When neighborhoods change, so does the community—and not necessarily to the benefit of long-time residents. This is the story of the people of Chinatown and the Lower East Side, and how residents are trying to stick together and preserve the community they’ve built over the years.
The restaurant is dimly lit, with candles and a single red rose on every table. On the plush, black leather couch with red velvet throw pillows sits Pierre Gaona, owner of LĒNA wine bar in the Lower East Side. He decided 317 Eldridge Street was the perfect space for his new business venture because of the building’s classic “Old New York” look and the relatively reasonable rent he pays.
Unknown to Gaona, just above LĒNA on the building’s first floor, lives 37-year-long resident Xiaoling Chen—along with her daughter, her son-in-law and their three kids. The apartment is small and cramped. With a folding bed and a bunk bed in their makeshift living area, the family barely manages to fit in such a tight space.
For Chen, Gaona’s presence exacerbates a trend that threatens her very way of life. Chinese immigrants like her, she says, are being priced out of the community due to the increasing rent prices. “Many people couldn’t afford it and had to move in with their families” outside Chinatown, she says. Others have combined apartments: “Some apartments in my building [now] accommodate about ten people.”
For Gaona, the neighborhood provides an opportunity to be part of a New York that is has been revitalized. It’s an opportunity, he says, “to be part of a neighborhood that is getting good.”
The onset of gentrification in New York City neighborhoods is not only visible in new neighborhood developments; it’s also evident in the eroding of intra-and inter-community relationships, which are essential for community organization and mobilization. Low-income communities, usually the most vulnerable, are not privy to the vital information which protect their housing rights, and are often left in the dark when new developments fill older neighborhoods with new buildings.
With less trust in community organizers and the officials who represent them, residents in the Lower East Side/Chinatown areas are strategizing and developing new ways to fight back against the developments that threaten old residents’ survival.
Tanya Negron, a resident leader at Lands End II, has lived in her building on Cherry Street since she was 3 years old. She’s watched the neighborhood change since the rezoning of the Lower East Side (now divided into Chinatown, Lower East Side, and Two Bridges) allows for the construction of the luxury 70-story Extell Development building by the waterfront.
She predicts that the construction of three more buildings will not only raise rent prices, but also raise the cost of living. “A Dunkin’ Donuts, a McDonald’s [came] in place of our supermarket—which was Pepito’s—and quality food that we had there. Low prices that benefited the community, that was gone,” she says.
Even the residents who work full-time jobs are struggling to keep up with rent. “You get a job and you end up paying 30% of your income. There’s no such thing as savings,” says Negron.
“Rent burden” is defined by the National Center for Children in Poverty as “spending more than 30 percent of household income on rent.” Based on data from the NYU Furman Center, Chinatown and the Lower East Side—formally known as City District 3—has, since 2005, experienced a 23 percent increase in the number of households that have been paying 30% or more of their pre-taxed income for their rent (see map below).
But while the young people moving in and the small trendy businesses replacing old establishments are known to be the so-called “gentrifiers,” Youth Against Displacement organizer Zishun Ning argues that people such as French wine bar owner Gaona are victims of displacement, too.
“You’re facing pressure of being pushed out. Whether you live here and can’t afford the rent and have to be moving pretty soon, or you’re being harassed by the landlord because the landlord wants to kick you out. And also if you do business and you have to pay rent, and soon you get pushed out too,” says Ning.
He firmly believes that the blame pinned on new establishments is misplaced. “Businesses [also] find where it is cheaper to pay the rent and do business,” he says. “People, naturally, move to places like Chinatown and the Lower East Side, where the rent is still somewhat cheap.”
Ning acknowledges that “People do see that the neighborhood is changing, but we have to analyze what’s the signs and what’s the root cause.He says the “root cause” is not TK, but instead land developers and government policies that allow developments to take place in these communities. “If you attack the sign, then you never address the problem of the root cause.”
But local residents fear big developments not only prices locals out; it also threatens their well being. Joanna Estevez, a resident of 82 Rutgers Slip, says that because of the construction of the Extell building, cracks began to appear in her apartment. The mailboxes were no longer aligned, and the apartment doors were no longer leveled. “There was one Saturday that I got locked in. I couldn’t get out. I had to call the super,” says Estevez.
City District 3’s elected council member, Margaret Chin, has been receiving a lot of heat from community organizations, including the Chinatown Working Group, Chinatown Staff and Workers’ Association, National Mobilization Against Sweatshops and Lower East Side Organized Neighbors. These community groups openly accuse Chin of catering to the developer’s interests by trying to greenlight the three luxury projects.
Chin’s office declined to address specific accusations against her, but provided a statement arguing that Chin was trying to help local residents fight against unwanted development:
“It’s clear that we need more tools to empower everyday residents in the Land Use process, not less. That is why my Council colleagues threw their full support behind my legislation, Intro 1685, which would have wide implications on communities’ efforts to protect their neighborhoods from the threat of large scale luxury development. It’s my hope that this legislation would help Two Bridges residents and groups across the City work more closely with their elected officials, and I will continue to advocate for more ways to strengthen the community’s voice in the Land Use process.
“Furthermore, the lack of public access to urban renewal plans has left too many communities in the dark about their impact on neighborhood preservation. When these plans expire, it can the door for enormous development to threaten vulnerable neighborhoods. We see this happening in Two Bridges, where I am actively working with residents to create tools to fight back against out-of-scale luxury development. By requiring public notification for expiring urban renewal areas and a publicly accessible website with information about currently and formerly designated urban renewal areas, my legislation, Intro 1533-A, would empower more communities to take action to protect their neighborhoods.”
Local groups are not waiting for Chin’s legislation. They are trying to force the city to change its zoning policies. The National Mobilization Against Sweatshops and Lower East Side Organized Neighbors has put forth a legal complaint with the city, raising questions about the lawfulness of the proposed waterfront projects.
Despite that ongoing mobilization, some residents fear the activist groups are actually serving the interests of elected officials. “Some of these community organizations are funded by the elected officials and by the city, so it’s a tug of war,” Negron says.
In New York City, the cost of gentrification is visible not just in displaced long-term residents, but also an endemic inability by communities to access, process, and utilize information relevant to their survival. Residents of Community District 3, in an attempt to safeguard their futures, are seeking out more information and refusing to rely solely on community organizations. And they are not alone. Various neighborhood associations are sprouting up all over New York City, evidence of a widespread need for communities to represent themselves in numbers.
Ning says that there’s an effort being made by groups from all over the city—including groups in the Bronx—to come together and fight against gentrification and displacement as a larger, united coalition.
“The community rises up like we are doing now,” Negron says. “We’re going to get the information.”