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Chinatown's struggle against modernization

Chinatown's narrow streets beckon visitors with bright banners, exotic smells, and sidewalk stands mounded with gleaming fruits and vegetables. But beyond the pagoda phone booths and gift shops of the tourist's Chinatown lies a community struggling to retain its character while facing an influx of commercial investment and wealthy new residents. ``What we are seeing is the Manhattanization of our community,'' says Bill Chong of Asian Americans for Equality, a civil-rights group.

In the heart of Chinatown, store faades dating back to the 1890s are being modernized. Banks, fast-food restaurants, and modern ice-cream parlors stand side by side with traditional greengrocers and butcher shops displaying ducks and chickens in their windows.

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Longtime Chinatown residents face rising rents and small family businesses are giving way to high-rent office space.

Many of the changes are due to Chinatown's rapidly rising status as an international business community. Since the late 1970s, community leaders say, Asian businessmen from Hong Kong and Taiwan have been expanding their US investments and speculating in real estate. ``Chinatown has changed tremendously over the past few years,'' says Steve Chin of the Chinatown History Project. Although he sees the traditional folk culture disappearing, ``We are still very much a thriving, dynamic community,'' he says.

Manhattan's Chinatown serves as the ethnic center for Chinese immigrants living in the New York City area. Greater New York has the largest population of ethnic Chinese outside of Southeast Asia and thousands of new immigrants arrive each year from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China.

In recent years Chinatown has spread into nearby neighborhoods of Manhattan's Lower East Side. The community's housing shortage has forced many new immigrants to settle in Brooklyn and the Flushing section of Queens. The wealthier immigrants who do find homes in Chinatown are often well educated and come from urban centers.

Chinese-American bankers, doctors, and other professionals are setting up offices and homes in renovated buildings. Development groups led by Chinese-American businessmen plan to build luxury condominiums in this tenement-ridden district where low- to moderate-income housing is desperately needed.

``There needs to be a better housing strategy,'' says Mr. Chin. ``We are hoping to put pressure on private developers to have more of a mix -- to include some low- to moderate-income housing in their projects.''

New immigrants fortunate enough to find an apartment in Chinatown often must pay $5,000 to $10,000 in ``key money'' -- a nonrefundable deposit -- in order to get the apartment.

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``Housing is so scarce that even though the practice is illegal, it persists,'' says Mr. Chong.

Small labor-intensive, family-oriented businesses that make up the bulk of businesses in Chinatown also face increasing pressure from landlords.

Since the area is targeted for development, says Mr. Chong, ``small businesses get short-term leases of one or two years. In many cases the rent is doubled or tripled after a lease is up.''

``Chinatown has its own economic base -- it's a community that provides jobs for its own residents,'' he continues. ``That delicate balance is being jeopardized with real-estate speculation. When businesses go under, the resident often has to move out.''

Many community members express concern about the uncertain future for small businesses.

``Some of my friends have had trouble with their landlords when their lease is up for renewal. There's a high turnover of businesses here,'' says M. B. Lee, who owns a bakery. ``That's a big problem in Chinatown.''

Community groups such as Asian Americans for Equality (AAE) and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund have helped community members fight unfair rental practices and luxury-housing development. As a result of lawsuits filed by AAE, the permit for a major high-rent condominium project was revoked.

But despite community efforts, the transformation of Chinatown from a residential to a commercial area is well under way.

``I don't think there is a way to safeguard the interests of old-timers and small businesses. The small mom-and-pop operations don't have a chance -- not with the new wave of development encouraged by city policy,'' says Charles Pei Wang, managing director of the Chinatown Planning Council, a city-funded human-service organization. ``We do like to see manufacturers and firms coming in that can provide jobs for residents,'' he adds, ``but most offices don't provide many jobs for community members.''

Mr. Wang does see a positive future for the community's still-thriving garment industry but believes new immigrants will find it easier to make a living in Brooklyn or Queens.

``Flushing is becoming a second Chinatown,'' he says. ``It should lessen the pressure on Manhattan's Chinatown and provide better opportunity for our newcomers.''

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