It’s been a long time coming, but the war against development is still alive and well in New York City’s Chinatown, especially within the twin apartment buildings at 83 and 85 Bowery.
Purchased by Joseph Betesh in 2013, the buildings are just two parcels in the landlord’s larger real estate claim, which amounted to $62 million at the time. Since then, Betesh, who is known by residents as a “slumlord,” has refused his tenants important home repairs and served eviction notices, claiming that no repairs could be made while tenants were still occupying the building.
Though many of 83-85 Bowery’s residents are older Chinese residents, that hasn’t deterred them from taking to the streets to condemn Betesh publicly, along with city officials who haven’t responded to their needs.
The last major protest took place on July 19th, and drew a crowd of over 100 tenants, activists, and city council candidates who spoke of the issues wreaking havoc within Betesh’s buildings but also of a greater problem concerning development in Chinatown at large.
Unlike the East Village, which received a new set of zoning restrictions in 2008, Chinatown and certain areas of the Lower East Side continue to fall prey to developers who want to build up the neighborhood vertically. Without zoning restrictions that put caps on building height, Chinatown has begun to flounder in its struggle to preserve the neighborhood as what it’s always been: a close knit community of working class immigrants that had generally withstood the currents of gentrification washing through the city—an enclave where neighbors still avoided chain stores and paying too much for groceries. Today, much of that safety is no longer guaranteed.
Chinatown residents are angry and have grown increasingly impatient—with the city for leaving them out of the East Village zoning plan and with City Councilwoman Margaret Chin for neglecting to advocate for a similar plan to be passed for Chinatown in 2014. For these residents, a lack of oversight is what has allowed developers to take over the neighborhood, building luxury high-rises that will jeopardize the stability of lower income residents as well as small businesses—who won’t be able to cater to a wealthier demographic of residents or compete with new businesses who can afford to pay more rent.
A New York Times article from last year calls Chinatown a “real estate prairie” in Manhattan—a dead zone void of any real preservation policies that are capable of safeguarding the character of the neighborhood. Little Italy, the neighborhood that lies to the north of Chinatown was given special district designation in 1977 and has been able to retain its familiar low rise streetscape, without encroachment from large commercial establishment or high-rises. A number of preservation advocates, including City Council hopeful Christopher Marte, maintain that similar measures need to be implemented in Chinatown, before the distinct character of the neighborhood is lost beyond repair.
Currently, there are numerous luxury high-rises being erected throughout the neighborhood, including one in the Two Bridges neighborhood, where an old Pathmark supermarket used to be. Now, many of the area’s older residents have to venture further from their homes to buy groceries, and fear that the onslaught of development will push them out of their homes next.
In Betesh’s buildings on Bowery, residents have already protested that their landlord has taken away their rent regulation. Many tenants’ floors continue to slope—likely from joists separating from the walls—and their sinks haven’t received repairs they were promised (Bowery residents talk about their homes here). But Betesh maintained that since he had some repairs done, any rent regulation previously in place has become void.
The case at 83 and 85 Bowery is just one example of the battles waged between tenants and landlords in Chinatown, and with new developments sprouting and City Council elections looming, residents are not about to leave their homes without a fight. Affordable housing and over development have become two of the most pressing issues in this year’s city elections, and for residents in Chinatown and the Lower East Side especially, staying put means more now than ever before.
Viviane Eng grew up on the Lower East Side in New York. She’s also an American Studies and English double major at Wesleyan University and has a complicated relationship with Asian fusion cuisine. Contact her on Twitter.