largely went about their business. The tongs - now under the scrutiny of the newly-vigilant NYPD, thanks to the violence in earlier years - continued to orchestrate the goings-on in the neighborhood, and for the most part, Chinatown continued to operate autonomously. Very little changed in the day-to-day lives of New York's Chinese until the United States' entrance into World War II - with mainland China as an ally - at which point the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally stricken from the books.

Two decades after that, in 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Act raised the quota of Chinese able to enter the country from its prewar low of 105 people per year to 15,000.

Once the ban on immigration was lifted, thousands of families flooded into Chinatown, reuniting with lost relatives and eventually overrunning the area's long-held borders into Little Italy, parts of Soho, and the Lower East Side. Says Lentol, "Since WWII, [Chinatown] has gotten more crowded - more densely populated. More people are probably owners now, as opposed to renters. Several people from the area have grown up to be landowners or building owners."

The rapid influx of newcomers - some of whom were skilled workers or businesspeople - strained the network of support that had been built up in Chinatown since the mid 1800s and resulted in a large proportion of recent emigrants living at or below the poverty line - working as their predecessors had worked, under miserable conditions, seven days a week, for very little money.

The arrival of new immigrants outstripped the ability of the tongs to regulate trade and settle disputes, and as more and more young Chinese arrived in the city, the old-timers' hold on their neighborhood began to erode. The waning of tradition, combined with hard economic times and the passing of generations of elders, contributed to a rise in crime during the 1950s and "˜60s.

Now the tongs - which, occasional internal battles notwithstanding, had been more or less benevolent until then - became less concerned with cultural preservation and community oversight and became more like street gangs. Drugs, guns, and protection rackets soon were all too common motifs in the daily fabric of life and the neighborhood's insularity just compounded its problems.

By the 1980s, Chinatown was a maze of crowded, crumbling 19th century tenement buildings, run-down noodle shops, and floundering businesses - hardly a hot destination for tourists or anyone else not living or working there. New construction in the area was at a standstill, and the divided and subdivided residential buildings were under the control of independent landlords - many of whom only rented space to incoming workers and accepted only cash for rent, without offering tenants the benefits or security of an official lease.

(Re)Enter the Dragon

Things began to change, however, as the economic doldrums of the 1970s and early "˜80s gave way to the halcyon days of the 1990s. Suddenly, Downtown was the gritty-but-glamorous place to live, and hip young professionals who'd either overflowed or been priced out of neighboring NoLIta, TriBeCa, and SoHo turned an eye to the hive of activity below Canal Street. Chinatown's Blade Runner ambience and still-exotic charm reinforced its appeal, and soon the media was reporting on friction and acrimony between lifelong Asian residents and newcomers with money to burn. Rental landlords tempted by the prospect of charging sky-high market rents for walk-up tenement apartments began attempting to oust rent-controlled tenants who in many cases had occupied their homes for two or three generations.

Despite some new construction, Chinatown has remained a largely rental neighborhood, with most buildings being owned and managed by independent Asian landlords and occupied by immigrants and their descendents. In the last decade or so, as neighborhoods like SoHo and TriBeCa have seen market prices go into the stratosphere, Chinatown has only become more desirable, which is both a boon and a burden to the area. Since the terror attacks of 2001, the neighborhood has been struggling to resuscitate businesses hit hard by the event, as questions were raised about the environmental safety of the area and daytime foot traffic was all but decimated in Lower Manhattan.

According to Lentol, "The neighborhood was definitely affected [by 9-11]"¦because Chinatown was always well known for its lunch crowds. People who worked down there would go along East Broadway on their lunch hour because of all the good Chinese restaurants right over by the courthouse."

And, adds Lentol, the second blow to business occurred earlier this year with the worldwide outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus. Fears that SARS would infect the New York area via someone arriving from China or Hong Kong made Chinatown a ghost town once again. "The one thing I would say that's hurt [Chinatown] since 9-11 have been the rumors of SARS, because people misunderstood what SARS was and stayed away."

While fears over SARS have abated, new concerns about the post 9-11 air quality in Lower Manhattan - and the possibility that it might have been far more compromised than anyone had been led to believe - have been raised. "Environmentally, the area was very impacted - with dust settling and so forth - so there are still some health concerns," Lentol says.

While market prices for apartments climb upward, other industries like textile production continue their slow decline. Tourism continues to be a large source of income for Chinatown business owners, though a drop in tourist dollars citywide has definitely been felt south of Canal Street. "I think it's recovering, though," Lentol continues. "The neighborhood seems very busy, and the people there have been very proactive."

Branching Out

Unlike many Manhattan neighborhoods that have witnessed hundreds of rental buildings convert to co-ops and condos in the last few decades, Chinatown has largely held onto its rental character. "There's a lot of rentals," says Lentol, "but there are also a lot of people looking to purchase - a lot of cash buyers. It's not that it's turning into co-op and condo, it's that a lot of people want to put their money back into the area. I've had several buyers who wanted to purchase income-producing buildings. Business owners and renters are definitely reinvesting."

The dearth of co-ops and condos in Chinatown can also be attributed to the fact that it's a working community for generations of immigrants, according to Lentol. "Many people who live in the area also work there. There are a lot of rent-stabilized and rent-controlled buildings, which encourages renting [over buying]. Also, those types of apartments can be passed along to family members. If somebody passes a rent-controlled apartment along to a family member, it's going to stay rent-controlled, and they'll stay there forever. They might go buy another income-producing building, but they're going to stay in the neighborhood. That makes the neighborhood what it is."

That's not to say that Chinatown is a co-op and condo-free zone by any means. The city's near-perpetually robust real estate market has encouraged a few developers to build brand-new buildings on the borders of the neighborhood. For example, says Lentol, "There's one that's just been completed on Essex Street - a very, very nice condo loft building. It's luxury, and starts at $825,000 and goes up to $2.2 million. The highest one is $2,275,000 and that's 2,604 square feet. Mandarin Plaza, which is at 376 Broadway, is the primary condo building in the neighborhood, and you also have the Ice House on Broome Street. A lot of people who live in the neighborhood have purchased apartments in those buildings because they're condos and can then be rented out. So in a roundabout way, it's still a rental neighborhood."

Chinatown in the 21st Century

Throughout its history, New York City's Chinatown has stood alongside, yet apart from, the rest of the metropolis, closely guarding its traditions and culture and serving as an entry point for millions of people in search of a piece of the American dream. As time has gone on, other concentrations of Chinese immigrants have sprung up in Queens and Brooklyn, but the oldest Chinatown in Lower Manhattan remains the iconic original. "I think it's a culture that's ingrained in Lower Manhattan," says Lentol, "and that's a good thing. Everybody has their piece of Manhattan, and that's the way it's been throughout the city's history. People immigrate in and take over certain parts, and then in a few years, it changes. I think now, people have businesses in Chinatown for the sake of the business; they come to New York to start a business in Chinatown, or they come to make their money so they can then purchase an income-producing property in Chinatown. They're capitalists - Chinatown won't fade away, because it makes money."

Time will tell whether or not the neighborhood can hold onto its unique identity in an era of towering expenses, changing politics, and uncertain economics - but for now, Chinatown's history speaks for itself: over a century of largely self-sustained growth and stability against formidable odds in a sometimes-hostile city. It would seem that the dragon is indeed lucky.

Hannah Fons is Associate Editor of The Cooperator.

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