One of the city’s few remaining neighborhoods for lower-income residents is fighting to preserve a way of life.
On a warm afternoon in August, 20 people gathered a few blocks from the East River between New York City’s iconic Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge. The group was diverse, with a mix of Asian, white, black, and Latinx folks holding signs in English and Mandarin that read, “Stop Displacement,” and, “Oppose discrimination, high rents, and eviction.”
The protest, organized by the Coalition to Protect Chinatown & the Lower East Side, targeted a development of four luxury buildings that would add nearly 3,000 apartments to the area. The demonstrators stood surrounded by public housing complexes, but towering well above all buildings was 847 feet of gleaming glass and steel: One Manhattan Square. In an area where the median family income is about $40,000, its luxury apartments are selling for $1 million to $4 million a piece.
At the rally, Shui Y. Gao, an 82-year-old grandmother, wielded a microphone. She told the crowd in Fujianese, a Chinese language common here, that for the past 30 years, she’s been living nearby in Chinatown in a rent-stabilized apartment. But as her neighborhood has become more expensive, her Chinese landlord has responded by trying to increase her rent and, recently, trying to evict her.
“They are building four mega-towers; it will continue getting worse and push us out. I’m getting so old, where can I move?” she asked, her words translated into English for the crowd by Vincent Cao, an organizer at the rally.
The displacement of the poor by the rich is a familiar story in cities across the nation. But Chinatown and the Lower East Side have been holdouts — the only remaining working-class neighborhoods in Manhattan south of Central Park. Their fight to keep developers at bay has highlighted the fears and struggles of a working-class Asian-American community often ignored in the larger narrative of “model minorities.”
For Gao and other longtime low-income and elderly residents of the neighborhood, the four towers — one already constructed, three scheduled, all within a three-block radius — represent far more than a few tall apartments that will block sky views and increase congestion. They represent a new wave of people whose presence will raise the cost of living in Two Bridges, as well as the larger neighborhoods of Chinatown and the Lower East Side. While residents such as Gao struggle to get management to make basic repairs to their homes, the tenants of One Manhattan Square enjoy luxurious amenities such as a 45,000-square-foot private landscaped garden, a 70-seat movie theater, an adults-only tree house, and a pet spa.
Last month’s rally was the latest event in a protracted community struggle that dates back to 2013. That year, Pathmark, the only affordable grocery store for miles and a beloved fixture in the neighborhood, was demolished to make way for One Manhattan Square. When construction began in earnest two years later, Chinese and Hispanic residents rallied against the “racist development” of the tower, voicing concerns that the presence of luxury buildings will raise rental prices in the area and squeeze out necessities such as grocery stores in favor of expensive shops and restaurants. Already, 23 percent of households in Chinatown and the Lower East Side are classified as “severely rent-burdened,” meaning they spend 50 percent or more of their income on rent, according to data compiled by New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.
Two-thirds of the residents in Chinatown and the Lower East Side are people of color; at 36 percent, Asian Americans are the largest racial subgroup. But Asian Americans were not the initial target market for One Manhattan Square. In 2015, Extell Group launched sales for the tower exclusively overseas, targeting international Asian buyers. But starting in late 2016, foreign investment from China drastically dried up, hitting NYC’s real estate market hard. This sharp drop potentially explains why many of One Manhattan Square’s buyers are domestic, and why Extell Group has been struggling to sell its inventory in the building. The latest details on current buyers are unavailable; press representatives of One Manhattan Square did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Grace Mak, a Cantonese American woman in her 40s, lives in 82 Rutgers Slip, a rent-regulated building adjacent to One Manhattan Square, with her husband and three children. Born in New York City, she grew up in the Two Bridges neighborhood. Her parents worked standard Chinatown jobs of their generation, her father in Chinese restaurants and her mother in garment factories.
Mak’s working-class background is typical for residents of New York City’s Chinese neighborhoods. The first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in NYC during the 1870s and made a living by opening restaurants and laundromats. The community mostly consisted of working-class men because of the Page Act, which was used to keep Chinese women from immigrating; highly restrictive quotas on non-European immigrants, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, limited most people from immigrating to the United States until the laws were repealed in the 1960s.
The new immigration laws opened the doors to “highly skilled” workers who obtained employment visas as well as academics, artists, refugees, and relatives of current residents who sought to be reunified with their families. While “highly skilled” immigrants found work in high-income sectors such as health care or engineering, the latter categories were generally only able to work low-income jobs. New York City, with its plentiful supply of manual labor and service jobs, drew many more working-class Chinese than other American Chinatowns, according to Peter Kwong’s The New Chinatown. By 2017, Asian Americans in New York were found to have the highest poverty rate of all the city’s racial groups.
Mak, unlike many of her peers, has chosen to remain in Two Bridges and raise a family here because of its central location and its feeling of community. “A lot of neighbors are familiar with each other. I have friends who live in the other buildings, and you feel secure when your kids go to the park,” she said. She’s worried that will drastically change when all the towers are built.
