Chinatown's dirty little war

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2008, 12:00am

New York

New York's Chinatown may be the largest in the United States, but it has also often borne an unflattering title: the dirtiest and the most chaotic.

From San Francisco to Washington, smaller Chinatowns have traditional pagoda gates leading to shops clustered along tidy streets. A sense of tradition and order prevails.

In New York, Chinatown has usually been marked more by the clutter of awnings, litter and a fishy stink that is distinct even on freezing winter days. During summer there are the additional joys of rats and cockroaches scurrying between rubbish bags and gutters.

The scene has deterred tourists and shamed locals. In a survey after the September 11 attacks to determine Chinatown's rebuilding needs, residents and businesses listed sanitation as a top concern.

The situation has improved in the past 18 months thanks to a team of two dozen cleaners who wear yellow jackets and wield brooms. So far they have collected more than 2,700 tonnes of litter, on top of rubbish collected by the city's regular sanitation workers. But the long-term existence of the 'yellow jackets' is in question.

The team was hired by the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation, an organisation formed in 2004 to help Chinatown, which is close to Ground Zero, recover from September 11. But a US$7 million fund from the state and city governments will support the project for four years at most. If the community cannot work out a sustainable plan, Chinatown is at risk of going backwards - and failing to change its rubbish-dump image.

To Wellington Chen, the partnership's executive president, the best choice is to have Chinatown become a Business Improvement District. Modelled after a shopping mall, BIDs require property owners in a certain area to pay extra tax voluntarily to help maintain and beautify their common space. It is a system often used in North America and Europe since its invention in 1965 by Canadian-Chinese businessman Alex Ling.

In New York, 57 of these 'self-taxing areas' have been granted by the city.

To Mr Chen, it is a critical time to apply for BID approval. Ground Zero now brings millions of visitors to Lower Manhattan. Chinatown needs not only the 'yellow jackets' but also brighter lights, traditional performances, boards with maps of the area and even shuttle buses to bring in the tourists. A blueprint for improved transport also stands a much better chance of approval if Chinatown applies for BID status.

'If we miss this opportunity, I don't see it will come back in at least half a century,' Mr Chen said.

But while his idea has gained support from real estate developers and larger businesses, residents worry too many tourists will bring more hotels and luxury condos, expediting the area's already rapid gentrification. 'What we need is more affordable housing, not to be put in a zoo and displayed to tourists,' said Hua Li, of the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association.

Smaller businesses are also concerned the taxes would be the last straw, on top of increased utility costs and the lingering impact from September 11, such as blocked-off streets.

Both sides are collecting signatures and meeting officials. Meanwhile, the fate of the historic neighbourhood is in the balance.

Tomorrow: London