Places that Matter

Mott Street, between Grand & Hester Streets

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Mott Street at Hester Street, looking north
Mott Street at Hester Street, looking north
Mott Street, dry goods
Mott Street, dried shrimp
Mott Street, dried mushrooms
Mott Street, frogs
Mott Street, fish market
Mietz Building, concave response to the curvature of the streetline
Mott Street, convex response to the curvature of the streeline
The second heart of Chinatown
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Place Matters Profile

Manhattan's Chinatown was established in the late nineteenth century, primarily by immigrants hailing from China’s Toishan district in the southern seaport province of Guangdong. The first to settle in New York City were Chinese men who came east after the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869. Their small New York City community was divided into various associations, or tongs, based on clan, village and political affiliation. But by the 1880s, Chinatown hosted several thousand inhabitants, and it was clear that the expanded community needed more centralized administration. So in 1883, wealthy English-speaking merchants established the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) as an umbrella organization that would represent and serve the needs of all of New York City’s Chinese and Chinese Americans. 

Initially, Chinatown's heart beat rapidly along three streets south of Canal – at the lower end of Mott Street, Pell Street and Bayard Street. In 1888, the CCBA constructed a headquarters at 16 Mott Street, which was built entirely by Chinese tradesmen. The CCBA became the unofficial government of Chinatown, and the community thrived. Many of the Chinese residents worked in local hand laundries, Chinese theater found its home on Doyers Street, and the neighborhood became a tourist destination where visitors sought exotic meals at the various Mott Street restaurants near Chatham Square. The CCBA assisted Chinese Americans in achieving and maintaining ownership of these businesses.

But Chinatown’s growth was severely curtailed in 1882 with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigration to the United States until the legislation was repealed in 1943. Between those dates, Chinese Americans were subjected to humiliations like the Scott Act (1888), which prevented thousands of Chinese laborers from re-entering the United States after short visits home. Chinese residents also experienced majors successes, including Wong Kim Ark vs. United States (1898), which conferred citizenship on children of Chinese descent born in the United States. In 1917, the United States created the Asian Exclusion Zone and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 barred immigrants from China, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia, all of whom were considered ineligible for naturalization. Decades of discriminatory legislation cut ties between Chinese in America and those at home in Asia. But such hardships catalyzed the formation of many tight-knit communities in the United States, including New York City’s Chinatown.

In 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act was overturned, and in 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Act lifted immigration quotas based on national origins. Waves of Chinese immigrants thus arrived in New York City, revivifying Chinatown's streets and homes. In 1959 the CCBA moved to its present, larger location at 62 Mott Street. The neighbor expanded as well. As of 2003, New York’s Chinatown was the largest in the Western Hemisphere, encompassing over three square miles ranging loosely from Delancey Street in the north, to Worth Street in the south, to Allen Street in the East and Lafayette Street to the West.

Beginning in the 1960s, Chinatown’s retail focus started to shift north to the stretch of Mott Street between Grand and Hester, a block that was considered part of Little Italy until the 1950s. A gentleman who calls himself “Uncle Nick” remembers growing up in the Italian enclave, where residents of every block identified with the region, or even village, from which they had emigrated. Each block had its own stickball team, and Uncle Nick recalls the high-stakes tournaments that were held in the bend of this road in front of the palatial Renaissance Revival Mietz and Weiss Oil Engine Building, designed by the architecture firm De Lemos and Cordes in 1892, and made famous as the Genco Olive Oil offices in the film, The Godfather. Uncle Nick claims that the championship stickball games captured plenty of attentions and purses. As of 2011, the Mietz Building, whose slightly concave stone and terra cotta façade curves in response to the street line, houses medical practices ranging from OBGYN to acupuncture.

Mott Street between Grand and Hester Streets is clearly part of the modern heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown. Visitors can find a thriving marketplace where sidewalks are lined with brightly colored awnings and bulk bins of richly hued fruits and vegetables, grains and seafood. Customers inspect the wares and maneuver their shopping carts through the moving maze of stands, dollies and pedestrians. Of walking through the heart of Chinatown, folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes, “everything is out in the open, the vegetables, whole pigs, the loading and unloading of crates of vegetables from the corners of the earth. The stores are open to the street- inside and outside.”

The destruction of September 11, 2001 severely impacted Chinatown. Numerous shops were forced to close and the neighborhood experienced the city's highest unemployment rates. But thanks to the Chinese-American Planning Council, Chinatown’s residents and workers received relief and long-term employment training services. In 2004, the Rebuild Chinatown Initiative (RCI), sponsored by Asian Americans for Equality, created a community-based plan to revitalize and stabilize the neighborhood. Though no longer an isolated enclave in 2011, the neighborhood is still attracting new Chinese immigrants, and its denizens hail from diverse regions, speak many languages and dialects and carry myriad traditions.

It's also still a great place to visit. Chinatown’s narrow, curving constituent streets are balanced by the grandeur of broader boulevards like the Bowery and Canal Street, and by dedicated historically and culturally significant open spaces like Confucius Plaza (a site of contention and victory for Chinese workers engaged in a 1974 labor dispute), Columbus Park (once the most notorious city slum, now a gathering place for Tai Chi, Mah Jong, chess and basketball aficionados) and Chatham Square (with a memorial dedicated to B.R. Kim Lau, a selfless Chinese American pilot who died in World War II)