‘Not what it used to be’: in New York, Flushing’s Asian residents brace against gentrification
Thu 13 Aug 2020 05.00 EDT
The cultural and culinary landscape of Flushing, in Queens, has been disrupted as Asian American conglomerates gentrify the working-class area
The optics of a white man trying to grab a young woman of color, while police officers stood by, was ripe for outraged clicks. After a tense debate at a public hearing on 10 February, the Queens community board chair, Eugene Kelty, lunged at a Chinese American woman who was part of a large group opposing a special waterfront district in Flushing, New York.
Later that night, the board – whose leadership is almost all white and had conducted the entire hearing in English – voted in favor of the waterfront district, which would pave the way for more luxury developments there.
What wasn’t captured in the videos that circulated after the meeting that night was who was seated near the front of the room: the developers – F&T Group, Young Nian Group and United Construction and Development Group – who own most of the property in the waterfront and have formed a development consortium, FWRA LLC, to push aggressively for its development.
Young Nian Group is a subsidiary of Zhonggeng Group, an international conglomerate headquartered in Shanghai. The founder of United Group is Chris Jiashu Xu, who immigrated from China as a teenager and now serves as president. Two Taiwanese American immigrants, Sunny Chiu and Michael Lee, founded F & T Group, which is headquartered in Downtown Flushing.
The three developers have stressed in public hearings that they are not outsiders to Flushing, which is 69% Asian. “They’ve been here, they live here, they work here, they’ve invested here,” said Ross Moskowitz, an attorney for the developers at a different public hearing in February.
The influx of transnational capital and rise of luxury developments in Flushing has displaced longtime immigrant residents and small business owners, as well as disrupted its cultural and culinary landscape. These changes follow the familiar script of gentrification, but with a change of actors: it is Chinese American developers and wealthy Chinese immigrants who are gentrifying this working-class neighborhood, which is majority Chinese.
In Downtown Flushing, where the waterfront is located, the median income per resident is $25,000. Most of its population are foreign-born immigrants (68% Asian and 16% Hispanic). Between 2000 and 2010, Downtown Flushing’s Chinese community doubled while its Korean and Indian populations declined by 30%.
What started in the early 2000s, when Michael Bloomberg’s administration identified the Flushing waterfront as an underutilized area that could benefit from development, has turned into rapid displacement. In 2008, when the financial crisis left American banks hesitant to lend, Chinese real estate investors stepped in, putting money into an area they saw as a better bargain than Manhattan and a good place for their kids to live while studying in the US. Over the past decade, only Williamsburg, Brooklyn, saw more condos built than Flushing out of all of New York City. These units don’t come cheaply: last year, prices for two-bedroom apartments in Tangram, the two-tower luxury mixed-use development built by F&T last year, started at $1.15m.
Seonae Byeon, a Korean immigrant who grew up in Flushing and a tenant organizer with Korean community action organization MinKwon Center, says she regularly hears about people moving into basements and attics, or sharing a bedroom with two or three others – more rarely, eight to nine. While this is a longstanding practice there, she says the number of people who are forced to do this has been increasing rapidly because of gentrification. According to data from the department of buildings, complaints of illegal home conversions in Flushing’s community board district, where apartments are subdivided into multiple dwellings often in hazardous ways, have steadily increased since 2010.
Ten years ago, Byeon would chat with Korean grandmothers selling vegetables in Downtown Flushing. The aunties aren’t there any more. In high school, she hung out with friends in Assi Plaza, an affordable Korean grocery store located in the now hotly contested waterfront. But in 2014, Assi was closed and the land sold for $55m; it was then resold multiple times until Young Nian Group bought it for $115m last year.
“For an immigrant who has limited English, you are able to go to a store [in Flushing] without being terrified or scared of speaking English, because there are signs in Chinese, Korean,” she says. “If you need somebody to help you with certain things, you might have a neighbor who speaks the same language as you. If you are feeling nostalgic and want to get a certain kind of food, you can get it.”
Perhaps the most significant change to Flushing is the disruption of its food scene. From 2000 to 2015, the number of food and drink retail stores has increased from almost 400 to more than 800. But many of the additions are high-end venues, such as the upscale Sichuan restaurant Guan Fu and international Asian chains like Papparich. This change is deliberate - Helen Lee, executive vice-president of F&T, is responsible for selecting retail tenants for more than 300,000 sq ft of space under development in Flushing. She told Eater in 2019 that she chooses restaurants that fit with Flushing’s changing population and that will change its “cheap eats” reputation.
When reached for comment, F&T’s PR representative, Relevance International, said: “Any real vibrant dining scene requires diversity in choice. While F&T has brought in international renowned brands like HaiDiLao to the market, they’ve also supported longtime staples in Flushing like Nanxiang Xiao Long Bao ($6 dumplings) by leasing them space at One Fulton Square.”
The increase in fancy restaurants has negatively affected Flushing’s mom-and-pop businesses. James Chen, who runs a Flushing food delivery service, recalls growing up in Queens and coming into Flushing with his friends regularly for “good food and good times”. “Now we try to avoid Flushing,” he says. “People stay away unless they have to come in to see a doctor or accountant. I come in for work … it’s not what it used to be.”
Chen lists changes: traffic is out of control, it’s overcrowded, 90% of the restaurants that he grew up frequenting have shut down largely due to the tripling of rent prices.
