Mott Street Blues
[New York Times,
22 January 2006
BONUS: Nine months later, the NYT remix
By RICHARD MORGAN
In Philip Lam's office, at Green City Realty on Market Street near the Manhattan Bridge, a picture of a property under renovation is pinned to the wall. The two-bedroom condo has huge windows, pristine hardwood floors and an airy luxury that gives the space the look of a SoHo loft.
But this attractive posting has people in Chinatown worried. The condo sits not in SoHo but at 173-5 East Broadway, right in their neighborhood. The other 28 condos under development in the 60,000-square-foot building are no less luxe, and will variously offer 18-foot ceilings, four exposures and gas fireplaces, and carry price tags of $600,000 to $5 million.
In an odd juxtaposition, crowded, workaday Chinatown is surrounded by some of Manhattan's poshest neighborhoods, such as SoHo and TriBeCa. If those areas begin to spill over on them, Chinatown residents fear, they may be priced out of their own neighborhood. Many manufacturers have already moved to cheaper locations, like Sunset Park, Brooklyn; Mr. Lam and other real estate agents also report a recent uptick in the number residential buyers who are not of Chinese descent.
The resentment is growing, among nonresidents who treasure the area's character and, especially, local residents who feel invaded. ''This is not for the outside world,'' Zhihao Song, a 32-year-old garment worker, said. ''This is for the Chinese people.'' The other day, as he picked with chapped hands through exotic produce at an open market under the Manhattan Bridge, he asked, ''What can you call Chinatown if the Chinese people cannot live here?''
The lure of Chinatown grew this month, when Gov. George E. Pataki designated it as one of the first of a dozen new economic Empire Zones. The program grants a mix of tax benefits to encourage development.
''It's just supply and demand, very simple,'' Dean Lui, the owner of Century 21 New Golden Age, a real estate firm at Chatham Square, said of Chinatown's allure. ''We are a lot cheaper than TriBeCa and just a few blocks away. It makes a lot of sense.''
But this surge of buyers and investors cannot be easily absorbed with more buildings; Chinatown is cramped as it is. As a result, condo prices in Chinatown have soared, from about $450 a square foot in 2004 to about $700 a square foot today. Mr. Lui, who handles higher-end condos, said he had seen the average cost go from $860 a square foot two years ago to $1,100 now.
Mr. Lam, who has sold real estate in the area for 17 years, makes the best of the situation by working as a Mandarin-speaking middleman for the new non-Chinese owners of eight rental buildings, all residential. ''For every 20 Chinese buyers in Chinatown, there is just one American buyer,'' he said. ''But two, three years ago, that was one American for every 50 Chinese buyers.'' Mr. Lui, for his part, estimated that over the past few years, the Chinese stake in Chinatown ownership has fallen to 75 percent from 90 percent.
Mr. Lam said of the change: ''This is America, so it doesn't surprise me too much. If I could buy buildings, I could either buy one building in SoHo that will go up a little bit in value over the next five years, or I could buy five buildings in Chinatown that might double in value.''
John Kuo Wei Tchen, a history professor at New York University who specializes in Chinese immigration, has a different calculus. Development has been a ''neutron bomb,'' he said, that has reduced other ethnic enclaves to building facades, tourist traps and memorial plaques. He fears the same will happen in Chinatown.
''To me, Chinatown is one of the few remaining real Manhattan neighborhoods,'' Dr. Tchen said. ''It's not just a facade here. You look around and what do you see? Little Italy is gone. The Jewish Lower East Side is gone. Even Harlem is fading. But Chinatown survives as the real thing. It's a living community.''
If the signs are grim, Chinatown optimists can point to at least one sunnier fact. Chinese New Year, which begins on Jan. 29, will usher in the Year of the Dog. It is said to be a much luckier time than the current Year of the Rooster.
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