Chinatown Falls on Hard Times

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Much of the Jewish Lower East Side has been lost over time replaced by new immigrants from other parts of the world, particularly China. Those seeking their fortunes in Manhattan's Chinatown are in for a surprise -- Chinatown has fallen on hard times. Its economy has not bounced back since the street closures caused by the collapse of the World Trade Towers on 9-11, but other factors have contributed to the downturn, too. Reporter Wilma Consul takes a look, and asks what's ahead for the neighborhood that was once an important immigrant enclave in the City.

REPORTER: Wiggling through the crowd of tourists and shoppers on Chinatown's main drag, Canal Street, the smell of fresh fish and cigarette smoke waft through the air. It's not immediately obvious that this neighborhood is still struggling.

But veer off to Mott Street, where many old timers say Chinatown began, and you'll hear a different story.

PAUL LEE: So we're standing at the old Kam Kuo Supermarket, was here for 30 years at 7-9 Mott Street, and just now it's an empty building.

REPORTER: Paul Lee has witnessed the changes on this street. He ran the family business, the 32 Mott Street General Store, until it closed in 2004, after 113 years in business.

LEE: In addition, let's see, 12 Mott was an import-export store. They were doing well before 9-11. They've closed and moved away since then. - And now, it's a hair salon. But it was empty for a good 6 months to a year. Just at the corner, there was a 30- to 40-year-old dim sum, coffee shop. They closed about 3 days ago.

REPORTER: Closures have been widespread in Chinatown. The thousands who used to walk up from the World Trade Center area and fill the restaurants at lunchtime have dwindled.

Park Row, also a major artery to Chinatown, had been closed for security reasons. There is still only restricted access because of its proximity to Police Headquarters.

It's easy to blame September 11th for Chinatown's ailing economy. But according to Peter Kwong, professor at Hunter College and author of numerous books on Chinese Americans, Chinatown's slump did not start then.

PETER KWONG: 9-11 exposed something that's already decaying and rotting. Sure it make it worse, but it did not cause Chinatown's economic problems.

REPORTER: The reasons are more complex. Kwong points to the garment factories that, at one time, supplied up to 20,000 customers daily to the small steamy restaurants and tiny storefront shops. High rents forced the garment business out to the outer boroughs.

It takes only 20 minutes from Mott Street to get to 8th Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn via a mini-van - it's a transportation alternative that only Chinese people seem to know about.

Sunset Park is where some of those garment factories set up shop. 61st street is lined with warehouse buildings. Something written in Chinese gets Kwong's attention.

KWONG: This is a sign written on red cloth. It says: looking for somebody who is experienced in sewing. Those who are interested, please call, and it gives the number, asking for Mr. Tan.

A man hauls a cart loaded with floral nighties down the sidewalk.

KWONG: (asking guy in Chinese) He says everything inside which we can not see is all garment factories. Some of the trucks out are for shipping the garments.

Kwong says most of the Chinese in Brooklyn have moved to areas near subway lines that connect to Manhattan's Chinatown - the N, R and Q trains. And when an area gets crowded and real estate prices go up, people go farther out. This is happening now in Sunset Park, where tiny residential buildings go for more than a million. Old buildings are being torn down and turned into luxury condos.

So Chinese here are moving about five miles away to Avenue U. It's being touted as the new Chinatown. The Century 21 Realty on East 15th and Avenue U posts classified ads for two-bedroom condos priced at 425-thousand dollars.

KWONG: The ads are all in Chinese. Mr. Andrew Gun is the manager. But you can see in this office, there are Russians as well as Chinese. They are selling real estate to Chinese as well as Russian immigrants.

Avenue U has not exactly attained full Chinatown status. On one block, you can see a Chinese bakery next to a pizzeria, around the corner from a Latino store.

Kwong says it will take a few more years before Avenue U reaches the vitality of New York's most active and largest Chinese hub: Flushing, Queens.

The number 7 train and the Long Island Rail Road will get you to the heart of Flushing.

WELLINGTON CHEN: We're on Main Street. And we just came out of the subway station.

REPORTER: Wellington Chen is the perfect guide to this city within the city. The 53-year-old architect helped develop Flushing into a haven of hip Asian restaurants and lucrative businesses.

CHEN: This is the main thoroughfare for the town. You see, we're on a flight path to the La Guardia Airport. So you're asking how tall can a building be? They can never exceed certain flight path heights. So the closer you get to the runway, there's a limitation on how high you can go.

