Chinese Moving to East Harlem in a Quiet Shift From Downtown

 

 

 

Chinese Moving to East Harlem in a Quiet Shift From Downtown

 

NY Times, February 25, 2013 

 

For 10 days last month, a robbery pattern in East Harlem drew the heightened attention of the Police Department, which flooded the area with patrol officers and papered storefronts with wanted posters. 

 

There was nothing unusual in the robber’s methods — stalking victims into elevators, beating them with fists and making off with wallets, purses and cellphones — but his choice of victims added an alarming and, for Spanish Harlem, perhaps unexpected demographic twist: all were Chinese. 

 

The pattern of robberies, eight in all, brought unique challenges for the uptown precincts and forced the Police Department to draw from its well of 149 Chinese-speaking officers, some of whom were reassigned to East Harlem from Chinatown. 

 

It also thrust into violent relief an otherwise hidden demographic change in East Harlem: The population of Asian residents, mostly Chinese, has quietly ballooned in the last decade, doubling in the southern part of the neighborhood and tripling in the north, according to census figures. 

 

At the Franklin Plaza apartments, on 107th Street between Second and Third Avenues, the elevator chatter comes increasingly in Mandarin. 

 

On the 11th floor, where Jingjing Meng, 43, lives with her husband, their three children and her mother, four of the five apartments belong to Chinese families. 

 

At the local Head Start program, more than a third of the 5-year-old students are Asian, including Ms. Meng’s son. “It’s convenient,” said Ms. Meng, who moved from Staten Island about two years ago. “To Chinatown, it’s 25 minutes by the 6 train.” 

 

The growth reflects broader trends in the changing demographics of the city, which registered a rise of roughly 30 percent in Asian residents since the last census. At the same time, Chinese immigrants priced out of Chinatown have settled in new enclaves along subway lines that connect to downtown. 

 

Last month’s attacks, for which a suspect was arrested on Jan. 29, spread fear among Asian residents in the neighborhood, many of whom said they had previously felt safe. 

 

“Now, every time we leave an elevator and the subway, we feel we have to look over our shoulder to make sure no one is around,” a 35-year-old mother said in Mandarin. She declined to give her name out of concern for her safety. 

 

The Police Department made a priority of ending the robberies. It posted squad cars on corners with flashing lights and sent Chinese-speaking officers like Sgt. Hao Li to walk a beat uptown. 

 

Sergeant Li, who normally oversees officers in Chinatown’s Fifth Precinct, was among those deployed to East Harlem. The sergeant, who, like many new Chinese residents of the city, speaks Fujianese and Mandarin but not Cantonese, said he had not known people were moving up there. “But I was kind of expecting it,” he said. “Chinatown is really too small.” 

 

The police identified Jason Commisso, 34, as the suspect. They said he had once lived in the area. He was arrested in New Jersey on a Greyhound bus; the police said he was seeking to flee to Texas. Mr. Commisso, who is being held on $75,000 bail, has not yet entered a plea; his next scheduled court date is March 14. 

 

Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said the police had occasionally encountered criminal patterns that focused on new immigrants “because of the belief that they may be less likely to call the police, and when they do, they are not as good a witness as somebody who is a native English speaker.” 

 

Many new residents have come to East Harlem through the New York City Housing Authority, which has more than 15,000 public housing units in the neighborhood. The authority has registered a 68 percent rise in Asian residents in the area’s public housing over the past five years, compared with a 33 percent increase in public housing citywide. 

 

“It’s quite a jump,” said Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who began noticing an ever-larger number of Chinese-speakers in East Harlem senior centers. 

 

Along with Union Settlement Association, a social-service agency in East Harlem, Ms. Mark-Viverito helped organize a first Lunar New Year party last year. A bigger space was needed for this year’s celebration. “This event has grown in just one year,” she said. 

 

Streamers hung with colorful cardboard dragons decorated a basketball court at the Union Settlement center on 104th Street, where more than 100 people gathered on Feb. 8 to eat a Chinese lunch and listen to traditional singing. 

 

John C. Liu, the city comptroller, a likely mayoral candidate and a native of Taiwan, made the rounds of the tables, introducing himself to the mainly elderly Chinese who had come. “You see the growth of the Chinese community in a lot of pockets of the city where you wouldn’t expect it,” Mr. Liu said. It is not surprising to see celebrations like this, he added. 

 

The event attracted residents both new and old. Paul Lee moved to East Harlem in 1962 with his wife, Gloria Galarza, whose first language is Spanish and who has family in the neighborhood. “This is not Harlem, it’s Spanish Harlem,” said Mr. Lee, 84. But he added with a laugh, “This section has got to be Chinese Harlem.” 

 

While growing rapidly, the numbers in East Harlem remain low compared with the city’s other thriving Asian enclaves in Flushing and Elmhurst, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn. In the 2010 census, 8.5 percent of residents in the southern section of East Harlem were listed as Asian, up from 4.6 percent a decade before. Further north, the proportion is smaller — 3 percent of the population in 2010 — but the growth was more sudden, up from less than 1 percent in 2000, according to an analysis by the City University of New York’s Center for Urban Research. 

 

“The patterns for non-English-speaking Chinese are very systematic and follow a specific logic,” said Peter Kwong, a professor of Asian-American studies at Hunter College. “Are there trains? Are there others up there who speak Chinese? And cost.” Chinatown, he added, remains a main hub for those residents. 

 

Indeed, many who move far from Lower Manhattan continue to view Councilwoman Margaret Chin as their representative. “We help anyone who walks in the door,” said Ms. Chin, whose district includes Chinatown. “But we do try to explain to them who their local council member is.” 

 

So far, the influx of Chinese immigrants has not had a parallel effect on East Harlem’s businesses, so most of their shopping for ethnic food is done downtown or in areas of Brooklyn and Queens. 

 

“I go to the Associated supermarket to get cereal or milk,” said Hally Chu, a member of Community Board 11 who bought a co-op apartment on East 118th Street. “But if I want to get bok choy or Chinese spices, I would do my shopping in Chinatown on my way home from work.” 

 

At a corner grocery on 108th Street, the owner, Ryung Kim, said she had tried to accommodate the demands of new customers. “They keep asking me for seasonings,” she said. “I’m Korean, so Chinese spices I don’t know too well. But little by little, we’re getting more.” 

 

Her shop sits directly across the street from Franklin Plaza, a cluster of middle-income co-op towers a short walk from the subway. Roger Minchala, a maintenance worker in the buildings, also owns an apartment there and said he had watched the neighborhood change. 

 

“There’s a lot of Chinese people on the waiting list” to get into the building, said Mr. Minchala, 50, who moved in four years ago. “It’s going to be a Chinatown in no time.” 

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/25/nyregion/chinese-moving-to-east-harlem-some-from-chinatown.html?ref=nyregion&_r=0&pagewanted=print 

 

 

 

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