My Chinatown is going out for family dinners every Friday, being served heaping plates of glistening roast duck, crunchy barbeque pork, and delicious stir-fried vegetables mixed with oyster sauce. It is colorful, bilingual awnings for restaurants and bubble tea stores. It is wet clothes drying on open fire escapes, leisurely strolls down Mott Street, and huge crowds of tourists, old aunties, and local students going about their daily routines. I can see why tourists find Chinatown appealing—its existence is spirited and unapologetic.
It’s currently undergoing gentrification, which, according to the Internet, is “the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste.” The median income is rising as the children of immigrants have access to more educational and economic opportunities than their parents did. New businesses are moving into the spaces of my old childhood haunts. My fellow pedestrians are noticeably younger and more racially diverse than before.
NYC’s Chinatown, as with most ethnic enclaves across the nation, is historically a community formed out of necessity. It provided support to new immigrants in a country whose language and customs were foreign. Its restaurants served cheap and authentic Chinese food because immigrants cooked for each other when they wanted a taste of home. Every store opened to serve a practical need within the working-class immigrant community. What’s alarming about gentrification is that businesses no longer open just to serve the community’s needs. As just one example: at least seven new dessert shops have opened in Chinatown within the past three years. Ice cream is not something any immigrant family would call a necessity. These stores average $8 for a cup of ice cream and have only English menus.
I can understand why some people feel that the process of gentrification is better for a community, but I think that’s also a sign of my privilege. I can appreciate the value that it brings—greater focus on aesthetic rather than simply functional interior decorating and menu design, higher prices for higher quality products. I’m economically privileged enough to reap the benefits of it. However, some sectors of the community are deeply harmed when gentrification comes into play. When a familiar mom-and-pop restaurant is replaced by a new dessert shop, elderly Chinese immigrants can lose a communal gathering space, access to affordable meals, and companionship with waiters and cooks who speak the same language. Tenants can no longer afford to live in apartments they’ve rented for years. More abstractly, Chinatown is losing its culture, which carries an indescribable feeling of loss.
People have many different ideologies about gentrification—that it is inevitable, that it brings safety, that it is despicable, that it erases cultural spaces, any number of things. This brings into question, what exactly is Chinatown? What should it look like? Who is it for? I’m still working through my own beliefs about these issues, but gentrification is not unique to NYC’s Chinatown. It is happening in cities across the nation and the globe. What is the role of a neighborhood? What roles should residents, business-owners, and governing authorities play in shaping that neighborhood? As gentrification continues its march around the world, these dialogues become ever more important to have.