Still, there are many holdouts in Flushing’s food scene. Main Street Imperial Taiwanese Gourmet, which has been operating since 1999, is one of them. Its owner and founder, Tom Lin (or Chef Lin, as he likes to be called), immigrated from Taiwan over 40 years ago when he was 21.
Soft-spoken and quick to laugh, Chef Lin comes out of the kitchen to chat, bringing his son, Justin, a senior in college, to translate for him. He says that if he was fluent in English, his dream would be to host a television food show like Emeril Lagasse’s. In his restaurant, he serves traditional Taiwanese dishes, such as 三杯雞 (three-cup chicken) which typically involves a cup of soy sauce, a cup of rice wine and a cup of sesame oil. Chef Lin doesn’t vary the recipe too much, but he is very particular about his soy sauce and will only use a Taiwanese brand, Kim Ve Wong.
While “three cup chicken” is the restaurant’s most popular dish, Chef Lin’s wife, Annie, prefers another dish: 豆腐鍋 (beancurd casserole), cubed tofu covered with a thin, crispy skin of batter, drizzled with ground pork, garlic and shredded ginger, served in a hot pot, priced at $8.50. Although they are traditionally a dine-in restaurant – a section of the wall is covered with photos of visitors including famous Taiwanese tennis and baseball players, posed next to a much shorter, baby-faced Justin – since the pandemic, they’ve switched to take-out.
Annie, who manages finances and operations, says that rental and mortgage prices in their neighborhood have doubled and tripled over the years. Most of their Taiwanese friends who are also restaurant owners have gone out of business due to rising rents.
To keep up with the price hike, Chef Lin first increased his hours to cover the work of two employees. He took out a notepad and wrote out his work hours: for the first five years, he worked 11am to 9.30pm, then 10am to 10pm, and even at one point, 11am to 4am. The long hours in a hot kitchen took a toll on his health – as evidenced by his high blood pressure and kidney issues – and on his family. Justin recalled: “I was in elementary school and my sister and I would write little notes for our dad and leave them on the table: ‘Don’t work so hard.’ ‘Come home early.’ My mom would guide us in writing them in Mandarin.”
If their business survives in the long run, Annie believes it is because they now own their space and the next door neighbor’s, which they bought eight years ago with help from family members. “Seeing what happened to my friends, I didn’t want the same thing to happen to us,” Chef Lin says, explaining why they purchased property. Now that he’s a landlord, he tries to be as fair as possible.
Not only are mom-and-pop restaurants closing down, but affordable grocery stores have started to shutter as well, including Assi Plaza in 2014, which Byeon visited frequently with friends; Met Food, which closed in 2015 (a luxury condominium is poised to take its place); and Great Wall Supermarket in 2018.
It’s not lost on Flushing’s Asian residents that they are being displaced by their own people.
“This displacement has been going on since 1996; it hasn’t been highlighted in the media primarily because it’s co-ethnics displacing other co-ethnics,” says John Choe, the Korean American executive director of the greater Flushing chamber of commerce.
Ying Yu Situ grew up in a working-class family in Manhattan’s Chinatown and now works with mostly east Asian youth at MinKwon. Recently, they chose the waterfront issue as their main campaign.
“We address the fact that the people trying to displace us are other Chinese people. They [the youth] can physically see that, because when we went to a community board hearing, the developers were seated on one side, and they were clearly other Asian people,” she says. This observation has led to “emotional conversations” among the youth, about “the attitudes with which poor people are treated”.
“For some wealthier Chinese people, they honestly feel like being poor is a crime,” Situ says, with a rise in her voice. “Like it’s something to be ashamed of and get rid of.”
While the three developers behind the waterfront district told the Guardian that the majority of their investments are from the US, it’s also clear that they rely on a transnational financial network. Young Nian Group is a subsidiary of a Shanghai-based conglomerate; F&T’s joint venture with Shanghai Construction Group gave rise to their latest luxury complex, Tangram; and United Group and its partners received a $100m loan from the Bank of China for Court Square City View Tower in Long Island City, Queen’s tallest and first billion-dollar condo.
Transnational investments are significant because they supercharge gentrification, Dr Tarry Hum, professor and chair of Urban Studies at Queens College, explained. Although the city administration, dating to Bloomberg, has long held plans to develop Flushing’s waterfront, what remained missing was the money. “That’s where these Chinese developers come in – they were tasked with drumming up the money, but with a tremendous amount of public benefits.”
Whether the special waterfront district is approved or rejected will come down to the upcoming votes of city planning commission and council member Peter Koo. For community members, this battle against the special district for the waterfront is just the beginning. Activists like Byeon; Bobby Nathan, Flushing’s longtime Black tenant organizer; and others behind the Flushing Anti-Displacement Alliance and other coalitions are clear on their demands: they want more affordable housing, sanitation services, schools, senior and youth centers, union jobs and green spaces. That’s their vision of what the waterfront could be.
In other words, Flushing residents want more public, not private, investment. This goes against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing strategy, which requires relying on developers who are permitted by the city to build tall luxury condominiums if they designate a percentage of the units as “affordable”.
To decouple luxury development and affordable housing in order to obtain genuinely public goods will require a mass movement mobilizing first-generation and second-generation immigrants from all backgrounds. Time will tell if the organizers can build enough momentum to not just soften the oncoming wave of development, but to carve out a permanently livable space for all who call Flushing home.