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How Chinatown survived the homogenization of Manhattan

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With Tribeca to the west and Soho and the Financial District to the north and south, Manhattan's Chinatown has to swab the proverbial drool of hungry real estate developers and the entrepreneurial moneyed elite off of itself. The working-class ethnic enclave has held its own as Manhattan's been cooked into the expensive real estate capital of the world. Despite the monetary value tied up in the neighborhood's real estate, it will never——at least not for the foreseeable future——give into the homogenization that has happened throughout the rest of Manhattan.

"Some rich Chinese don't stand beside the poor ones, and many nonprofits are not against high-rises at all," preeminent Chinatown scholar and Hunter College professor Peter Kwong told journalist Nick Tabor whose feature "How Has Chinatown Stayed Chinatown?" appeared in New York Magazine on September 21, "But there are certain forces that congeal to try to protect the community, because Chinatown from the start is a place where immigrants reinvent themselves to survive."

As other Chinatowns throughout the country are, in Tabor's words, "reduced to ethnic theme parks," Manhattan's Chinatown still thrives with Chinese residents and mom-and-pop shops. A lot of different factors contribute to how the community has maintained such a hold on the neighborhood, including a series of active community associations and a pervasive adapt-to-survive mentality. Tabor breaks down just how this neighborhood thrives as an "exceptionally tight-knit and self-sustaining city unto itself."

—Community associations maintain a tight grip on the neighborhood. It's the community associations that snatched up dozens of neighborhood buildings in the 1960s and 1970s. The buildings are owned collectively, meaning that handfuls of people hold shares in them so it takes more than the will of just one person for a building to go to market—which is why they never do. Other active nonprofits like the civil rights group Asian Americans For Equality apply for grants, accept donations, and file for loans in order to purchase other buildings for sale within the neighborhood's core. Residents are also dependent on the groups, which often "function like a village council." "If there was an argument, they didn't come to court. They came to us," Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association head Eric Ng told Tabor.

—Although the city's Chinese community has fanned out to places like Flushing and Sunset Park, the concentration of Chinese specialists in all things from banking and real estate to accountants and doctors keep Manhattan's Chinatown the "essential regional capital" for Chinese immigrants. At that, immigrants keep flocking to Chinatown because there are businesses that help place those in need in jobs and provide services to other Chinese-owned businesses throughout the country.

—Chinatown's restaurant scene is, and has always been, integral to its success. Tabor writes,

Chinatown's restaurant culture established itself more than a century ago, when early generations of Chinese immigrants was working low-wage jobs across the five boroughs. On Sundays and Mondays, they flocked to Chinatown restaurants for a reprieve from the exclusion and racism they felt in the diaspora, according to the historian Jack Tchen, a co-founder of the Museum of Chinese in America. Even before tourists discovered it, the food defined the neighborhood.Some restaurants have adopted an adapt-to-survive mentality. Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, which opened in 1977, have offset durian- and pandan-flavored ice cream with less culturally traditional flavors like pumpkin pie, which has really caught on with neighborhood residents. "[I]t's like a reverse introduction," the store's purveyor told Tabor.

—The gentrification of Chinatown, unlike so many of the city's other neighborhoods, will be steered by the ethnic group that lives in the neighborhood. Some residents are clamoring for a rezoning that would require half of all new apartments to be affordable, limit building heights, and protect small businesses. Others think that the best way to persist is to rally against new development. "Chinatown will always be here," New York City Council Member and Chinatown native Margaret Chin told Tabor. "But it's just a question of what kind of Chinatown we want."

For the full read, head on over to New York Magazine.
How Has Chinatown Stayed Chinatown? [NYM]