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New York. In Chinatown, the still visible stigma of 9/11

The Kimlau square is bathed in relative calm for a long weekend Saturday. In this major crossroads of Chinatown, located less than 300 meters from the town hall of New York, we no longer count the restaurants displaying a sign as their only menu out of business Where room for rent.

Before it was always full here, remembers Wellington Chen. The square was the hub from Lower Manhattan for all island buses. Buses are now arriving in droppings, the fault of the closure of Park Row, the artery that connects Chinatown to the World Trade Center. They closed it just after the attacks and it has never been reopened since, cowardly Wellington Chen annoyed. This 68-year-old Taiwanese American is the director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District, an association created after the September 11, 2001 attacks, which set itself the goal of renovating Chinatown.

Years of waiting for help

It was not until 2007 that the association had the necessary funds, a good part of Chinatown not initially being included in the perimeter considered to be affected by the attacks. It was not a priority for the city, confirms Jo-Ann Yoo. Although located in the middle of Lower Manhattan, it was necessary to fight to obtain the same compensation and reconstruction aid as other neighborhoods like Tribeca for example. The 50-year-old is the director of the Asian American Federation, an association that defends the rights of Americans of Asian origin.

One of the problems once the area has come to be included in the perimeter affected by the attacks is the special situation of Chinatown. Many of the many workers who lost their jobs at the time were undocumented, Wellington Chen explains. The same goes for housing compensation, in Chinatown everything is often done without a lease.


Eleanor and her mother, in their souvenir shop, Ting’s Gift Shop. © Élie Courboulay

The Covid has decimated the surviving businesses

If some aid has finally arrived, on the other hand the reopening of Park Row remains from now on the hobbyhorse of Wellington and the merchants of the district. On the small rue de Doyers Street, site of the opening of New York’s first Chinese theater at the end of the 19th century, Eleanor Ting’s souvenir shop is an exception. The store, opened by his mother in 1958, resisted the post 9/11 era.

But the arrival of the Covid last year has put the brakes on the renewal of Chinatown and all of Lower Manhattan.

More than 21% of offices in the area are free to rent, as many fewer customers for the many Chinese restaurants. Downtown metro station traffic has averaged 6.4 million passengers per day since the start of the year. A drop of more than 80% compared to the same period in 2019. Across southern Manhattan, more than 350 stores have closed permanently since March 2020, including 17 restaurants and 139 shops just for Chinatown, according to Wellington Chen

photo"> photo jo-ann yoo  ©  elie courboulay

Jo-Ann Yoo © Elie Courboulay

And just like after 9/11, the locals feel like they are the fifth wheel of the coach. Chinatown is one of the poorest areas of the city and yet still comes in the last places when it comes to handing out aid, explains Jo-Ann Yoo. Blame it on an administrative subtlety. Indeed, aid and other subsidies are calculated according to postal codes. However, Chinatown is cut in three. It shares the zip code of Tribeca to the west, Soho to the north, and the Lower East Side to the east, three of the city’s wealthiest areas. According to a 2019 survey, about 24% of the roughly 50,000 residents of Chinatown (a figure that does not include undocumented migrants) live below the poverty line, compared to an average of 16% for New York City.

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