Five Years After 9/11, Community Still Reeling
By Mike McPhate
Paul Lee is a broken man. It was on his watch that his family's legacy crumbled, and with it a little piece of New York heritage.
Lee ran the Quong Yuen Shing & Company General Store, opened by his grandfather in 1891 on Mott Street. The store would become the heart of Chinatown, selling herbs, silk brocades, dry goods, porcelain and serving as a mail drop for new immigrants.
For 112 years the business endured, passing ownership between generations. Then the World Trade Center towers fell and with them Chinatown’s economy. Lee held on for two years before going bankrupt, he said. Asked to recount the shop's past, his eyes clenched behind his glasses. "Why not just twist a knife in my back?" he asked.
Five years after 9/11, Chinatown’s economy is still reeling, with at least eight businesses closing in recent months. Community leaders worry about what will happen to the immigrant community of 56,000 in the years to come.
“We’re at this funny point where there’s lots of tugging and pulling and pushing,” said David Eng, with the non-profit Chinatown Partnership. “It is true that if we don’t do something the neighborhood could disappear.”
Cash-strapped businesses continue to flee the neighborhood. Along the three-block strip of Mott Street, south of Canal, at least 30 business owners have been forced to sell off, according to a survey by a local community board member. Closures this summer have included the New Eastern Villa Restaurant, Sweet-N-Tart Restaurant, two pharmacies, and four kiosks that shared 49 Mott St.
Three factors feed the exodus, say locals. Relief grants to Chinatown businesses paled in comparison to neighboring areas like Soho and Tribeca. Heightened security measures, like the closing of the tourist artery Park Row, spurred by Chinatown’s proximity to a cluster of government buildings, have strangled the flow of foot traffic. And real estate prices have soared as the surrounding area gentrifies.
“The old Chinatown will not be able to stay," said Spencer Chan, the former owner of Sweet-N-Tart, which closed in July after the landlord decided to renovate the building in hope of raising the rent. "I think after 7 or ten years Chinatown will change into something else."
Chinatown has long been defined by its workaday character as well as cheap food, goods and services. With the shuttering of many of the old, low-profit-margin businesses many worry the neighborhood will begin to cater to an exclusively upscale clientele.
The question on many minds is, "Do you want Chinatown to be like the Upper East Side?" said Bonnie Wong, president of the lobbying group Asian Women in Business.
As condos take over former garment factories, and new banks and professional offices open in place of vacant restaurants, many of the neighborhood's 33,000 workers, a quarter of whom lost jobs after 9/11, have already begun to flee to newer immigrant enclaves in Flushing and Brooklyn's Chinatown.
In order to attract the tourists that could help prop up small businesses, local leaders say the city must address shortcomings that existed long before 9/11. The curbs are scattered with garbage, streets and sidewalks are crooked and potholed, and lighting is poor.
Groups like the community-based Rebuild Chinatown Initiative and the city-funded Chinatown Partnership have begun in recent years to address those problems. A visitor kiosk was erected; new green trash cans were placed along sidewalks. In the works are a heritage trail through the neighborhood and a series of events including an arts and film festival next month followed by the annual Taste of Chinatown festival in October.
Robert Webber, director of the Chinatown Partnership, said he believes the community can be rescued but added “it's still gonna take a lot of work."
Some are preparing to bid farewell to the old Chinatown, however. Charles Lai, who directed a Chinatown relief program for the Asian American Federation of New York, said the changes in the community are part of those sweeping all of Lower Manhattan. “Whether one calls it gentrification or development, change is not necessarily a bad thing,” he said. "We can't simply be nostalgic and hope that life will never change, you know. That's not possible."
Ousted business owners like Paul Lee take little comfort in such appeals to progress. Lee sat recently on a wooden bench across the street from his old store, which has been renamed Good Fortune Gifts. Two years after 9/11, he said, he failed for months to make his rent and electricity payments. The building owner finally sent marshals to evict him. They arrived with guns drawn, Lee said. “I didn’t go out with dignity.”
Lee, who is 56 with graying hair, said he sent out more than a hundred resumes but failed to get a permanent job after losing the store. He's made it his mission to fight what he sees as the bane of Chinatown’s revival: law enforcement authorities, politicians and "gutless" non-profits that he says standby as the neighborhood withers.
Lee recalls how his old storefront sign was rescued from a garbage container. It sits now in the Museum of Chinese in the Americans, drawing history buffs instead of customers.