Kenneth Park Architects

KPA Presents Street Evolution: Chinatown


Happy Chinese New Year! Welcome to the Year of the Pig!

Chinese New Year is a colorful and authentically exciting celebration in New York. It pays homage to the historically rich Chinese culture which values luck, celebration and good tidings for the year to come. If you hop aboard the B, D or F train and take a trip to the Lower East Side, you will find the area is in full celebration mode for the Chinese Lunar New Year.

A Haven Created For and By Chinese Immigrants

Long before Chinatown was known as the place for cultural celebration, amazing restaurants and street markets, it was actually sought as refuge for Chinese immigrants. Before Chinese immigrants made their way over to the East coast and settled in lower Manhattan, the Golden State of California was home to many Chinese travelers. “Beginning in the mid nineteenth century, the Chinese arrived in significant numbers, lured to the Pacific coast of the United States by the stories of “Gold Mountain” California during the gold rush of the 1840s and 1850s and brought by labor brokers to build the Central Pacific Railroad. Most arrived expecting to spend a few years working, thus earning enough money to return to China, build a house and marry.”


However as work in the gold mines subsided and the railroad project which provided jobs to a majority of workers came to completion, the competition for employment rose for non-Chinese laborers and Chinese immigrants.  Ultimately, self-segregated and pushed out due to social tension, Chinese workers moved East toward larger cities with their families in tow.

Brought together by the need for survival, Chinatown was formed and became a self-sustaining governance with an internal structure. Many of the Chinese who were barred from citizenship and its protections, formed their own internal structures that provided jobs, medical care and housing.  A group of merchants actually created the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in the 1880s, which functioned as a quasi-local government.  Its appointed leader was known as the “Mayor of Chinatown.”  Underneath this umbrella, there were roughly three kinds of associations: The fongs, people from similar districts in China; the tongs, business or trade associations; and family clan name associations (e.g. the Lee’s).”


Booming Business for the Lower Eastside

Geographically, Chinatown was defined by three specific streets: Mott, Pell and Doyers.  Along these streets were countless shops and department stores selling Chinese knickknacks and gifts, restaurants and inexpensive eateries.  By the late 1880’s, larger establishments began to appear in these areas aimed at Chinese and non-Chinese tourists and residents.

The interest in Chinese living turned Chinatown into a “trendy tourist” space for non-Chinese occupants of New York.  Wealthy up towners found themselves participating in a form of “class tourism” where they visited relatively impoverished areas of NYC.  Many business owners capitalized on this by using it as an opportunity to expose people to the Chinese culture.  Many restaurant owners developed Chinese /American quasi dishes such as chop suey.   


Chinatown Today

With the increase in luxury condominiums, night clubs, bars and pop-up shops, Chinatown has experienced the effects of gentrification like many modern day New York City neighborhoods. Tourism, food markets and restaurants remain major industries and the district boasts a number of historical and cultural attractions.  It is considered one of the popular destinations for tour companies like Big Onion, Chinatown Tours and the Lower East Side History Projects. Mini Chinatowns have spread to different parts of New York such as Elmhurst Queens, Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.  Although much of Manhattan’s Chinatown has presently given way to bars, coffee shops, ice cream parlors, museums and pop-up shops dedicated to the young and more affluent communities; Chinatown remains a city treasure with a strong history and presence.

Join us every week for Street Evolution. We profile a New York City area/street and explore the amazing history it has to offer!

Have a suggestion for a Street Evolution topic? Share it in the comments!