The construction on One Manhattan Square, completed this year, has already taken a physical toll on the neighborhood. Mak says that new cracks on the sidewalks and on the walls in her building have appeared out of nowhere since construction began in 2014. In her previous rental unit in the same building, the windows shifted so much that they could no longer be opened, she says.
Although she has been involved in community protests of Extell’s development, she says she doesn’t hold any personal “aggression” against the new tenants of One Manhattan Square. “They are making their home too,” she said. “It’s not the tenants we’re against, it’s the developers who think they can do anything here and skirt the rules.”
The rules Mak referred to are at the heart of some residents’ battles with the Two Bridges developers. The luxury tower developers have already been sued for bypassing the standard community land review process; a judge has recently ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, which has paused construction on the next three buildings. Extell also promised to build by 2018 an affordable grocery store to replace the bulldozed Pathmark, but it has yet to do so.
Among its other concessions to the neighborhood, Extell built an affordable housing building with 204 units nearby, targeted toward residents who make 60 percent of New York’s area median income (the tower, meanwhile, has 815). But organizers argue that affordable units should make up a higher percentage of the new buildings’ available units, and that the median income formula is faulty because it uses income data from all of New York City and affluent suburbs such as Westchester. In fact, Chinatown and the Lower East Side’s median family income is 35 percent lower than New York City’s median, and its poverty level is basically 10 percentage points higher.
Although most Asian Americans who spoke with Vox largely opposed the luxury developments, others were tentatively supportive. A middle-aged woman who stopped by last month’s protest and asked that only Mrs. Tan, and not her full name, be used, said that while she hadn’t made up her mind, she was leaning in favor of the luxury buildings. She lives near One Manhattan Square with her husband in a house that she bought in 1989.
“I hope this neighborhood will become safer. I don’t discriminate against anyone; I had to work really hard to be able to afford to buy my house,” she said, adding that if her property taxes and cost of living increased beyond her means, she would simply move out.
The contrast that Mrs. Tan and Mrs. Mak illuminate between wealthy and poor Asians has only widened in recent years. Asian Americans are now the most economically divided racial group in the United States; those in the top 10 percent of income distribution earn 10.7 times more than those in the bottom 10 percent. In his book, Kwong describes the city’s Chinatown economy as “divided into a small elite who own large enterprises and a working class who are exploited.”
“There are so many different types of Chinese,” Cao, an organizer with Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association (CSWA) who helped organize the August rally, said.
A week after the Extell Tower protest, another rally was held outside of a Chinese landlord office on Canal Street in Chinatown. The tenants who turned out to protest were almost all Chinese Chinatown residents, with the exception of a few Latinx tenants who lived in Brooklyn.
Shui Y. Gao, the grandmother who spoke at the Extell protest, gave another speech, this time about how her landlord tried to evict her and threatened to throw her belongings out unless she moved out of her apartment. Mrs. Gao’s story isn’t unusual; Chinese tenants report facing harassment at the landlord’s office whenever they visit to pay rent.
At the rally, Gao held a simple poster that read: 反对华人业主逼迁华人. Translated: Oppose Chinese landlords who evict Chinese people.
But Gao’s sign doesn’t tell the whole story of displacement in Chinatown and the Lower East Side. For one, many of the folks involved in local protests are black and (non-white) Latinx, who make up a total of 24 percent of the area’s population. Even more important, landlords and developers do not operate in a void. New York City, like many other cities, is incentivized to promote the growth of property values because it depends heavily on property taxes for government revenue.
Local organizers point to 2008 as a key turning point. It was the year that the city government passed a rezoning plan for the East Village to minimize gentrification but rejected a similar plan for Chinatown and the Lower East Side, whose residents are predominantly people of color. Afterward, developers began turning their attention southward from the East Village toward Chinatown and Lower East Side.
Tarry Lum, chair of urban studies at Queens College, City University of New York, dates the changes even earlier, to September 11. In the aftermath of 9/11, some in the community successfully sought to turn Chinatown into a “business improvement district,” which emphasized street cleaning and attracting tourism and visitors, despite the protests of property owners in the neighborhood.
Manni Lee, 46, who lives one block east of One Manhattan Square, grew up with Mak. She and her husband and two children live in a rent-regulated, two-bedroom unit in a building called Lands End One. She says their landlords are renovating their building by adding amenities, such as a rooftop garden, to attract young, wealthy tenants. But Lee says that they are not upgrading rent-regulated apartment units like hers, explaining that when she notified the building about leakage in her unit caused by the construction, they only offered to repaint the ceiling.
“I’ve been praying to God: Help me not meet any neighbors from Extell, because I’m going to have automatic hate and I don’t want to feel that,” she said. “They have every right to purchase, but I don’t want to be put in this position where I have these personal feelings.”
Sarah Ngu is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and has written for Vice, South China Morning Post, Jacobin, and Splinter News.
Translation help provided by Jin Ting Ye.
Author: Sarah Ngu