The PATH to rebuilding / Progress Report
Chinatown begins to build on the unity that came after 9/11
By Amy Chin
Like Chinatowns in many parts of the world, Manhattans Chinatown formed as a defense against frequent and widespread anti-Asian sentiments. It grew steadily over the years, keeping residents safe in a protective community shut off in many ways to non-Chinese outsiders. Despite external appearances of isolation, the Chinatown community is a rich, complex and delicately balanced mosaic encompassing many different languages, ethnic identities, communications styles, work experiences, world views and economic circumstances.
Chinatown is a place where an elaborate and idiosyncratic social structure has evolved, linking non-English speaking immigrants from Asia with their American-born neighbors, many of whom speak only English. For the most part, regional folkways and traditions informed verbal and written communications, the sharing of public spaces and the transaction of personal and professional business. Nothing about Chinatowns history and culture prepared it to deal efficiently with the catastrophe of September 11, 2001. Instead of shielding its residents from harm, the unique networks and insularity of its significantly hindered access to aid and consequently slowed economic recovery.
As the last authentic ethnic enclave community below 96th St. and the largest Chinatown in America, Manhattans Chinatown is distinctive. More than half the residents of Lower Manhattan (south of Houston St.) live in Chinatown. Unlike other Downtown neighborhoods that primarily needed to rebuild a pre-existing infrastructure and systems after 9/11, Chinatown had to create a different set of systems and structures to re-connect itself to the larger economy of the city.
It has been a long journey, beginning with the Rebuild Chinatown Initiatives 3-year reflective community planning process involving people at all levels to articulate and identify the communitys needs and vision for its future. This resulted in Americas Chinatown the first comprehensive community plan for Chinatown. And almost exactly one year ago, our community acted on one of the plans chief recommendations by forming the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation. This new community-wide organization aims to actively address collectively identified projects for the neighborhood. With a board of directors that includes leaders from most of Chinatowns major non-profit organizations as well as top business people and residents, C.P.L.D.C. is an unprecedented achievement. In some cases, individuals representing rival entities have come to the table in the interest of advancing a greater shared goal. This is an echo of the spirit of camaraderie and goodwill that permeated New York in the days, weeks and months immediately after September 11th. That spirit continues in Chinatown today.
Chinatown proudly has many major civic and business organizations that operate valuable programs for different segments of the community. What the Chinatown Partnership is striving to do is to work with the existing entities to tackle the problems that plague us all and require collective group efforts to overcome. With this goal, the Partnership has secured a base of funding from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, September 11th Fund, and the Red Cross and is starting to receive donations from local businesses and individuals to launch and support programs for the next 3 to 5 years. These will improve Chinatowns economic vitality, public profile, quality of life, and link its future to the rest of New York and the world.
Major programs in the coming years include the Clean Streets Program implemented in partnership with the city Department of Small Business Services. Chinatown will have uniformed cleanup crews equipped with state of the art cleansers and tools to service the neighborhood seven days a week and keep it clean. A new system of wayfinding and signage will be developed to better connect Chinatown to adjacent neighborhoods like the South Street Seaport, Little Italy, Soho, Tribeca, Wall Street, and Nolita. Widening that reach is the award-winning Explore Chinatown campaign that has given the neighborhood a very visible visitors information center, official Web site, and media attention tied in with other citywide tourism efforts. The semi-annual Taste of Chinatown events attract new activity and visitors to the area. Also in the works is a community resource guide for residents, improved street lighting, test piloting of a night market, more public cultural events and efforts to get the community increasingly involved in the many development projects like the East River waterfront park that will change the face of Chinatown and impact the lives of all residents and businesses.
In Chinese, the number four is often considered unlucky because it is a homonym for the word death. But, four years after September 11, 2001, Chinatown is still alive and kicking against all odds. Finally, after four years, we are solidly on the path to reviving it as a thriving ethnic enclave. Through the unwavering efforts of countless residents, community leaders, elected officials, government agencies, and private funders, it would appear that Chinatown is poised to re-emerge as a key Downtown neighborhood that is truly a part of the City of New York and a strong component of the economic engine of Lower Manhattan. It is an exciting time to be in Chinatown.
Amy Chin is the interim executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation.