Chinatown is NOT for Sale!

As the new jail in Chinatown begins construction, residents fear what the building could mean for the neighborhood's future.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

As someone who lives only two blocks away from Chinatown and has grown up there, throughout my life I’ve seen the impacts of gentrification on my community. This part of New York City is the home of 100-year-old restaurants, dozens of East Asian-owned small businesses, and generations of immigrants who have planted their seeds of hope in America. Recently, I've seen new shops that specialize in selling decorative chopsticks or Instagrammable ice cream—all of which contribute to the gentrification of the neighborhood—and have become worried for the surrounding businesses, whose rent will undoubtedly skyrocket. 

According to a Small Businesses Survey taken in 2021 during the pandemic, 84 percent of respondents saw a business decline after the pandemic, and 74 percent stated that, at the time, neighborhood rent was their greatest concern. Suddenly, native businesses started to shut down all over the neighborhood, some of which included Alibaba’s market—one of the most affordable fruit sellers in the area and Hop Shing Dim Sum—an almost 50-year-old restaurant run by generations of immigrants. Now in 2024, our community is still fighting to recover from the recession left by the pandemic as property value continues to rise. Many of my friends’ families currently live or own small businesses in Chinatown, and they’ve established a wonderful community. However, with the current rate of gentrification, I am afraid of how much longer they will be able to stay as the rent continues to rise. However, the worst may still be to come. After all the economic blows Chinatown has withstood since 2020, the last thing we expected was an uppercut from the city government: the approval of a plan to build the world’s tallest jail in the heart of the neighborhood. The construction of the new facility would lead to the displacement of businesses at an ever higher rate, bringing further job loss and instability to an already vulnerable community. 

The massive tower—deemed the “Mega-Jail” by outraged residents—is the start of a much-needed plan to transform NYC’s penal facilities, which infamously includes Rikers Island on the East River. The Rikers Island jail is reported to have “the most hellish conditions in the country,” as 10,000 inmates face inhumane treatment and hazardous conditions daily. The latest inspection in 2023 included reports of issues with fire safety, such as unattended fire watch posts, nauseating hygiene facilities infested with mold, and inadequate ventilation. In 2022, 19 inmates died as a result of this abuse and neglect. There is no question that change is necessary. The Rikers complex is planned to be shut down and replaced by four new jails in the city, one of which will be the Chinatown Mega-Jail. City officials hope that the new facility and space will pioneer humane conditions for inmates. However, as demolition begins, the community around the site is left to languish as jail developers and landlords profit. 

Displacement of residents in addition to businesses will occur as a result of the construction. The proposed jail would be built on Baxter Street and Centre Street, which is heavily populated with many senior citizens and families. According to an anonymous secretary from a nursing home near the site, cracks have already started appearing in the foundation of the building, and many residents have been experiencing respiratory issues and coughing as a result. This is only the beginning. With the Mega-Jail set to be completed around 2027, time is running out for Chinatown.

If construction is completed, the jail will displace countless small businesses, workers, and families. We already see the kind of damage this inflicts upon Chinatown residents as the current displacement due to gentrification is already taking away jobs, leaving workers struggling to pay off the ever-increasing rent. Examples of some of the businesses that would be directly impacted by the construction of the jail are Chung Pak Day Care Center, Nha Trang Centre Vietnamese restaurant, and the Thai Son restaurant. Organizations such as the Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC) have even been forcing their Chinese immigrant home care workers to work day-long shifts in order to withstand the increasing rent. Many workers in nearby restaurants have also found it difficult to get by without subjecting themselves to 24-hour workdays. If the upzoning of Chinatown properties continues, starting with the Mega-Jail, what will become of the Asian American workers who are the backbone of our community? 

Currently, NYC has a record number of overcrowded prisons with thousands in pretrial detention every day. The fact that a jail one-third the size of the Empire State Building is needed to accommodate the inmates from Rikers demonstrates the magnitude of mass incarceration in our criminal justice system. Instead of continuing to build jails to support this over-imprisonment, the $2 billion in funds planned for the Mega-Jail could be invested in New York City’s government to help the community, rehabilitation, and mental health support—programs that would all help lower the rate of incarceration in the city as well as assist inmates in transitioning out of Rikers until it can be closed down completely. However, the greed of developers such as landlord of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Jonathan Chu, one of the main organizations funding the Mega-Jail construction, is bleeding Chinatown dry.

MOCA and CPC were both organizations that were created to support the East Asian residents of Chinatown, yet ironically they are also the ones who have betrayed the community. When I went to visit the picket line in front of MOCA on Sunday, March 17th, an anonymous protester stated, “I actually think that the model minority myth affects the way this issue is portrayed in the media.” They added, “If you look at articles about this picket from when we first started, the director of the museum, Nancy Yao, came out and told all the Chinese protesters that they didn’t understand what they were doing and that they didn’t know what they were protesting about. She was even like ‘Here’s a free tote bag’ to get us to go away. There’s sort of a class divide in the model minority myth where people who work in museums look down on restaurant workers and shop owners and the other jobs that people of this picket line have.” 

The model minority myth is a stereotype that some minorities, such as Asians, are inherently more successful and “law-abiding,” leading to the erasure of their struggles. Nancy Yao’s assumption that the picket line workers were unaware of their picket’s background highlights the way that the topic of the Mega-Jail can be, and has been, brushed off. No one expects Asian Americans, especially immigrants, to fight back and stand up for their community.

It’s terrible seeing our neighborhood suffer. What’s worse is seeing members of the city government actively supporting it. The solution to our inhumane justice system should not be to destroy Chinatown in the process.