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By the 1980s, it had surpassed San Francisco Chinatown to become the largest enclave of Chinese immigrants in the Western hemisphere, but in the last few years it too has been outgrown by the lesser-known but larger community in nearby Flushing, Queens, New York.
Chinatown started on Mott, Park, Pell and Doyer streets. By 1870, there was a Chinese population of 200. By the time the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed, the population was up to 2000 residents. By 1900, there were 7000 Chinese residents, but less than 200 Chinese women.
The early days of Chinatown were dominated by Chinese associations, which were a mixture of family associations, political alliances (Kuomintang vs Communist Party of China) and more secretly, crime syndicates. The associations started to give protection from harassment due to anti-Chinese racism. Each of these associations was aligned with a street gang. These associations were a source of assistance to new immigrants - giving out loans, aiding in starting business.
The associations (or more colloquially Tongs 堂) formed a governing body named the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. Though this body was meant to foster relations between the Tongs, open warfare periodically flared between the On Leong and Hip Sing tongs. Much of the Chinese gang warfare took place on Doyer street. Gangs like the Ghost Shadows and Flying Dragons were prevalent until the 1980s.
The only park in Chinatown, Columbus Park, was built on what was the center of the infamous Five Points neighborhood of New York. During the 19th century, this was the most dangerous slum area of immigrant New York (as portrayed in the movie Gangs of New York).
Much of Chinatown works in an underground economy, where wages are below the mandated minimum wage and transactions are done in cash to avoid paying taxes. This underground economy is responsible for employment of large numbers of new immigrants who lacked the language skills to seek better jobs. This system attracted the garment industry to use large-scale sweatshops in the Chinatown area. Tourism and Restaurants are also major industries.
Chinese green groceries and fish mongers are clustered around Mulberry Street, Canal Street (by Baxter Street) and all along East Broadway (especially by Catherine Street). The Chinese Jewelry shop district is on Canal Street between Mott and Bowery. Due to the high savings rate among Chinese, there are many Asian and American banks in the neighborhood. Canal Street, west of Broadway (especially on the North side), is filled with Chinese street vendors selling imitation perfumes, watches and hand-bags. This section of Canal Street, was previously the home of warehouse stores selling surplus/salvage electronics and hardware.
Until the 1970s, the traditional borders of Chinatown were:
- Canal Street in the North (bordering Little Italy)
- Bowery Street in the East (bordering the Lower East Side)
- Worth Street in the South
- Baxter Street in the West
Within this area, most tourists only see the older center of Chinatown, the intersections of Canal Street with Mott and Mulberry streets; the intersection of Pell and Doyers Streets.
In the years after the United States reformulated its immigration laws in 1965, allowing many more immigrants from Asia into the country, the population of Chinatown exploded. Geographically, much of the growth was to neighborhoods to the North.
In the 1970s, Little Italy was absorbed. The only true remaining remnant of that ethnic enclave is Mulberry Street north of Canal. The section known as NoLIta is starting to be filled with Chinese residents as well.
A gigantic federally subsidized housing project, named Confucius Plaza was completed on the corner of Bowery and Divison streets in 1976. This 44 story residential tower gave much needed new housing stock to thousands of residents. The building also housed a new public grade school. Since new housing is normally non-existent in Chinatown, many apartments in the building were acquired by wealthy individuals through under-the-table dealings, even though the building was built for subsidized housing.
In the 1990s, Chinese people began to move into some parts of the western Lower East Side, which 50 years earlier was populated by Eastern European Jews and 20 years earlier was occupied by Hispanics. There are today only a few remnants of Jewish heritage left on the Lower East Side, such as the famous Katz's Deli.
Currently, the approximate borders of Chinatown are:
- Delancey Street in the North (bordering the East Village and Soho sections of NYC)
- East Broadway in the East (stopping at the Williamsburg Bridge)
- Broadway in the West (encroaching the Tribeca sections of NYC)
- Chambers Street in the South (encroaching the City Hall area)
It is an area of approximately one mile in the North-South direction of Manhattan Island by two miles in the East-West direction of the island.
Unlike most of other urban Chinatowns, New York Chinatown is both a residential area as well as commercial area. Most population estimates are in the range of 150,000 to 250,000 residents (some estimates go as high as 350,000 residents). It is difficult to get an exact count due to low participation of the US Census (due to language barriers as well as large scale illegal immigration). Besides the obvious 200 (some estimates go as high as 300) Chinese restaurants in the area for employment, there are still some sweat shops. The proximity of the fashion industry has kept some garment work in the local area though most of the garment industry has moved to China. The local garment industry now concentrates on quick production in small volumes and piece-work (paid by the piece) which is generally done at the worker's home. Much of the population growth is due to immigration. As previous generations of immigrants gain language and education skills, they tend to move to better housing and job prospects that are available in the suburbs and outer boroughs of New York.
Even as we head into the 21st century, the housing stock of Chinatown is still mostly composed of decrepit and cramped tenement buildings, some of which are over 100 years old. It is still common in such buildings to have bathrooms in the hallways which are shared among multiple apartments.
For much of Chinatown's history, there were not many unique architectural features to announce that you had arrived into the neighborhood (other than the language of the shop signs). In 1962, at Chatham Square the Kam Lau memorial archway was erected in memorial of the Chinese-Americans who died in World War II. This memorial is mostly ignored by the residents due to its poor location on a busy car thoroughfare with little pedestrian traffic. A statue of Lin Zexu, a Chinese official who opposed the opium trade, is also located at the square. In the 1970s, the local phone company started capping the street phone booths with pagoda-like decorations. In 1976, the statue of Confucius in front of Confucius Plaza became a common meeting place. In the 1980s, banks which opened new branches and others which were renovating started to use Chinese traditional styles for their building facades.
It is felt by some that the best Chinese restaurants in NYC now reside in the satellite Chinatown area of Flushing, New York.
Chinatown was greatly affected by the September 11, 2001 attacks. Being so physically close to Ground Zero, tourism and business has been very slow to return to the area. Part of the reason being the NYPD closure of Park Row--one of two major roads linking the Financial Center with Chinatown. A lawsuit is pending before the State Superior Court regarding this action.
Other New York City area Chinese communities have been settled over the years, including of Flushing in Queens, New York, which in recent years has actually surpassed the community in Lower Manhattan, and parts of Brooklyn, particularly Sunset Park. Outside of New York City proper, a growing suburban Chinatown is developing in suburban Edison, New Jersey, which lies 30 miles to the southeast.
- Shuang Wen School - a dual-language elementary school on the Lower East Side.
- Chinatowns in North America
- Constructing New York's Chinatown: The Urban Development of a Neighbourhood
- CHINATOWN - the last foreign country in New York City
- NYC Chinatown-online
- photo tour of NYC Chinatown
- A Journey through Chinatown
- Chinatown: A Neighborhood Plan
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