There are two sides debating in the Chinatown Working Group. Some want to see more tourists in Chinatown to support business. Developers, financiers, some business owners, the Business Improvement District, for example, sit on this side and arts purveyors as well. On the other side stand the labor and tenant adovocates who want business to serve the local residents. You might ask, why not have both, local services and toursim?
If only the sustainable market forces were balanced. But they’re not. Gentrification is an opportunistic tide that, once it gains an entry, will flood the locality resistlessly. To use urban planning to help the juggernaut of monopolistic market forces is unnecessary. The empowered need no help.
In any economy, there are vulnerable sectors even among the most sustainable. Local services are actually highly sustainable since local residents have consistent, reliable purchasing needs. You see those needs reflected in the streets of Chinatown. As long as the community remains, the local services will be sustainable.
Although they are highly sustainable, local services are also highly vulnerable to attack from giant outside capital which has more resources, government connections and mobility. Ironically, the least vulnerable — giant capital, developers, big businesses, chain stores — are also the least reliable because they are mobile and least tied to the locality. Like a corporation that protects itself in bad times by laying off labor, giant corporations are most capable of protecting themselves at the expense of the locality, whereas small local servers depend on the locals.
Tourism is closely tied to development and big capital — high prices and upscale values that can be marketed to upscale spending. Local services, especially in Chinatown, depend on low prices and high volume. If giant capital gains a foothold, commercial rents will rise, replacing local services, and gentrification will displace the community, killing the viability of any remaining local services. It’s a snowball effect.
This is not to say there shouldn’t be tourism in Chinatown. There’s always been tourism in Chinatown back all the way to the 19th century. But here’s the paradox of tourism: people come to Chinatown not to see a spectacle staged for them but to experience Chinatown as it is, a lively working community, culturally distinct from the rest of New York because it serves its own. Cater too much to the tourist, and you lose the Chinatown that tourists come for. You’d then have to market Chinatown as a brand, constantly hoping that that brand doesn’t go out of fashion. Chinatown business becomes the slave of an outside community that it has no control over, and it turns a community with businesses in it into a business with no community in it.
In planning, as everywhere, there are empowered sectors that need no help, and disempowered groups that need support. Were it not for the 1% predators, the 99% disempowered would be fully sustainable. That’s why planning should always keep as its goal protecting the disempowered and avoiding giving ground to giant capital.