Chinatown and the Lower East Side are neighborhoods of historic significance where residents and workers organized for unions, rent strikes and takeovers of vacant buildings, and where liberation struggles were led by the Red Guard Party, Young Lords and Black Panther Party. Our neighborhoods survived Hurricane Sandy and built resiliency in the recovery process. This is where immigrants find means of survival, familial language, culture, food, and a sense of community. Chinatown and the LES aren’t just “hip and upcoming” neighborhoods for gentrifiers. These are neighborhoods with rich and vibrant history that serve a present-day purpose to working-class Jewish and Chinese immigrants, Latinos and African-Americans.
In Community Board 3, we’ve experienced grave losses of cultural institutions, residents, housing, and community centers. Chinatown and the LES once had the second largest rent-regulated housing stock in Manhattan. Today, we suffer loss after loss. As luxury hotels and high-end retail has arrived, rent-regulated units and Asian residents have been driven out. For over a decade at CAAAV, our Chinatown Tenants Union (CTU) has been organizing tenants. CTU fights landlord after landlord, but we have realized that rezoning is a tool to proactively protect the community.
In 2008, CAAAV and nearly 60 tenant associations, organizations, landlords and businesses, and Community Boards 1, 2, and 3 gathered to form the Chinatown Working Group. With the support of the Pratt Institute, our goal was to design a comprehensive, community-led rezoning plan. After years of studies, long meetings and debates, we were able to find unity and agreement on a much-needed plan for the residents and small business owners who have been fighting to stay in Chinatown and the LES.
Initially, the Department of City Planning (DCP) disregarded the entire plan, but with pushback from the community, DCP is now considering the Chinatown Core. However, our communities will not settle for just the rezoning of the Core.
DCP claims our neighborhood plan is too expansive. But the CWG plan covers 103 blocks, which isn’t that much bigger from other current plans like East Harlem, which is 95 blocks, and is smaller than some earlier ones.
There is an assumption that rent-regulated apartments will remain rent-regulated and market forces would not deregulate the units. There is also an assumption that zoning Chinatown as a historic neighborhood—protecting the character of the buildings—is sufficient in protecting the people who live in them. These assumptions are hollow. We know firsthand that developers and landlords will use all their wealth and power to manipulate the laws to earn greater profits. And we know that if we don’t protect the LES waterfront from development, Chinatown will also experience even deeper gentrification.
The CWG plan wasn’t initially taken seriously by the administration because we have limited land and air space for development. The administration is prioritizing upzonings that will create market-rate and “affordable housing,” but due to minimum income restrictions, that affordable housing won’t actually be affordable for working-class and poor people, like many of the Chinatown residents who make up CAAAV’s organizing base.
There is an assumption that wealth is an answer to our housing crisis. Instead, we must recognize that wealth and exploitation are actually the root of our crisis. An influx of wealth would permanently change the fabric of the Chinatown and LES community.
Chinatown Tenants Union members are fighting for anti-harassment protections, a historic district, small business protections, restrictions on hotel development, and height caps outlined in the CWG plan for the waterfront and Chinatown. CAAAV’s members deserve more, and the working people of New York deserve better.
In this Trump era, isn’t it clear that our collective humanity is more vital than profits and getting re-elected? In a time when our communities are feeling the repression of mass deportations and the loss of social safety nets, the local administration can take a bold stand by respecting and implementing community-led rezoning plans that protect our homes and livelihoods.
Cathy Dang is the executive director and Melanie Wang the CTU Tenant Organizer at CAAAV.