The Bottom LineThe Bottom Line

Why Chinatown Is So Delicious, and Why It Might Not Be So Forever

Chinatown's produce supply chain is completely different from where most other grocery stores get their goods, but that network may be in jeopardy.

(Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

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During summers when I was in high school, my cousins and I would help out at my uncle’s Chinese restaurant on Staten Island, N.Y. We’d stay at his house, wake up early and ride into the city with him in a Chevy Lumina minivan with the back two rows of seats taken out, replaced with a shallow metal bin. It was like a rite of passage in my family.

Before going to the restaurant, we’d drive into Manhattan’s Chinatown six days a week and fill up the back of that minivan with whatever fruits, vegetables, meat, noodles, rice, and other ingredients his cooks said they were running low on the night before. Sometimes there was so much, we couldn’t fit in the minivan for the ride out to the restaurant, and we took the ferry out to Staten Island instead. My uncle told me he made those daily runs so that the food in the restaurant would always be fresh — everything tastes better that way.

I used to think that made my uncle’s restaurant unique. I was wrong. The wholesalers he purchased from in Chinatown are crucial not only to a regional network of East Asian restaurant owners and market retailers — they are crucial to a network of East Asian immigrant-run farms stretching up and down the East Coast as far as South Florida.

I heard all about that network on a walking tour one Saturday this May, led by Valerie Imbruce, an economic botanist now at SUNY Binghamton, and Stephen Fan, a designer. The tour attracted nearly a hundred participants across two tour sessions to hear about how this supply chain is different from the conventional supply chains tied to mainstream groceries and restaurants, how it came to exist and the challenges it faces as Chinatown and the surrounding neighborhoods have changed dramatically over the past decade and more changes loom.

Organized by City as a Living Laboratory as part of a larger set of walking tours in multiple cities, the Chinatown tour began at Sara Roosevelt Park, which runs through the heart of the neighborhood. Major events for the annual Lunar New Year celebrations take place here. Sometimes my cousins and I would hop out of the minivan and play three-on-three basketball here while my uncle drove around picking up supplies.

“The Chinatown marketplace is not an isolated enclave,” Imbruce told participants at the start of the tour. “Its social processes and infrastructure for food production are nested in a much larger food system.”

Imbruce first began studying those social processes and infrastructure more than a decade ago as part of her graduate research. Her findings were eventually published in “From Farm to Canal Street: Chinatown’s Alternative Food Network in the Global Marketplace,” available from Cornell University Press.

The main difference between Chinatown’s supply chain and mainstream supply chains is that Chinatown stores don’t purchase from a big, centralized distribution point for aggregating and exchanging goods on a massive scale, like NYC’s city-owned Hunts Point Food Market or the massive distribution centers associated with national corporate chains like Amazon’s Whole Foods. Instead, they buy from smaller wholesale distributors around the edges of Chinatown — the same ones my uncle used for his restaurant — like Tay Shing Corp., still operating today at the intersection of Allen and Division streets. And those distributors don’t purchase from large farms, but from smaller, mainly immigrant-run farms all along the East Coast.

In the research for her book, Imbruce told tour participants, she studied eight Chinatown wholesalers, five of which have closed or moved to other neighborhoods outside of Manhattan. For those still in business, it’s the proximity to each other and to the retailers in Chinatown that makes it possible for Chinatown to have such high-quality produce at such low prices, Imbruce explained. The closeness of the wholesalers means the restaurants and retailers nearby don’t have to invest in a lot of onsite storage at their locations, keeping their own costs low — so low that some shoppers falsely believe cheap Chinatown produce is poor quality.

The main tradeoff of having wholesalers close to retailers with little to no onsite storage is sidewalk traffic. Small deliveries get made to retailers throughout the day as shelves or display trays run low. Minivans like my uncle’s drive in and out daily to pick up supplies. Hand trucks and mini-forklifts are a common sight, weaving in and out of pedestrians, cyclists and car traffic, making deliveries, off-loading pallets from trucks or loading boxes into minivans.

And yet, despite what might seem like unusually crowded sidewalks even for Manhattan, incidence of traffic injuries in Chinatown are about average compared to other busy parts of the city. Even when the local council member has complained about street safety, she’s pointed to lax enforcement of the city’s street safety laws against drivers as the main culprit, not hand trucks and mini-forklifts.

Where some people see chaotic congestion, “others see a vibrant, informally organized street life,” said Stephen Fan, whose own uncle makes the same minivan trips to Manhattan’s Chinatown for his family’s dim sum restaurant, three hours away in suburban Connecticut.

