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After 20 years in real estate, this Chinatown resident is turning to art to reclaim the neighborhood

Median asking rent in Manhattan's Chinatown and the Lower East Side jumped from $2,495 to $3,000 between 2010 and 2017.

Before businesses open their doors across Manhattan's Chinatown, John Yu is up and spray painting security gates across the neighborhood.

It's a change of pace for the 59-year-old, who has worked in real estate for more than 20 years. Yu's goal is to beautify the neighborhood with Chinese symbols and imagery in public spaces (the business owners in the area are acquainted with Yu and his work, which he calls the "88 Gate Project," referencing a lucky number in Chinese culture).

"I noticed that some Westerners had sprayed some beautiful pictures on the gates, so I wanted to give it a try," Yu said in Cantonese, adding that he always loved drawing as a kid.

Born in Hong Kong and now living in Chinatown with his wife and two daughters, Yu said he feels like he's achieved the American Dream: They are homeowners, active members of their communities, and have had successful careers.

But while Yu's life story may be aspirational, the reality of how much New York City has changed in the last two decades — rising rents, gentrification — is unavoidable. In his research, the late Peter Kwong — who was a professor of Asian-American studies and urban studies at Hunter College in New York City — wrote about how Manhattan’s Chinatown historically served as a working class enclave for Chinese laborers in the restaurant, textile, manufacturing, and other industries in the 1870s.

Immigration to New York from the West Coast centered around the railroad and mining industries, Kwong wrote in “The New Chinatown,” a book about the politics of Chinese ethnic enclaves. As Chinese laborers entered these work forces, resentment from the mostly-white residents grew, Kwong found, leading to a “push” of Chinese to the East Coast.

“This push has to do with increasing hostility toward Chinese workers as a source of unfair competition and labor,” Tarry Hum, a professor and chair of the Queens College’s Department of Urban Studies, said by phone. Discriminatory legislation was another source for this push of Chinese to New York, she added.

“A lot of that sentiment was stirred up by union workers, which resulted in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act,” Hum said. “There was violence in Los Angeles and San Francisco. ... I think that a sense of threat and violence dispersed the population.”

As more Chinese moved east, lower Manhattan’s Chinatown steadily grew. In the 1870s, there were 12 recorded Chinese residents, according to Census data. By the 1880s, the number had jumped to about 747 (people of Japanese and Chinese descent were categorized together in these Censuses).

When an immigration quota was removed in 1965 by the Hart-Celler Immigration Bill, diversity in the New York area boomed, growing the Chinese population to more than 300,000.

There has also been a change in the cost of living in the area: Asking median rent in Chinatown and the Lower East Side jumped from $2,495 to $3,000 between 2010 and 2017, according to data from the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University.

Meanwhile, median income of the area’s residents showed marginal .29 percent growth between 2015 and 2016, according to data compiled from the Census Bureau, while poverty rates were at 25.8 percent. For home ownership, median property values have increased by 1.97 percent. The shift has caused some scholars to say the neighborhood is gentrifying.

For Chinatowns specifically, gentrification is not so much about shifts in the race of the resident but about class and resources, Hum noted.

“Often times people misunderstand, they’ll look at Flushing say, ‘It’s not really gentrification because this area is still Chinese,’” Hum said, referencing a neighborhood with a large Chinese population in Queens, New York. “But Flushing is no longer geared at serving the needs of a more working class population. It’s about catering to a global elite."

"When you are talking about immigrant enclave communities, it’s different,” she added.

Kwong has also seen the possibility of a shift. When asked in 2009 if he thought Chinatown might be lost due to gentrification, he told the New York Times, “If you define Chinatown as a place where people work, live and socialize, then it will most likely disappear."

"Many factories have closed down, and lower-income residents have less reason to live in Chinatown, he added. "Like many other old immigrant communities, the space will still be there, but the essence will be gone.”

For John Yu, since his first painting in June, the "88 Gates Project" has been his way of helping preserve that essence.

"It's important for him to add a sense of Chinese representation to things that are slowly, possibly becoming lost," Winnie Yu, John's daughter, said. "He's trying to put Chinese landscape, symbolism, and his representation of Chinese history in Chinatown."

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