East Harlem Tries to Serve Huge Influx of Chinese Residents

By Jeff Mays on August 3, 2011 6:48am 

East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito recruited recent college graduate Preston Tan to serve as her liaison to the Chinese community after noticing the number of Asian residents of the district is on the rise. Tan is translating for Tony who wants help with a housing issue.
East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito recruited recent college graduate Preston Tan to serve as her liaison to the Chinese community after noticing the number of Asian residents of the district is on the rise. Tan is translating for Tony who wants help with a housing issue.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM —Despite moving into East Harlem from Chinatown four years ago, Tony, a Chinese immigrant with limited English, still hopped on a train to Councilwoman Margaret Chin's Lower East Side office whenever he had a housing problem.

"She knows English and Chinese because I've seen things from her office written in both," Tony, 50, who declined to give his last name, said through a translator.

Chin recommended Tony reach out to his local city council representative, Melissa Mark-Viverito. She just hired Preston Tan as a liaison to the Chinese community after noticing a large increase in the number of Chinese residents in East Harlem.

Tan and another of Mark-Viverito's aides invited Tony to the district office Tuesday for Mark-Viverito's first ever office hours for her Chinese constituents. With Tan, 22, translating, they made several phone calls trying to get Tony the help he needed.

"We were surprised because it seemed so sudden," Mark-Viverito said about the growth in Chinese residents in Harlem. "It's such a large growth that we are still trying to connect to them and find out what their needs are. They should have access to the available resources in their own neighborhood."

With an increase in the number of Asians in East Harlem, groups that serve the public are moving to accommodate the needs of a growing population that has seemed to increase dramatically almost overnight.

According to U.S. Census statistics, East Harlem saw big increases in the number of Asian residents. East Harlem North's Asian population has increased to three percent. Between 2000 and 2010, it was less than one percent.

It was the third largest percentage increase in Asian population in the city.

In East Harlem South, the percentage of Asians increased to 8.3 percent in 2010 from 4.6 in 2000. The number of Asians increased by more than 2,600 people to 4,800. Most of those figures are attributed to an growth in the Chinese population.

Other areas of Upper Manhattan also saw a spike in the Asian population, including Central Harlem South, which saw its Asian population increase to 3.5 percent from 1.2 percent, the Upper East Side and Yorkville.

Meanwhile, the number of Asians in Chinatown decreased by 5,461 people, a decline of 15 percent.

Tony says he knows several families that have moved Uptown from Chinatown in the last few years. The increasing development and rising rents occurring in and around Chinatown is a big reason for the shift, said Tan who grew up in Chinatown and moved back there after his recent graduation from  the State University of New York at Binghamton.

"There is a drastic change in Chinatown. The rent prices have spiked and many low income and middle income Chinese families are looking for a different area," he said. "They have no choice."

Tony says the Chinatown building he lived in with his school-aged son was cramped and more than a century old.

"The apartment was too old and there was not enough heat and hot water," Tony said. "It was small and I thought the housing in East Harlem would be more spacious for me and my son."

Like many of his friends, Tony still finds himself in Chinatown often. His son still goes to school there and he travels downtown twice a week for groceries.

Other agencies that provide services in East Harlem such as Yorkville Common Pantry and Union Settlement Association also said they are noticing the increase.

Daniel Reyes, director of programs and operations at Yorkville Common Pantry, said he is looking to hire a caseworker who speaks Cantonese and Mandarin.

"Google translator only goes so far," said Reyes.

The change first began three years ago, he said. Back then, the number of Chinese people receiving services from the pantry was less than 1 percent. Today, 4 percent of pantry participants are Chinese.

Many of the new clients are senior citizens, and there are signs that they are starting to warm up to the community, he said. There are many more grandchildren accompanying their grandparents to the pantry. And things such as cooking and nutritional classes are being filled by an increasing number of Chinese participants.

"For some, it's probably becoming too difficult to travel to Chinatown for these services. So, despite the language barrier, they are participating in everything we offer. If we give them a flier, they are showing up for our events," said Reyes.

At Union Settlement, they are also desperately seeking volunteer Chinese speakers to help with their programs, said Sara Stuart, director of development and communications for the agency.

In addition to an increase in senior citizens, the number of Chinese taking the adult education class has tripled in the last year. The change comes as funding cuts makes it more difficult to hire staff with Chinese language skills.

Stuart said she's not surprised at the increase in the Chinese population given East Harlem's history.

"This is a portal community for new immigrants. It has been a place where people start out in New York City for over 100 years," said Stuart.

That's why Mark-Viverito said the goal is to make Chinese constituents "feel at home." The sign announcing the opening of Thomas Jefferson pool is now posted to the door of her council office in English, Spanish and Chinese.

"They want to participate. They want to know what's going on. They want to be a part of the community. The question is what are we doing to make them feel at home," said  Diana Ayala, Mark-Viverito's director of senior services.

Tan, who is volunteering his time,  has been out canvassing across East Harlem's public housing projects and affordable housing developments such as Franklin Plaza and Linkage House.

"I met a lot of seniors just sitting outside," he said. "They don't shop at the bodega because many still go to Chinatown or Flushing to buy groceries."

He posts the announcements that he has been translating into Chinese for Mark-Viverito and tries to introduce himself into a community of people known for being incredibly insular. Even though he is Chinese, Tan learned Mandarin and Cantonese in college.

"Some of them were not receptive because they don't know about us. They assume we want something from them. I say 'I'm here to help' and some just walk away," said Tan.

But he has had some success. Meet and greets are planned in the coming months.

"We are telling the Chinese community that you don't have to go all the way downtown to Chinatown for services, said Tan.

Tony said he was happy that he'll be able to get help with translation and other services in his community.

"They have been very helpful," he said. "I want other people to know they can come here."

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