In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act restricted Chinese immigration to the US, prohibited Chinese females from immigrating on grounds of prostitution, and revoked the citizenship of any US citizen who married a Chinese male. The consequences of this xenophobic legislation led Chinese immigrants to flee racial violence in the American West and to settle in Manhattan’s Chinatown. With a population now of around 50 thousand (2010 US Census), this remains the largest ethnically Chinese enclave in the Western Hemisphere.
Thanks to New York’s geographic location as a port city with high industrial employment and easy connections to the American interior, this city became the primary point of entry for waves of immigrant groups in the nineteenth century: Irish, Germans, Italians, and Eastern Europeans. What makes the Chinese different, though, is the survival and resilience of the immigrant community they created. Other immigrant groups – namely the Germans and Irish – converged around large neighborhoods and surrounded themselves with familiar language and businesses. Of these enclaves, all have since disappeared as the children of these first-generation immigrants successfully assimilated into American society, earned higher incomes than their parents, and therefore chose to disperse to non-immigrant neighborhoods with better housing stock and schools. Yet, the Chinese remained.
The resilience of this community results from a confluence of factors: cultural, geographic, and (most of all) racial. Of innumerable immigrant groups to the US, the Chinese were among the only to have the most restrictive laws placed on their immigration. This stigma drove them toward three types of low-skilled manual labor – with which white Americans still deeply associate with the Chinese – laundries, restaurants, and garment manufacturing. Like the Chinese, other groups – particularly Irish-immigrant females – began working in these professions, but they soon climbed the social ladder.
As an architectural historian, I am fascinated about how this political and racial agenda of exclusion is imprinted in the built environment of Chinatown. To present this neighborhood’s geography: For most of its history, Chinatown was bordered to the north by Canal Street, to the east by Bowery, and to the South and West by the city’s federal courthouse and jail. The center of this community lies on the low wetland above a filled-in and polluted lake, called the Collect Pond. Historically, this area contained the city’s worst housing stock, was home to the city’s first tenement building (65 Mott Street), and was the epicenter for waterborne cholera during the epidemics of 1832 (~3,000 deaths) and again in 1866 (1,137 deaths). The city’s first slum clearance project was also in Chinatown, to create what is now present-day Columbus Park.
Race-based policies of exclusion can take different forms in the built-environment. The quality of street cleaning and the frequency of street closures are a place to start. Some of the city’s dirtiest sidewalks and streets are consistently located within Chinatown – as well as some of the most crowded with street vendors (particularly Mulberry and Mott Street). Yet, as these streets continue northward above Canal Street, their character markedly changes. The sections of Mulberry Street in Chinatown are unkempt and always open to traffic and truck deliveries.
The street sections immediately north (in the enclave of Little Italy) are frequently cleaned and closed for traffic most of the year to create a car -free pedestrian mall bordered by Italian restaurants. These policies continue when examining the proximity of Chinatown to centers of political power and criminal justice. Since 1838, the city’s central prison (named the Tombs because of its foreboding appearance and damp interior) is located just adjacent to Chinatown. The Fifth Police Precinct is also located at the center of this community at 19 Elizabeth Street.
Yet, although this neighborhood was ranked 58th safest out of the city’s 69 patrol areas and has a below-average crime rate, the incarceration rate of 449 per 100,000 people is slightly higher than the city average of 443 per 100,000 and significantly higher than neighborhoods immediately adjacent – like SoHo – that have a rate well below 100 per 100,000. NYC Open Data also reveals this neighborhood to be targeted for certain – perhaps race-specific and generally non-violent crimes – like gambling and forgery. Or, the only financial institution to face criminal charges after the 2008 financial crisis was NYC Chinatown’s family-owned Abacus Federal Savings Bank – on allegations of mortgage fraud later found false in court by a 12-0 jury decision in favor of Abacus.
When it comes to tourism, Americans seem to have a paradoxical relationship with Chinatown’s “oriental” culture and cuisine. On the hand, there is a proclaimed love of Chinese cuisine and art, as evidenced by the profusion of Chinese-themed restaurants for tourists in Chinatown, or as evidenced by the phenomenon in art history for western artists (and particularly French Impressionists) to incorporate decorative motifs from East Asian woodcuts and ceramics into their work. There is simultaneously exclusion of the people – from the society who created this food and art – from political power and social mobility. Still today, Americans seem to want competitively priced Chinese products without suffering the presence of the foreigners who produced these products.
Let us clarify one thing: the division in Chinatown is by no means “apartheid.” It is perhaps a division more subtle and difficult to notice. It expresses the kind of unequal treatment – antiquated housing, crowded conditions, and municipal apathy – that face many immigrant groups in the US. What we see in Chinatown is something altogether more complicated – as this neighborhood is also active in the process of gentrification with rising rents pushing out older Chinese businesses. If and when Chinese immigrants become fully integrated into American society, to what extent should the architectural fabric of this Chinese enclave be preserved, considering that its very existence is possibly a marker of race-based exclusion and the century-long challenge of the Chinese in America?
This essay originally appeared in the spring 2019 edition of the Asia Pacific Affairs Council journal at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute. Click here to read this essay in its original format.