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Chinatown Residents Consider BID

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Use the interactive map below to explore the changes Chinatown is facing and how a Business Improvement District would affect the neighborhood.

View Changing Chinatown in a larger map

View Changing Chinatown in a larger map

When it comes to improving a neighborhood, there are often as many ideas as their are residents. In Chinatown, a proposed Business Improvement District or BID has become a point of contention – some say it’s time to band together to improve the neighborhood…others say the BID is a burden for small business owners and part of the reason the neighborhood is losing its identity. Larry Tung reports.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in mid-April and David Ye is walking with a basketball under his arm in Sara Roosevelt Park, on the eastern side of Chinatown.

“When I think about Chinatown, I think about coming here to play basketball, or dim-suming with my parents or buying grocery…you know…all the stuff that makes Chinatown what it is,” said Ye.

Sara Roosevelt Park is a popular neighborhood hangout – seniors do tai-chi in the morning and play chess in the afternoon, kids climb up and down the jungle gym. It’s clean and has the latest everything. The park you see today is the result of an 8-month renovation from two years ago. And developments like this are all over Chinatown. A block away on Hester Street, a Wyndham Hotel is going up. Chic boutiques and hair salons are opening up next to old neighborhood institutions.

“Like just across the street there’s a butcher who’s worked there for longer than I’ve been born,” Ye said.

A few more blocks west, near Broadway, is a new kind of Chinatown restaurant, called Red Egg. Through the sleek, dark wood doors, there is a full bar that serves specialty drinks like the Lychee Sake-tini. Darren Wan opened the restaurant in 2008, and serves traditional dim sum-style small plates. But he says his restaurant is not stereotypical.

“You have your traditional Chinatown restaurants which people always feel very bright fluorescent lights, large tables, not always the cleanest places, fast food, inexpensive food,” said Wan.

Wan is 36, and grew up in Riverdale. As a child, he came to Chinatown every Sunday for church. He remembers practically everyone speaking Mandarin, Cantonese and other dialects. He remembers all the cheap toys you could buy. With Red Egg, Wan is joining a new wave of younger Chinese business owners who hope to draw more people willing to pay for higher quality.

“Everything’s made fresh to order. So you probably won’t see ladies walking around and pushing carts. It’s kind of a lot more comfortable feel,” Wan said.
Wan wants his customers to feel comfortable outside his restaurant too. But to do that, he has a constant battle with one of Chinatown’s biggest problems– trash. The area is notorious for its smelly fish markets and garbage, especially in the summer. The city’s Department of Sanitation picks up garbage once a day, and sweep the streets 2 or 3 times a week. But it’s not enough, and businesses are responsible for keeping their part of the sidewalk clean.

Anthony Cummings collects garbage for a private company. He’s in Chinatown six nights a week and says it’s a real workout.

“Stupid heavy. A lot of slabs. A lot of nasty garbage, man,” said Cummings.

The nasty garbage is what’s keeping Chinatown from getting more visitors. That’s according to Margaret Chin. She is the first Chinese American elected to represent Chinatown in city council.

“I heard so many times, from friends, relatives, even my own kids. Mom, Chinatown stinks. They don’t want to come,” Chin said.

Chin has been the driving force behind the controversial Chinatown Business Improvement District, or BID. The proposed BID would collect money, just like a tax, from property owners to pay for street cleaning and garbage collection. But Chin says it goes beyond the sanitation problem. She says a cleaner Chinatown is crucial to boosting the pride of Chinese Americans.

“So how do we get to a point where our kids feel proud to bring their friends to show off their community?” said Chin.

The Chinatown BID is on the cusp after over two decades of efforts to establish local control of the neighborhood’s cleanliness. There’s currently an organization called the Chinatown Partnership. That was founded in 2004 to revitalize the neighborhood economy, which took a big hit after September 11, 2001. So far, it’s been largely funded by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the 9/11 Fund. But the money ran out last year. That’s when a group of business and community leaders formed a BID steering committee. Now, the BID is poised to pass. Once it’s become law, commercial property owners will pay between 200 and 5000 dollars a year. Based on a formula, most will pay under $1,000.

