Chinatown's exclusion from plan to cap buildings illustrates divides

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 November, 2008, 12:00am

New York

Barack Obama may have been elected US president, and he may have had the support of an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers, but racial tensions still simmer beneath the surface. Add in class differences and gentrification of traditional neighbourhoods, and it can be a toxic brew.

Take a recent episode in the area of Manhattan that includes Chinatown and the Lower East Side. With its old tenements, synagogues, bars, clubs and its cosmopolitan population, the Lower East Side is one of the most vibrant neighbourhoods in the city.

But it is also at risk. It was listed as one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the country by the National Trust in the summer, because the old tenements are rapidly being replaced by luxury condominiums and hotels.

Jasmine Garcia, who has lived in the neighbourhood for 25 years, has seen two tall luxury apartment high-rises erected around her building in recent years. They block the sunshine from her kitchen and living room and, together with other such buildings, have pushed up rents. Her grown daughter has not moved out of her small apartment because she can't afford to find her own place. 'The rent for apartments across the street is US$4,000 a month,' Ms Garcia said.

So when the community board managed to push the city to consider a rezoning plan for the neighbourhood that will control the heights of new buildings, Ms Garcia was thrilled. 'We have been waiting for this for decades,' she said.

However, strong opposition sprung up from a grass-roots group called Coalition to Protect Chinatown and Lower East Side.

The coalition dubs the plan racist because it protects a large portion of the East Village, which is dominated by relatively well-off whites, but not Chinatown. The group worries Chinatown would become the biggest victim of the plan as it may push more developers to build luxury high-rises in the area.

During several lengthy public hearings, city officials offered to make a separate rezoning plan for Chinatown in the future. But this didn't satisfy the coalition. 'To make a rezoning plan could take years. By the time we get ours, many more luxury buildings would have been built in Chinatown and the low-income people here would have already been pushed out,' said Wah Lee, a member of the coalition.

The fight has prompted calls for unity. 'Lower East Side and Chinatown are two key gateways to the city, and we must support and work with each other. The longer we dwell on this type of polarisation, the longer we all remain vulnerable to the onslaught of gentrification,' said Christopher Kui, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, a major organisation aiming to promote affordable housing.

Mr Kui said the group should use the Lower East Side scheme as leverage. 'Mr Obama's election is a sign that unification has overcome division. The claims of racism are not only so yesteryear, it also throws a smokescreen over the real issue of neighbourhood preservation.'

But JoAnn Lum, a member of the coalition, takes the opposite view. 'Just like people call for change with Mr Obama's election, we need a change here. Get rid of [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg and any city council member who votes on this racist rezoning plan, because it means they are against working people and people of colour in this city.'

Tomorrow: London