Urban renewal changed (and often devastated) many areas of postwar New York. One neighborhood that experienced almost continual transformation between 1945 and the 1970s was Kips Bay, an area on Manhattan’s East Side between East 23rd and East 34th Streets from Lexington Avenue to the East River.
Racial segregation in housing was common in prewar New York (indeed, the residential patterns of that era continue to shape the city today), and it limited not only where African Americans could live but also greatly reduced the residential choices of Asian Americans and other people not considered “white.” According to census takers, Kips Bay in 1940 was almost totally “white,” although a closer look at the census manuscript for that year reveals considerable diversity within that whiteness. Native New Yorkers of various ancestries lived side by side with immigrants from across Europe, especially Italy and Greece. A large number of people from Turkey, Armenia, and Malta also called the area home. To cater to this population, Kerope Kalustyan, an Armenian immigrant from Turkey, established in 1944 the famous Kalustyan’s specialty food store (known for many years as “K. Kalustyan’s Orient Export [sometimes Orient Expert] Trading Company”) at 407 3rd Avenue between 28th and 29th Streets.
Most of the residents of the area were poor or working class and included scores of restaurant cooks and waiters, domestic servants, and laborers. They lived in Kips Bay because, as Richard West wrote years later in a New York magazine article, the area was “a scabby neighborhood of noise, dirt, and half darkness,” the result of factories and the 3rd Avenue elevated train. Directly to the south was the Gashouse District, another area that wealthier New Yorkers avoided and that today is home to Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village.
After the war, many of the residents of Kips Bay’s tenements were able to find better housing elsewhere in the city or even in the suburbs, where so many white New Yorkers eventually moved during these years. Among those who replaced the departing white residents were people who had never been able to live in Kips Bay before, including a significant number of Asian Americans. That last group consisted of a sprinkling of Filipino and Korean Americans, as well as a large number of Chinese Americans. Likely drawn by the proximity of the 3rd Avenue El and the Lexington Avenue subway line (today’s 6 train), which linked Kips Bay to Chinatown, they moved into the neighborhood beginning in the very early 1950s. The walk-up tenements in the high 20s between 3rd and 2nd Avenues proved particularly popular with people of Chinese ancestry. A Chinese American directory from the period reported that T. Ching Ming, A.C. Choy, Yu-chin Chen, Joseph, May, and Sylvia Tuck, Tih Low Tsai, Lan Ying Hsiang, Pay Dang, Tsai Sih Tai, William Yang, and several others all moved to a single block of 28th Street. Other Chinese Americans found homes just a block or two away.
The sudden availability of Kips Bay apartments reflected not just postwar white flight from New York but also insecurity that the beginning of urban renewal in the area triggered. In the late 1950s, developers with federal funding razed the blocks between 30th and 33rd Streets, which became the Kips Bay Plaza apartments (now Kips Bay Towers). The lead architect for the project was I.M. Pei, who like many of the new residents of the high 20s had been born in China, although into far greater privilege. Still, Kips Bay’s Chinese American residents were often more middle class than the people who had lived there in the 1940s; they included a number of business owners and merchants who needed to live fairly close to Chinatown.
The closure and dismantling of the 3rd Avenue El in the mid-1950s made the area less attractive to such people. And while urban renewal grew increasingly controversial, it continued into the 1960s in Kips Bay in the form of the Bellevue South Urban Renewal Project, which resulted in the razing of many tenements east of 2nd Avenue. The construction and disruption pushed out many of the Asian Americans who had relocated there in the early 1950s, as did the proliferation of SROs in the area. A decade later, though, a new group of Asian Americans arrived in the area: immigrants from South Asia, who while mostly living in Queens, opened restaurants, groceries, and shops on the same strip of Lexington where Kalustyan’s had relocated. Today, the area is still known for its South Asian restaurants, sari shops, and sweet and spice stores, many of them established in the 1970s and 1980s.
Sources for this post include: Sino-American Publicity Bureau, Chinese Directory of Eastern Cities (New York: Sino-American Publicity Bureau, 1954); Richard West, “The Building,” New York, March 23, 1981; New York Times; https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/bellevue-south-park/history; Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York; Joshua Zeitz, White Ethnic New York; Joshua Freeman, Working Class New York; Ancestry.com; and the Social Explorer database.