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Chinatown Resistance: The Struggle Against Rezoning and Gentrification in Lower Manhattan

Photos of Chinatown by Michael Short.
Photos of Chinatown by Michael Short.

On November 9, 2008, the Chinese Staff and Workers Association held a meeting in anticipation of the final City Council hearing on the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning plan. Organizer Wah Lee stood before a tightly squeezed audience of workers affiliated with the organization and members of New York’s Chinese-language press. She denounced the city for its failure to provide translators and perform outreach to the Chinese community in developing the plan, which will likely push and price low-income residents—many of them Chinese—out of their neighborhood if it is passed.

Another, smaller group of Chinatown residents—this time affiliated with the Chinatown Tenants Union—gathered at the offices of Community Board 3 on January 18 for a separate public meeting. They expressed their anger at the city for placing an initially promised community space around Rutgers Slip in Chinatown on hold in their East River waterfront development project. The city—citing the financial crisis­—decided to build a park and “revenue-generating spaces.” The community space was meant to serve low-income Chinese, Latino, and Black residents, and the CTU was firm in their anger and disappointment. The community had been planning these spaces for so long, said Zhi-qin Zheng, a long-time Chinatown resident, and the lovely rhetoric of the city’s representative at the meeting could not change this fact.

The rezoning plan was ultimately adopted at the end of 2008; the gentrification of Chinatown continues. Yet both groups continue to organize for the right to shape their neighborhood.

Esther Wang, an organizer with the CTU, explains what happened at 81 Bowery when the city evicted all its residents over landlord safety violations (the bulk of the organization’s work is fighting tenant harassment and evictions in individual Chinatown buildings). The residents were almost made homeless because the city initially refused to provide them with alternative housing. The landlord lagged on repairs, the city didn’t pressure him, and once the work was completed, he was reluctant to allow the tenants back into their apartments. A few years before, the landlord attempted to evict all the tenants in the building so he could charge new occupants higher rent, but was unsuccessful. Now that this has happened through other means, the CTU is working with the residents for their right to return home.

The city’s actions could be seen as benign but evictions like these have become a constant occurrence in Chinatown. Most of the evicted tenants cannot afford the increased rents to return home, and generally, rising rents in the area are displacing Chinatown’s low-income residents in hordes. Allowing landlords who fail safety inspections to evict tenants without at the same time guaranteeing affordable housing means that the city is pushing these low-income tenants out of their neighborhood.

The CTU thus sees their work as targeting these broader concerns in the neighborhood. “Because our work is about protecting tenants, fighting displacement and fighting gentrification, we really connect our building organizing to the bigger development issues, the things that are leading to a lot of evictions,” says Wang. “We point to the commercial development the city has planned for the waterfront, the things already happening in the area—the small businesses closing down, rumors of the Pathmark being sold for private development, discussions around the privatization of public housing in the area—and connect all those issues to what’s happening in individual people’s homes.”

That is also why the CSWA, though primarily a labor-oriented organization, has devoted so much energy to their anti-gentrification campaign. The rezoning plan they fought against will push commercial and luxury development into their neighborhood, pricing workers out, yet the same employers that exploited Chinese workers for greater profit—withholding pay and forcing them to work under inhumane conditions—also own prime Chinatown real estate. The fruits of workers’ exploitation would subsequently be used to cash in on the rezoning plan, explains Mika Nagasaki, an organizer with the CSWA. In a 2008 campaign against the owner of the restaurant Grand Harmony, who paid employees well below minimum wage and stole their tips, the CSWA discovered that he intended to use profits from the restaurant to build an 18-story hotel on Bowery and Hester. Incidentally, it was also through investigating the Grand Harmony matter—and not through city outreach—that the CSWA first found out about the rezoning plan.

David Tieu, also of the CSWA, describes what happened next: “People began to realize that it’s not enough just to fight in the workplace, for small economic gains, but to see how the economic struggle connects to the struggles of the community, to fight for greater control of what’s going on.”