The walking tour progressed along Grand Street, a major shopping and restaurant thoroughfare for Chinatown as well as Little Italy, which Chinatown surrounds today. Imbruce’s Italian immigrant family, which came through Ellis Island in the early 20th century, used to run a grocery store on Mott Street, until Imbruce says it was fire-bombed because her grandparents refused to make protection payments to the Italian mafia.

Her family’s connection to the area brought her back when it came time for her to choose a research project under a fellowship with the graduate studies program of the New York Botanical Garden. Walking around the streets of Chinatown and Little Italy in the early 2000s, it was obvious to Imbruce that Chinatown’s food system was the most interesting thing when it came to food and agriculture systems, and yet no one had studied it in academia.

The tour continued to Grand and Elizabeth streets. As we walked, we saw vendors selling herbs on the sidewalk. Those, Imbruce said, were “mostly grown on home gardens in [Florida’s] Miami-Dade County, the only tropical climate in the U.S., where Vietnamese, Lao, Thai refugees bought five acres at a time in the 1980s and started cultivating elaborate home gardens for fruits, seeds, vegetables, and herbs reflecting their homelands — some seeds were smuggled in.”

These farmers continue to resist government incentives and other pressures to specialize, Imbruce explained. They would rather be small and diverse than big and specialized. It’s less of a risk with fewer eggs in any given basket. These networks of supply are important to farmers as well as Chinatown’s produce markets. The wholesalers in Chinatown pass the market’s demands to the farmers, and in exchange for a guaranteed supply of Napa cabbage, Chinese broccoli and mangoes, they promise fairer compensation.

At Grand and Mott streets, Imbruce explained how for certain goods, like baby bok choy, farmers get 20-33 percent of the retail price — terms these farmers don’t trust other wholesale buyers to give them. Just this past week, pallets of baby bok choy from Palm Beach County, Florida, could be seen being delivered to a wholesaler in Chinatown.

Finest Produce, a wholesaler in Chinatown. (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

Foraging is also part of the supply chain here, Fan explained. Some is hyper-local — plants that the city’s parks department considers weeds, like mulberry and gingko, are harvested as a hobby by aging Chinese immigrants. “The Chinatown food system thus helps to manage what is considered an invasive non-native species,” Fan said. Foraged foods from as far as coastal Maine can be found in Chinatown today. He also notes that there are permitting barriers for those selling foraged goods — they can’t be sold “from the sidewalk,” technically, though enforcement can often seem arbitrary.

The threats to what seems like a vibrant Chinatown food system are coming from all sides, which Imbruce and Fan both touched upon by the end of the tour. Many of Chinatown’s older buildings are still owned locally, by Chinese families or associations of Chinese families and businesses. These owners have valued the legacy Chinese retail markets, restaurants, and wholesalers as tenants despite the promise of higher rent from other potential tenants. But these older Chinese owners are also increasingly looking to get out of the real estate business as they age and as they are lured by investors with deep pockets and visions of cashing in on Chinatown’s combination of cultural cachet and proximity to neighborhoods like SoHo and the Lower East Side, neighborhoods that are already checkerboarded with new luxury developments towering over older tenement buildings.

Newer, wealthier residents were already creeping in on the wholesalers when Imbruce was doing the research for her book — since the wholesalers are located mostly around the outer edges of Chinatown. Those wealthier residents are more likely to call police or 311 for nuisances, and that is what happened in Chinatown.

“When I was interviewing people back in 2005, they were already complaining about being ticketed for trucks idling, $120 a pop, interrupting the flow of business,” Imbruce tells me. “New residential neighbors were complaining about forklifts taking up sidewalk space, garbage like old boxes and rotting produce, those kinds of nuisances.”

Meanwhile, the city is planning to build a new 40-story prison in the middle of Chinatown, on a site already occupied by a smaller city jail complex. It’s ostensibly part of the city’s plan to close down Rikers Island and replace it with a smaller network of jails throughout the five boroughs. The plan to close Rikers has been sold as a criminal justice project in response to opponents of mass incarceration, spurred on by the death of Kalief Browder while being held in custody on Rikers Island for three years awaiting trial. But the current demolition and construction plan for the new jail could take as long as ten years, meaning years of construction, blocked sidewalks and other demolition and construction-related disruptions.

Chinatown community organizers, some of whom joined the walking tour with Imbruce and Fan, spoke with those on the tour about opposing the city’s current jail plan for fear of the disruptions and what they might mean for many Chinatown businesses that have only razor-thin profit margins and might not survive years of construction-related disruption.

“History points to two visions of Chinatown, one for local Chinatown residents and one for tourists,” Fan said. “Can public space serve them both?”

This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter.

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Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.

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Tags: new york city

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