Monday, September 5, 2011

Chinatown's garment biz shrivels, tourist traffic dwindles in lasting blow of 9/11

Paul Lee, a former businessman who lost his family store on Mott St. after 9/11 and is now running for district leader.

Paul Lee, a former businessman who lost his family store on Mott St. after 9/11 and is now running for district leader.

When the dust settled on Sept. 11, 2001, it looked like Chinatown - a few blocks east of the destruction - had somehow survived intact.

It had not.

By all accounts, the 9/11 attacks forever altered Chinatown's 130-year-old role as a gateway community for Asian immigrants.

"9/11 permanently changed Chinatown by essentially damaging the garment industry and the community," said May Chen, a former area garment union leader. "And there was a ripple effect."

Like the rest of lower Manhattan, Chinatown became a "frozen zone" after 9/11. No trucks were allowed south of Canal St. Residents had to show ID to machine-gun-toting officers on every corner. Smoke and dust filled the air.

Commerce ground to a halt as law enforcement commandeered 1,000 parking spots - on the street and at a nearby municipal garage. Businesses could not get deliveries or customers.

"There were signs on the BQE and Jersey Turnpike telling people, 'Avoid lower Manhattan,'" said Paul Lee of Mulberry St. "They were there for more than a year; they never put up signs saying 'Come back.'"

Lee, a third-generation Chinatown resident, was one of many forced to shut down. His grandfather's general store at 32 Mott St., the second-oldest business in Chinatown, hung on till 2003; others didn't last that long.

Chinatown was treated differently from neighborhoods next to the World Trade Center ruins when federal aid began flowing.

"Originally, it was not eligible for aid," said Wellington Chen, head of the Chinatown Partnership, a coalition of business owners and community groups formed to spearhead rebuilding after 9/11.

As a result, the neighborhood suffered slowly, away from the glare of TV cameras blocks away.

Statistics tell the story:


  • The 2010 census found an 8.7% drop in Chinatown's population since 2000. In Tribeca and SoHo, the population jumped 45%, partly due to a spike in new residential units in those neighborhoods, spurred by post-Sept.11 tax breaks.
  •  The neighborhood remains mostly Asian (63%), compared to 16.3% white, but new census figures show Chinatown has become less Asian and more white, with a 15.2% drop in the Asian population and a 42% increase in the white population since 2000.There are fewer than 50 garment shops left in Chinatown, down from a high of 246, Chen said. He said the number of garment workers has dropped to 2,000 from 14,000.
  • Some 23% of Chinatown's residents were unemployed in the three months after 9/11, due to layoffs in the garment and restaurant industries, according to the Asian American Federation of New York.
  • Unable to park temporarily near the old historic section, tourist buses wrote Chinatown off their itineraries, Lee said.
  • The number of tourists visiting Chinatown once numbered 2,000 a day; last year, a daily average of half that number stopped at a Canal St. kiosk to ask for directions, tourism officials say. 
  • Three subway stops serving Chinatown - Grand St., Canal St. and East Broadway - have lost 3.5 million riders a year since 2000, MTA records show.

    Community leaders note Chinatown was slow to tap into the pipeline of aid once it started to flow. People resisted applying, Lee said, because the "Chinese mind-set is not to trust government."

    When the area finally sought help, language barriers slowed the process. Asian Americans for Equality claimed FEMA rejected 70% of Chinatown's loss claims largely due to language problems.

    Meanwhile, the post-9/11 real estate boom inflated costs so much that loft space became too expensive for garment factories.

    Even if the factories remained in Manhattan, officials said, workers would have found it tougher to live within walking distance.

    "Housing became very expensive," said Chris Kui, AAFE's director, citing state figures showing how Chinatown has lost 11,000 rent-regulated apartments since 2000 via vacancy decontrol.

    Despite these troubles, community leaders remain hopeful.

    After 9/11, some garment workers who lost their jobs were retrained as health care, hotel and casino workers, May Chen said.

    Wellington Chen said a $6 million grant to the Chinatown Partnership has paid for 9,000 power washes for Chinatown storefronts, removal of 17million tons of garbage, reduced graffiti, painted mailboxes and improved streetlights.

    Chinatown also woke up politically after 9/11. Residents got on community boards and elected the neighborhood's first Chinese-American, Margaret Chin, to the City Council.

    Lee and his allies have formed a new Democratic club to challenge the political hold of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who represents the district.

    "I'm very optimistic," Kui said. "There is a sense of community that came out of 9/11, an understanding that you need to participate, to have a voice." 


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