Every summer, Wellington Chen, the director of Chinatown’s Business Improvement District, dispatches interns to document all the businesses that have recently opened and closed in his neighborhood. He has noticed an overwhelming number of empty storefronts being filled by independent pharmacies. At the same time, senior and adult day-care centers have been proliferating — starting with a 19,000-square-foot building the city has installed on Centre Street. Chen says it’s a subtle indication of a trend: As so many immigrants’ children have left for college and never returned, and as other families have sought real estate in the outer boroughs (particularly in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and Flushing, Queens), most of the people left in Chinatown’s historic core are the elderly dwellers of rent-regulated apartments.
How can this possibly be the state of one of the most desirable tracts of real estate in all of Manhattan? After all, Chinatown is hedged in by three of the borough’s priciest neighborhoods: Soho to the north, the Financial District to the south, and, to the west, Tribeca, where the monthly cost of a one-bedroom averages $5,100. Developers would eagerly replace Chinatown’s tenement buildings with market-rate housing for young professionals or gut the existing buildings, leaving only the tea parlors and dumpling shacks. A similar fate has already befallen the Chinatowns of Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., which have been reduced to ethnic theme parks where longtime residents have been priced out and new immigrants no longer come. And Manhattan’s Chinatown is built on the graveyards of enclaves past: the Irish Five Points, the Jewish Lower East Side, and Little Italy.
An analysis of how the residents of Chinatown in NYC have managed to keep expensive high rises for young professionals from swallowing their neighborhood, relevant given the gentrification debate happening many other places, including here in San Francisco. Fascinating throughout, with deep lessons about how real estate is captured and passed on from one generation to the next here in America.
Perhaps the lessons here are not transferable, but at the least, it indicates some path dependence on whether and how gentrification occurs.