But opponents of the BID says, plain and simple, the BID assessment is just another tax.  David Eng’s family has been making and selling tofu in Chinatown since the 1930s. Inside the factory on Division Street, machines are grinding soy beans, and Eng supervises men in hair nets churning out dozens of tofu bricks every few minutes. There’s steam everywhere, the final product soaks in big blue buckets of water.

“We grind the beans, we cook it in the vat, and we run it through what’s called the extractor, makes the soy milk, the dao jiong. From there, we add the calcium, it congeals, from there we make our tofu,” said Eng.

“How many pieces of tofu do you make?” asked a reporter.

“Oh, I never really counted, I’m thinking about 10000 pieces a day…But this is the way my father did it back in the 60s. I didn’t really change anything. Besides, the lack of space is a problem also,” said Eng.

Eng is against the Chinatown BID. As far as he’s concerned, it’s the property or business owner’s responsibility to clean the sidewalk, and the city’s job to keep them honest.

“If they enforce the law, then you’ll have a cleaner Chinatown. Because I’ve gotten so many tickets, I every day sweep the sidewalk because I don’t want any tickets.  But then at the same time to raise my property tax maybe 500 dollars a year for them to clean the street, it’s hard for me. I got to sell a lot of tofu to get 500 dollars,” said Eng.

Eng’s attitude is in line with an old Chinese saying: Zhi Sao Men Chien Shue, which literally means “sweeping the snow only in front of your door.” It’s said about people who look out only for themselves. People who support the BID say that kind of mentality is holding the BID and Chinatown back and needs to change. David Louie is a Chinese American and has been doing business in Chinatown since 1976. He says 9/11 forced people to change their attitude. Before then, he says, they were much more insulated.

“Leave us alone. We don’t bother you. You don’t bother us. After 911, there was a rude awakening, rude awakening. Chinese Americans say hey wait, we are part of the whole city. We’ve gotta start thinking together,” said Louie.

Louie says a Chinatown BID is a win-win situation. It will stimulate the economy and create jobs.

“You’ll have more waiters, you’ll have more cooks, you’ll have more shopkeepers. We got plenty of doctors, we got very qualified doctors in Chinatown, not just restaurants. In terms of beauty salons, and facials, look, you don’t have to pay uptown prices, you can come down to Chinatown, get the function done, enjoy your dinner and do some shopping,” Louie added.

A BID is part of the picture, but people who study BIDs say the kind of success that Louie hopes for is happening in most of the 64 BIDs throughout the city. Rachel Meltzer is a professor of Urban Policy at the New School. She says part of the reason most BIDs work is they are fair and everybody has to pay in.

Meltzer: The idea of having a binding assessment is to overcome something that’s called free riding. The idea that if someone is not paying, they can still benefit from the good, or they benefit more from the good than what they pay into it.
But what makes BID popular, she says, is that you see immediate results.

“If anything, they will see it more than what they get out of their property taxes. With the BID, you pay the assessment and you actually see the return right outside your front door. You know it’s going to your areas,” said Meltzer.

Those immediate results can be both positive and negative. The returns help businesses, but for long-term residents, the fear is whether they can afford to stay in the area. As David Ye walks from the basketball courts to his home on Eldridge Street, he passes Hester Gardens, formerly a rent-controlled building that’s gone upscale condos. He says many units are sitting there empty.

“People who could have lived there–poor, low-income people that used to live there–could be actually living there now,” said Ye.

Ye wants his neighborhood to grow and evolve — and be cleaner. But he says this kind of progress should not come at the expense of the heart of Chinatown–its people.

“When you think about it, Chinatown was built from thousands and now hundreds of thousands of Asian Americans who wanted to move away from their mother country for more opportunities…. If the people… are forced to move or if they just leave…it definitely takes a part out of what Chinatown is,” said Ye.

The BID is waiting for a final vote by City Council. It is expected to pass later this year.

Jacob Anderson contributed to the story.
View Changing Chinatown in a larger map


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