Peter Kwong, author of the book Forbidden Workers, explains that gentrification in Chinatown should be seen as a continuation of Black and Hispanic displacement from the East Village in the 1980s. The same forces that transformed the East Village into a young, white professional neighborhood moved southward to the Hispanic Lower East Side and have been slowly edging into Chinatown. The waning garment industry, which employed many Chinese workers, and the rising cost of real estate meant that many low-income residents could no longer afford to stay. They began moving to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and Flushing, Queens. “Chinatown and the LES became the last frontier,” he says.

Real estate developers, who were mostly white, worked with the friendly Bloomberg administration to pressure community boards into easing development laws in poor and working-class neighborhoods. “Race was a factor in targeting the community,” Kwong says—just as the CSWA now claims that the rezoning plan is racist, leaving out most of Chinatown and then shifting development pressures from the wealthy, white areas to communities of color.

It is hard to ignore, however, the fact that many of the developers today are Chinese, backed with overseas Chinese capital, while many of the neighborhood’s newer, wealthier residents are second-generation Chinese moving back to their community. Rife with class divisions, Chinatown undergoes development and gentrification in contradictory forms, with both the CTU and CSWA allied with other low-income communities in cross-racial coalitions. Meanwhile, some members of the Chinese community welcome gentrification, since it allows them middle- or upper-class comfort within their own neighborhood.

Perhaps this makes organizing more difficult, but it also requires the CTU and CSWA to be more precise about their motives and aims. “Part of our work is to educate people about the contradictions that happen when a neighborhood gentrifies,” says Wang. “Maybe your neighborhood improves, but who gets forced out as a result, and how do these changes happen? Why were the old tenants allowed to continue living in such bad conditions? And why do these improvements only happen once they’re forced to move out?”

She continues: “Wealthier Chinese residents moving into Chinatown—you can understand that! They’re people that have ‘made it’ but still want to be in their communities and shop in the same stores, and that’s totally normal and expected.”

To be against gentrification is not then to be against development itself—a distinction many organizers and scholars on gentrification have been careful to make. Instead, they ask: for whom are these changes happening, and through what means? Who has a say in shaping the community, and who has participated in the planning process?

For Wang, the answer here is that, “Chinatown should be a space where low-income residents can still afford to live.”

Jerry Weng became involved with the CSWA over a year ago when he was working at Ollie’s on 44th and Broadway, making $350 a month working 68 hours a week and subject to verbal abuse by his bosses. After hearing that the Saigon Grill employees had protested against their own mistreatment, he and his fellow Ollie’s workers began to organize, finally culminating in a lawsuit, the result of which forced their employer to comply with labor laws. The restaurant has since closed, but he continues to organize with the CSWA, mostly now with their campaign against a planned rezoning in Sunset Park—Brooklyn’s Chinatown—where he now lives.

He remarks on how he went from organizing restaurant workers to organizing with the anti-displacement campaign: “We don’t just work in the community. Some of us also live here too—both are parts of our lives. If our living situations are impacted then this will have a direct effect on our incomes too; it will impact the other things we need to survive. The workplace is an important aspect of this, but so are the place and the way that we live.” It’s about how your spirits are when you finish work, he explains, how you feel when you come home, and how you live.

Tom Angotti, author of the book New York for Sale, spoke last year at Bluestockings bookstore about how people needed to engage in their own community planning. He said that unlike urban planners, who were taught to think about land in square feet and as commodities to be bought and sold, the people he had worked with in communities thought about land in multi-dimensional ways. For us, he said, the neighborhood is an essential part of our lives: where we associate with one another, develop relations with one another, trade, do business, and have a street life. “People’s lives are integrated and they understand that everything is integrated,” he explained.

To this end, the CTU has been working on ways to engage the community in community planning. Although the community space in the proposed rezoning has been placed on hold, they are still trying to bring residents together to put together their own alternative vision for waterfront development. Last summer, they collected over 800 responses in a survey asking Chinatown residents their concerns about development in their neighborhood. The CTU will use this information to direct their own discussion and planning sessions to develop a community-based plan, which they can advocate for with the city.

Yet while community members forge their own visions of what they want their neighborhood to be, they continue to be faced with rising costs, evictions, and the closure of places where they work and shop. All of these factors need to be in place if the campaign is to be successful at all.

“This is really about reclaiming the waterfront space as Chinatown, as our community and space,” says Wang. “That’s why we need to say what we want and then fight for it.”


Audrea Lim


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

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