Oculus - Spring 2011 - (Page 17)
one block over
BY CLAIRE WILSON o much about Manhattan’s Chinatown can’t be quantified. No one can say for sure what the actual borders are. No one can say how many Asians, mostly Chinese, actually live in the district because of the number of undocumented immigrants. What Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership, will tell you is that meaningful redevelopment is almost out of the question. This is because out of 5,000 residential units, more than 4,200 are rent regulated and most floor plates are too small for major retail chains. He’ll note with a shrug that while 30 million pedestrians a year walk on the main artery, Canal Street, there is no crosstown bus. Why? Because with the Manhattan Bridge at one end and the Holland Tunnel at the other, east-west traffic is usually at a standstill. The architect/planning consultant who did a stint at I.M. Pei & Partners early in his career also acknowledges a serious rat infestation sustained by underground water tunnels, and a long-standing street-level trash problem created by the ubiquitous restaurants and food markets. Yet, says Chen, “We are sitting on a gold mine.” That bright assessment is based on a number of constants, first of which is change. For centuries, this part of Manhattan has been the gateway to the American Dream for countless ethnic groups, from Eastern European Jews, Germans, Italian, and Irish to the Asians who dominate today. The small part of the neighborhood that was traditionally Chinese has subsumed what was once Italian and Eastern European Jewish, as those former residents prospered and moved to the outer boroughs and suburbs over the course of the last century. Today’s Chinese immigrants make the same geographic trajectory but, unlike the Jewish and Italian communities that preceded them, the flow of new arrivals remains steady. “The Lower East Side performs the same function it did 100 years ago: it is the front room to America,” says Roberta Gratz, a writer on urban development issues. “It absorbs new immigrants and introduces them to the rest of the country.” Gratz was the guiding force behind the restoration of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, which now stands as a monument to those shifting immigration tides.
Courtesy Brian Rose, from “Time and Space on the Lower East Side” Courtesy Chinatown Partnership
Chinatown: Where Change is a Constant
(above) The Explore Chinatown kiosk with a “Where is it?” map on Canal Street is a beacon for millions of tourists. (left) The newly-restored Eldridge Street Synagogue is a monument to the shifting immigration tides in the neighborhood.
“The Lower East Side performs the same function it did 100 years ago: it is the front room to America. It absorbs new immigrants and introduces them to the rest of the country.”
Founded in 1887 by a group of Eastern European Orthodox Jewish immigrants, its congregation has never missed a Shabbat service in 124 years. But after deteriorating slowly for decades, the building reopened in 2007 following a 20-year restoration, along with the new Museum at Eldridge Street. Jill H. Gotthelf, AIA, principal at Walter Sedovic Architects, prepared the master plan for the restoration in 1990 while on staff at Robert E. Meadows Architects. According to her, the Moorish-style building with its Romanesque detailing reflects the experience of all newcomers to the area. “It fits every immigrant’s idea of what they can achieve when they come together as a community,” Gotthelf says. The synagogue is one star in the firmament of future prosperity that Chen is banking on for Chinatown, which lost valuable tourism revenues after 9/11. He is hoping the 10th anniversary of the attacks will boost tourism to the area, which is within walking distance to many other attractions, including museums of Jewish and Irish heritage, Little Italy, Wall Street, and the South Street Seaport. Specifically he is counting on tourists from China where, he says, there are more English speakers than in the U.S. and Canada combined, and where the average visitor to the U.S. spends a whopping $7,000 each. The majority will make that obligatory pilgrimage to Chinatown. “Mott Street is our Mount Vernon,” Chen says. Claire Wilson writes for the New York Times.
Design for a Change: Buildings, People, Energy
Spring 2011 Oculus
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Oculus - Spring 2011
Oculus - Spring 2011
A Word from the Editor
Center for Architecture
One Block Over
Opener: A Critique of Pure Sustainability
Testing Green Ideas
New Life for a Boomer Building
School Back in Session After 30-Year Recess
It Takes More Than a Village
What Every Architect Should Know About NYC’s New Energy Laws
Index to Advertisers
Oculus - Spring 2011