REPORTER: A grocer closing for the day calls out sale prices, and a vendor's television blasts a Chinese variety show.

Passers-by stop to watch.

CHEN: It's comedy, in Mandarin. As u can see, it's a man dressed in a bikini outfit so you know it has to be a comedy.

REPORTER: This Queens Chinatown resembles parts of Hong Kong and Taiwan, where most of the 140-thousand Chinese immigrants in Queens came from. This middle class community elected the first Chinese member of the New York City Council, John Lui.

As the revitalization efforts of Manhattan's Chinatown move forward, many people wonder if the goal is to replicate what's been built in Flushing. Especially since Wellington Chen is the new director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation.

CHEN: This is not what I'm trying to do for Chinatown at all. The two of them are totally different. I agreed to go down there to level the playing field, because I see the growth here. And there'll be four billion dollars invested in this neighborhood, do you think there'll be a billion dollar invested in Chinatown? No way. (CONSUL: Why not?) - The incomes are poor, the educational levels are far lower, profit margins are marginal. But there's the vitality. So there's the struggle.

REPORTER: Chen bristles at the implications that he would gentrify Chinatown because he's viewed as a developer. He points out that he spent 13 years volunteering on community boards.

Chen says he's driven to champion the needs of the voiceless because of his lineage. The son of nurse and a U.S. Army translator during World War II, Chen lived in Singapore, Brazil and South Africa, countries where he saw the disparity between the rich and poor. Chen says his Chinese name defines who he ought to be.

CHEN: You know what my Chinese name is? Cho chow, the linkage. It's heavy responsibility. But it's blessed responsibility. And that's what I'm about.

REPORTER: And that background may serve Chen very well as he tries to balance all the competing visions for what Manhattan's Chinatown could be.

Historian Peter Kwong has his own.

If you want to make Chinatown prosperous, which means attracting non-Chinese, then, you're talking about a different kind of Chinatown. But don't use the term rebuilding Chinatown. That's a phony slogan, alright. Because rebuilding Chinatown means building the people who originally lived here. That's something different.

REPORTER: But the old Chinatown that catered to the first Chinese immigrants, the Cantonese has already given way. Stroll down East Broadway, right under the Manhattan Bridge, and you'll get a glimpse of the new Chinatown -- one that bustles with everything Fujianese.

KWONG: "This street is always busy. This is not a street that needs to be talking about rebuilding. Here, everything is still purely for Chinese. And the signs are all in Chinese practically.

REPORTER: Kwong says this newest group of immigrants has created a vibrant business sector that serves the needs of Chinese businesses everywhere.

KWONG: People will call all over the country, and say: Hey, you know I need three restaurant help. Could you send them over? It's almost like day laborer situation. They go all the way as south as Georgia, north as Maine and west as Chicago. So this is the heart of cheap labor supply.

REPORTER: This demand prompted the creation of the now very popular low-priced Chinatown buses. They transport Chinese speaking workers to their destinations without getting lost.

New York's Chinatown was once the center of Chinese life and culture in the City. Today, the need to go there for fresh bamboo shoots or fine Chinese cuisine is no longer true. Other immigrants from Asia have formed their own enclaves where they can eat their food and buy Asian ingredients.

A good place to contemplate what the new Chinatown could be is at the Silk Road Place, a cafe-slash-art house, packed with young people, Chinese and non-Chinese. A Lower East Side vegetarian restaurant has a concession here.

On stage is singer/songwriter Kevin So.

Friday night is TeaBag time, an open mic event founded by Telly Wong. He's a Chinatown kid who still lives in the neighborhood.

TELLY WONG: I think the future of Chinatown lies in collaborations with China and HongKong. Chinese have always been into import/export. The Chinese traveling around the world now. They would like to be in neighborhoods they feel comfortable. Chinatown has a lot of history, homeland.

REPORTER: The new face of Chinatown is really a continuing thread of the New York experience. Change is also happening in Harlem, Hell's Kitchen, Williamsburg, Park Slope, and soon, the Bronx.

But even if the real estate market transforms the look and lifestyle of this century-old neighborhood, Margaret Chin of Asian Americans for Equality vows to keep affordable housing part of the development.

MARGARET CHIN: We'll make sure that government gets involved and that whatever development happens will be balanced. Chinatown is not gonna disappear.

REPORTER: Activists like her and longtime residents in Chinatown say they'll continue to provide support and a sense of belonging to new immigrants because that is the core of New York's Chinatown.

For WNYC, I'm Wilma Consul.