Plans revived for traditional Chinatown gateways in Manhattan

Although it has one of the world's largest Chinese communities outside Asia, Manhattan can only dream of a traditionally styled arch

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 November, 2013, 3:50am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 November, 2013, 3:50am


In those moments of imaginative flight, when he suspends reason and allows himself to dream, Wellington Chen pictures a constellation of gateways in Lower Manhattan.

Each gateway is a unique monument to Chinese history and creativity, marking the key entrances to Chinatown.

One is a modernist sculpture, another incorporates video projections, and yet another is a hologram reaching toward the stars.

"It's like the totem pole for Native Americans: it's self-identity," said Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corp. "It's fundamentally about self-respect of a community that has been isolated."

Most of the world's large Chinese immigrant communities have gateways - usually traditionally styled arches with multitiered roofs, intricate detailing, Chinese lettering and bright colors.

Yet Manhattan's Chinatown, one of the most venerable Chinese enclaves outside Asia, has none. Neither do the city's other large Chinese communities.

In recent months, however, efforts to build Chinese gateways in Manhattan and Brooklyn have gathered momentum.

Proponents say the structures are critical aspects of a Chinese enclave's architectural and emotional tapestry, serving as tourist attractions as well as landmarks that define a neighbourhood's boundaries and symbolise a cultural threshold.

Their absence has been felt most deeply in Manhattan's Chinatown. For nearly 50 years, neighbourhood groups have pressed for a traditional archway, but those efforts have mostly fallen by the wayside.

In 2005, the city council set aside US$250,000 for the development of an arch, which proponents expected to cost less than US$1 million, Chen said. But supporters, slowed in part by complicated city regulations, were unable to advance the project, Chen said. In 2009, the council cut the allocation from its budget.

Chen has recently sought to inject new life into the quest, soliciting designs from students at the New York City College of Technology, redoubling his efforts to secure funding, lobbying for governmental support and elevating the issue to a top priority for his organisation.

He has been particularly concerned about the historic core of Manhattan's Chinatown, an area roughly bounded by Canal Street to the north, the Bowery to the east, Worth Street to the south and Broadway to the west.

Once the centre of Chinese activity in the city, those blocks have lost their primacy to other Chinese enclaves and the community has been rattled by a series of challenges, including rising rents and the flight of younger residents. New immigrants have increasingly bypassed the area, settling elsewhere in the city.

Chen argues gateways would buoy the spirit and economy of the neighbourhood, increase the number of visitors and attract more businesses. They would also help mark the entrances to a neighbourhood that is somewhat cut off from the rest of Lower Manhattan by busy roads, government buildings and ramps leading to the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges.

"If I said, 'Go to Chinatown,' would you know how to go in?" Chen asked on a recent afternoon, as he stood at Centre and Leonard streets. Municipal and federal buildings sat imposingly on the other side of the street. Chinatown was somewhere beyond them, out of view, only a couple of blocks away.

"I call it 'The Great Wall of Government'," he said.

A separate effort to build a gateway in Brooklyn's Sunset Park, which has a large and growing Chinese population, has jumped ahead of its Manhattan counterpart.

A committee of Chinese supporters from throughout the city has already located a site there; secured the backing of Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn borough president; submitted plans to the Department of Transportation; begun a fundraising drive to support the project; and even lined up the co-operation of public officials in the Chaoyang district of Beijing, a sister city to Brooklyn, who have agreed to manufacture the structure and ship it to New York.

In the past year, delegations of officials from Chaoyang have made several trips to the borough to discuss the project, which is called the Friendship Archway.