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East Harlem Leaders Reach Out to Wary Asian Residents After Muggings

By Jeff Mays | February 9, 2013 6:48pm

HARLEM—After she learned about the beatings and muggings of several Asian people in East Harlem, So Fun Ngai, a home health aide, was more careful while traveling the neighborhood with her elderly client who is also Chinese.

"I was very scared," said Ngai through a translator. "In the subway, I looked left and I looked right,"

Jason Commisso, 34, was arrested and charged in at least one of the eight beatings last month. According to police, Commisso followed several people of Asian descent into the elevator of their building and battered them before leaving with their electronics or wallets. At least three victims suffered broken noses or facial bones.

"It might be that he hated Asians," said Ngai.

While authorities explored the possibility of hate crime charges in the case, that determination has not yet been made.

However, the beatings show the need to reach out to East Harlem's booming Asian population, elected officials and social services groups said Friday during a Chinese New Year's celebration.

"When we invite them, they come," said Maria Alejandro, senior service director for Union Settlement as she surveyed the 200 or so people, mostly Chinese, who had come out to the celebration even as the first bit of slushy rain from a winter storm bared down on the city.

"We need to make them feel more at home in their new community," she said.

The Asian population in East Harlem increased from 2000 to 2010. Spurred by higher rents, development and gentrification in Chinatown, almost 4,000 Asians moved to the neighborhood, according to U.S. Census figures.

In the northern section of East Harlem, the Asian population increased to 3 percent from less than 1 percent. In East Harlem South, the Asian population increased to 8.3 percent from 4.6 percent. Meanwhile, Chinatown saw its Asian population decline by more than 15 percent or 5,400 people from 2000 to 2010.

"Every year we are like wow, they are having a Chinese New year celebration over here," said City Comptroller John Liu, a guest at the East Harlem New Year's celebration.

"Chinese people are attracted to East Harlem for the main reason people have been attracted to East Harlem for generations."

The neighborhood remains one of the few immigrant gateway neighborhoods in the city. Since the 1800s, East Harlem has seen an influx of Germans, Irish, Italians and Puerto Ricans. Now the ethnic demographics are shifting again. Mexicans, West Africans and Asians are flowing into the neighborhood.

"The challenge is to link these groups up with services and connect them to the community so they don't feel that they are isolated or alone," said East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito who launched the Chinese New Year celebration in the neighborhood last year.

The first wave of Asian East Harlem residents were attracted by the cheaper housing, said David Nocenti, executive director of Union Settlement. And then the new residents discovered the benefits of the neighborhood such as its walkability, proximity to transportation and the childcare and senior services that are available.

Others started moving to be closer to family and friends but some housing developments such as Franklin Plaza have long had Chinese residents. Part of the effort now is working to make sure that are no lingering hostilities among ethnic groups in the neighborhood.

"Everyone was caught by surprise when we heard about the attacks," said Nocenti. "There's tensions in any community but to have this targeting was troubling."

Once word of the attacks spread, Bill Donne, executive director of the Carter Burden Center for the Aging, said Asian clients at the Covello Senior Center the agency operates on East 109th between First and Second avenues, were fearful.

"They asked us if we felt it was safe to walk in the neighborhood," said Donne. "We assured them. We told them this was probably a one-time deal."