Volume 20 Issue 16 | Aug. 31 - Sept. 6, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Kenny Li, right, and others look at a map in Columbus Park showing gentrification in Chinatown. It was part of a youth organization effort and game to highlight problems of rising rents in the neighborhood.

Game teaches Chinatown youth the G-word

By Annie Lok

Gentrification is a serious topic, but teenagers in Chinatown found a playful way to talk about it with the people who live in the neighborhood — by creating a board game.

On a recent Sunday, youth members of the Chinatown Tenants Union arranged a curved trail of red, blue, yellow and black squares in the soccer field in Columbus Park for “Rent: The Game.” Chinatown residents, activists and curious onlookers watched as players advanced on the multicolor path by answering questions the youths prepared.

“What is gentrification?” The first question fell to contestant Yi Lian Zheng, who lives in Chinatown. The question was worth five points, the maximum in the game.

“It is when low-income tenants experience extremely high rents and are unable to pay,” Zheng said in Mandarin. “They have to move out, then wealthier tenants move in.”

The somber answer was met with cheers as Zheng moved ahead five spaces.

The crowd applauded every time Zheng and two other players fielded questions about tenants’ and immigrants’ rights.

“If you get an eviction notice to move out in one month, should you leave?” (No, you should call 311.)

“If you don’t speak English, can you call 311?” (Yes.)

“Do you have to show immigration papers to landlords?” (No.)

The game played Aug. 19 is a culminating project for a summer youth program coordinated by the tenants union. The two-month program teaches Chinese American high school and college students about the displacement brought about by sky-rocketing rents in the neighborhood, and what these youths can do to educate and help local residents, said program organizers. The youngsters debuted the game at the park with a rallying cry-- “Stop gentrification! Stop displacement!”

For Jenny Ye, a 16-year-old Chinatown native, gentrification interested her because she has watched it happen outside her apartment window on Eldridge St. “I saw luxury condos go up all over the place,” Jenny said. “I thought it was really confusing that it was happening so quickly.”

By being in the summer program, Jenny came face to face with what program coordinators say are the direct results of high-priced real estate that has sprung up just blocks from Jenny’s home. She said she met a man who came into the union’s office with an eviction notice. He was elderly and spoke little English.

“That was really scary for me because he lived on the edge of Chinatown and Soho,” Jenny said. “It was clear why — probably development.”

The students also unveiled a map meant to show the signs of gentrification in Chinatown. A dozen sites were highlighted, including the luxury apartment building Hester Gardens, a Dunkin’ Donuts on Mulberry St., new office buildings and construction sites. These locations were photographed, and in their captions was a refrain: who do these developments serve?

Not those who are already in the neighborhood, said Helena Wong, one of the program’s coordinators. “We are not opposed to development,” Wong said. It’s good for the community to have services. Our concern is that Chinatown residents won’t be able to afford the services, that they’ll be tailored to new residents with bigger wallets.”

Landlords in Chinatown are often chasing new tenants by renovating apartments and doubling or tripling the rent, said Wong and other organizers. Before they can do that, however, they have to get rid of existing tenants.

“Tenants face eviction, harassment and poor living conditions because their landlords want to get them out and bring in younger and wealthier tenants,” said Mansee Kong, one of the event’s organizers. To force out tenants, she said, unscrupulous building owners would deny repairs and basic services such as heat and hot water, and issue groundless eviction notices to their tenants.

Burst pipes and fallen ceilings were never fixed after a new landlord bought the building she lived in, said Zhi Qin Zheng, a member of the union. She told her story in front of the small crowd that gathered before the board game on a rainy afternoon. “He would say tomorrow, tomorrow—and tomorrow never came.”

Residents were not the only one who contend with troublesome landlords. Han Ho Tran owned a grocery store on Centre Street before a new building owner presented him with a false lease that listed a much higher rent, he said. Tran went to court, lost the case, and now the building has become condominiums.

“Unfortunately you will encounter those situations because there are unscrupulous landlords,” said David Eng, spokesperson for the Chinatown Partnership, an economic development corporation for the area. The corporation encourages investment in Chinatown and promotes the neighborhood to visitors to bring business in. “I think there is good and bad in gentrification, the issue is how do you find the balance.”

Stopping gentrification is not realistic, Eng said. Rather, the community should focus on creating affordable housing for people of all income levels.

Until that happens, however, Ava Wu, 20, who emcee-ed the game, plans to keep fighting the terrible conditions she sees her friends living with in Chinatown.

“We young people, we have to stand up,” she said in Cantonese.

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