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Manhattan’s Chinatown Is Getting a ‘Welcome Arch.’ Why?

"If you look at other Chinatowns, arches become sad markers of a once vibrant and thriving community. In some ways, it becomes a tombstone for dying Chinatowns."

4:25 PM EST on January 29, 2024

A shot of Kimlau Square, the site of the proposed “welcome arch,” in 2012. (Flickr / Ken Lund)

During Eric Adams's State of the City speech last week, the mayor announced that the City would be leading "a complete makeover of Kimlau Plaza in Chinatown." More details soon emerged: Not only would the City be spending roughly $44 million on top of the $11.5 million that the state had earmarked to redesign the public plaza next to the still-closed off Park Row, Kimlau Square would now be the new home of a "Chinatown Welcome Arch."

If the renderings are to be trusted, the arch—or gateway, or paifang—will likely be the same kind of tall, ornate, colorfully decorated gates that dot this country's Chinatowns. For years, members of business groups like the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and the Chinatown BID have asked the City to install an arch, and now it seems they'll get one, thanks to a $2.5 million down payment from the state and the City's embrace of the idea.

Nothing much happens in Manhattan's Chinatown without some level of grumbling from the neighborhood's activists, complaints that are often motivated by a (rightful) sense that elected leaders tend to neglect the needs and desires of its residents. No matter the political leanings of those involved, what undergirds all of it, whether it's protests against homeless shelters or abolitionist opposition to the planned jail in the neighborhood—is a low-level resentment born out of being ignored. So when money is earmarked for the neighborhood, cue the drama—and the jockeying, and the infighting. 

When Governor Hochul first announced the $2.5 million for the arch at the end of 2022, as part of a total of $20 million for Chinatown in Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) funds from the state, some questioned whether an arch was a good use of resources, given its many critical needs. "Instead of funding this project, shouldn't we make investments that would really help sustain and grow Chinatown?” a 30-something neighborhood resident told Curbed. Now that the project appears to be real, critics are continuing to question why exactly an arch of all things got picked as a priority project for the neighborhood.

A "rendering" of the future Chinatown arch, which appears to be a photo of the arch in Philadelphia's Chinatown. (Governor Kathy Hochul's office)

Neighborhood gadfly Jan Lee, a property owner who has led opposition to the borough-based jail in Chinatown, didn't mince words when I asked him what he thought about the arch, which he described as "chinoiserie Orientalism." 

To Lee, an arch hems a neighborhood in. "It says this is where you're allowed to be. This is your center. This is what we decide, we arch people who are in bed with the government. We decided this location is the epicenter. Yeah, and who the fuck are you?" Lee said. 

The "who" would be not only CCBA, but Wellington Chen, the head of Chinatown Partnership and the Chinatown BID; Chen co-chaired the planning committee that chose the projects that would receive Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) funding. 

"The BID board has a tremendous amount of self-hatred as Chinese people in America, that's why they push for an identifying icon, which is an arch," Lee said. He added caustically, "Governments love arches, because it says, yeah, why don't we put a totem pole, in what we feel is the reservation."

Chen, a trained architect, has a decidedly different take. I caught up with him as he was taking a victory lap, just after he had sat in the audience as Adams delivered his State of the City speech. "Despite what some people are calling it, it is not really something to appease the tourists," Chen said of the arch, though he did acknowledge that boosting tourism was a part of its appeal: "German tourists come, everyone, Canadian tourists, the first thing they ask is, where's your gateway, we want to take a selfie."

To Chen, who frequently describes an arch as a sort of "totem pole" for Chinese Americans, a physical gateway would be a marker that "celebrates that we're here, and we'll be here forever." He added, "As Hillary Clinton used to say, it takes a village. And a village definitely has a portal." Chen had a message for its detractors: "You don't understand your culture."

Some neighborhood activists are also raising questions about how the arch made it into the final list of projects. "In the DRI process, the arch was NOT a top contender," one longtime Chinatown activist, who asked to remain anonymous to not upset the people they work with in the neighborhood, told me. "It was just an idea. Other applicants had actual plans, other financial backing, drawings, and were 'shovel ready'—which was one of the governor's own stated requirements for DRI funding." Another person involved in the planning process also said that the arch, while discussed as a possible project, didn't make it onto the list of priority projects until almost the very end, when supporters threw what they described as a "hissy fit," showing up at a public meeting clutching signs. "Wellington is a fucking shitshow," they said. "He let people bully him and play 'let's make a deal' for his rando projects." Chen pointed to those supporters as proof that Chinatown residents actually want an arch. "It's not like Wellington is playing games, secretly behind the scenes," he said. 

One thing Kimlau Square could use more than an arch, is a better experience for people who are actually using it: Crossing the intersection of six busy streets makes for a harrowing journey as a pedestrian. According to Ya-Ting Liu, the City's chief public realm officer, the City plans to redesign the intersection, as well as expand the size of the plaza by two-thirds and improve the Park Row connection from the Brooklyn Bridge to Chinatown. Curiously, according to a source who attended, a Department of Transportation workshop on the Kimlau Square redesign held last July made no mention of an arch. When I asked DOT as well as the Parks Department to comment on the arch itself and the process that produced it, the agencies referred me to the Mayor's Office. A spokesperson for the Mayor's Office told me that the community engagement process for the Kimlau Square redesign would kick off next month. Perhaps there's an explanation for all of this back and forth: "City Hall and [Manhattan Borough President] Mark Levine got this project dumped on their laps," the source who was part of the planning process said. (Levine's office hasn't immediately returned a request for comment. Hochul's office didn't respond to a list of questions.)

The whole process, the longtime neighborhood activist told me, was a missed opportunity to use that $2.5 million set aside for the arch to really invest in the future of Chinatown. "If you look at other Chinatowns, arches become sad markers of a once vibrant and thriving community. In some ways, it becomes a tombstone for dying Chinatowns," they said. "Arches are NOT the tourist magnets or economic drivers that supporters think they are."

They added, "In Vancouver, they have invested in a Chinatown Storytelling Center. San Francisco just bought buildings for a new multimedia arts center and for the Chinese Cultural Center." Those cities, they said, are "actually investing in living things and not 'totem poles.'"

Manhattan's planned paifang isn't even the most controversial Chinatown arch in town. That honor belongs to Sunset Park's much-desired arch, which has been the subject of no small amount of scrutiny due to the shady dealings of its biggest booster, Winnie Greco, now one of the mayor's top aides. Supporters of Sunset Park's arch are now a little peeved that Manhattan's Chinatown will be first. "The City promised us an archway in Brooklyn about 10 years ago, and there was funding and fundraising for it. Now there is no update on this project—what do you expect the Chinese community to think?” one Brooklyn nonprofit leader told the CITY and Documented. But news of the planned Manhattan arch has revitalized the dream of a Sunset Park arch, according to the soon-to-be announced president of the arch group Greco founded, who told the outlets that plans are underway to resume fundraising. What is dead may never die, indeed.

(Photo credit: Flickr / Ken Lund)

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