The original Monopoly was conceived by a woman to educate people about the consequences of profit driving development. Hotels became the symbol of this incentive after the game was sold to a toy company.
In 1904, Elizabeth Magie patented The Landlord's Game— an abstraction of 19th century Georgist philosophy that holds economic value derived from land should belong equally to all members of society. Today, the mustachioed, top-hat sporting Monopoly Man champions an opposite value system.
Inspired by recently spotted street flyers featuring the head of Monopoly Man atop King Kong's body straddling what's rumored to be a new hotel development and channeling Magie's spirit of intent, Chinatown Soup developed a riff on Monopoly that is designed to engage the public in an exploratory conversation about gentrification in New York's Chinatown. Through this project, we seek to activate awareness of how real estate determines culture.
Our board borrows from Monopoly's "New York City Edition" of 1995 for aesthetics. It displays the current business types in Chinatown and invites players to reimagine how trends in commercial and residential occupancy interact.
By complicating the popularized notion of gentrification as "bad," we hope that people will begin connecting with each other about productive alternatives for how neighborhoods could and should exist.
Gentrification: Then & Now
A Chinese community of 150 people existed on the Lower East Side in 1856, and it grew steadily for decades as immigration laws became less restrictive.
In the 1960s, Chinatown evolved from an elderly male bachelor community occupying the immediate area around Columbus Park to take over defunct factories and store- fronts on the Lower East Side and abandoned old tenement homes built for Jewish and Italian immigrants. Chinese moved north into Little Italy, leaving a section of Mulberry Street untouched, and started edging westward into SoHo after a landmark re-districting contained the working-class at Centre Street, where the Museum of Chinese in America now exists.
By 1980, Chinese residents and Chinese-owned businesses had expanded eastward, with pockets of Puerto Rican and Italian residents remaining in the Seward Park housing projects.
By the mid-1990s, Chinatown’s expansion ended as surrounding neighborhoods became revitalized. The East Village and the Lower East Side between Rivington and Stanton Streets later gentrified, attracting young professionals and non-Chinese businesses to move south in search of cheaper rents within pockets of Chinatown.
As Chinatown melds with the Lower East Side, the area becomes a nexus of Lower Manhattan’s intermingling neighborhoods and a microcosm of gentrification. The fantasies and confusion one may harbor about the eastern terminus of Canal Street are understandable because Chinatown is the crossroads where the city’s past and future meet. Here remains one of the few Manhattan communities that fosters a sense of respect for its history and continues to welcome new immigrants while inspiring an artistic energy that speaks to the next phase of urban lifestyles.
Downtown in Flux: What’s Next
The Lower East Side stretches from Houston Street south to the East River, bounded by the Bowery and porously bordering Chinatown at Grand, Essex, and Henry Streets. Second to Harlem, Lower Manhattan has lost the most subsidized housing since 2012—most concentrated here. With the addition of major commercial and cultural anchors, including Essex Crossing and the restored landmark Jarmulowsky Bank Building hotel conversion within two proposed landmark districts, the surrounding cost of living and participation in this neighborhood will do more to price-out low-income residents than skyrocketing rents alone ever could.
By 2019, the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), also known as Essex Crossing, will have developed six acres left vacant for over 50 years. This is New York’s latest attempt to redefine affordability through development. It began in the late 1960s, after Robert Moses razed and ousted 14 blocks and 2,000 people, respectively, to make way for the Lower Manhattan Expressway—a ten-lane superhighway that would have decimated current downtown—not to mention SoHo’s Cast-Iron District and Chinatown, the city’s largest tourist attraction.
Since then, residents, developers, and politicians have fought over the future use of this land. Following a 1980s bid from developer LeFrak to reclaim the area and a controversial proposal to build mixed housing, it seemed that the bitter battle between low-income residents and newly arrived luxury developers would keep gentrification in constant suspension. SPURA attempts to soften the divide with a 60-40 mix of residential and commercial properties, 500 units of which will be forever “affordable” housing based on the national standard rent-to-income ratio. Whether this proportion is equitable is an important question, but fails to address surrounding factors that bear upon the true cost of affordability.
If the similarly patterned gentrification of SoHo is any indication, this distribution of high-end cultural commodities and proximity to preserved historic areas will mirror the outdoor mall effect of the Cast-Iron District despite affordable housing set-asides. With Chinatown rents trailing the city’s surrounding, most expensive neighborhoods and developers buying properties along Canal Street, how to preserve historic integrity, socioeconomic diversity, and cultural creativity is a serious challenge.
Affordable Housing vs. Affordable Living
Mayor de Blasio campaigned on a platform of affordability anxiety and put forward a plan to preserve or build 200,000 affordable housing units over the course of a decade. Rising rents, pre-K tuition, young professional salaries, and foreign capital have squeezed middle-class New Yorkers out of downtown Manhattan. Shifts in commercial occupancies co-create this demographic shift. As boutique hotels, glass condos, expensive eateries, and corporate chains populate former immigrant areas to match the tastes of newcomers, many long-time residents cannot afford the cost of living.
Luxury units, especially those within conspicuous high-rises such as One Manhattan Square—a new group of LES skyscrapers from Extell, the developer behind the city’s tallest and priciest residential building in midtown—are about to reconfigure the Lower Manhattan skyline and are convenient scapegoats for the rising cost of housing. However, this blame is misguided. The real problem is that the growth of housing stock is not keeping up with the growth of population, and prices are rising as a result. Of the new housing units completed in Manhattan from 2011 to 2015, luxury high-rise units comprised only 0.4%.
Since 2011, our population has increased by over 300,000 people, but housing stock can only accommodate an estimated 125,000 people if two individuals were to occupy every single unit. Further, this difference doesn’t account for building demolitions and conversions that deplete the housing stock even more. Thanks to zoning, New York cannot build to lessen this widening gap.
The first zoning laws were enacted in 1916 and rewritten in 1961 to preserve the value of people's homes by limiting housing supply in neighborhoods via anti-sky- scraper regulations. Current landowners have little incentive to replace small build- ings with taller ones, while homeowners and community boards champion landmarking and NIMBYist positions against new developments that would increase housing stock and mitigate rising rents.
As the demand to live and invest in the city continues to increase, so do land and housing prices. New Yorkers’ salaries, however, do not. At the turn of the century’s first decade, rent prices had grown at almost twice the pace of resident incomes. According to the US Census, an affordable rent-to-income ratio is 30 percent. Last year, the median asking rent accounted for over 65 percent of the median income. This sets up the equation for an unequal and inaccessible city.