Article and photos by Carmen Yeung
As dawn edges over Chinatown’s aged awnings, beat-up vans slowly roll onto the narrow streets and double park, ready to unload avocados from Mexico, cherries from Chile, and tangerines from California. The streets hum gently, before the roar of morning commuters. Among the grey stillness of shop owners and park-going elderly, a middle-aged Chinese man sets up two worn silver carts, stacking dragonfruits and boxes of strawberries into pyramids.
Sam Yu’s fruit stand is at the intersection of Canal and Mulberry Streets, where carts line the sidewalk — mountains of papayas, apples, and mangos. The competition may be fierce, but the location is golden. Between Little Italy and Chinatown, with five different train lines merging at the subway station a block away, the foot traffic buzzes with tourists and locals alike.
When Yu arrives from his home in Bay Parkway, it is not yet 7 a.m. He waits for his two fruit carts and merchandise to be delivered. Overnight, the carts are stored at a garage company, and unsold fruit at another storage site. Each month, he must pay several hundred dollars to these companies.
Mr. Yu entered the industry with his wife and sister six years ago, mainly out of necessity. Previously a restaurant worker, he had been suffering from too many bodily aches to continue his work. However, he was not yet old enough to retire, did not have enough savings, and had a son in college in California to support.
Getting a food vendor license was easy, he says. It costs only $50. The permit for the cart was the hard part.
Nearly three decades ago, the number of vendor permits had been capped at 3,000. Since then, the demand for these permits has steadily risen, while the supply is pinned constant. The black market for food carts quickly emerged, of which Yu is a participant.
Out of each month’s revenue, Yu must give a portion to the permit owner. It is unclear how much is paid, and how much Yu and his family get to keep for themselves. However, according to the most recent survey from the Street Vendor Project, the average annual income of a New York City street vendor ranges from $7,500 to $14,000, far below the city’s poverty line.
Standing underneath the multicolored sun umbrellas, Yu muses, “Even in 2011, the business was pretty good. Now, each year is worse than the last.”
A few blocks north, another fruit vendor, who would give her name only as Shin, echoes the same sentiment.
“There’s no business in selling fruit,” she said.
Alongside her daughter and son-in-law, Shin entered the industry in 2001, a full decade before Yu.
The market had been wildly competitive, even 15 years ago. In their early days, they had been badgered by existing fruit vendors and told to set up shop elsewhere, lest they steal customers away. Eventually, they managed to secure a spot in front of Buy-Rite Pharmacy on Grand Street, through distant connections with its owner.
She endures 12 hour workdays, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.
Chinatown has changed, she says. She adjusts her makeshift cardboard signs, on which fruit names are scrawled in both Chinese and English. On her hand is a jade ring.
Shin had entered the fruit industry at a time that would mark the decline of the neighborhood.
“There used to be a lot of garment factories here. People had to come every day for work.”
Chinatown’s booming garment industry had once been a magnet for Chinese workers, old and new. After the 9/11 attacks, streets were closed, workers were barred from getting to work, and clothing orders could not be fulfilled. The 250 garment factories that drew 14,000 workers into Chinatown crumbled, mostly within the following month.
The factories were gone, and the people with it. As of 2012, only a thousand unionized garment workers remain in Chinatown.
“Everyone’s moved out to Brooklyn or Queens,” Shin said as she picked up an avocado that had rolled onto the pavement. “They have supermarkets there. They accept Food Stamps too. We can’t.”
Yu’s musings run parallel. He speculates that there are too many markets, both brick-and-mortar supermarkets and stands. The supply is simply too high, and demand has feathered out to the surrounding boroughs.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau, about 7,000 Chinese residents have left Chinatown within the previous decade, in a 17 percent drop. Even with the nearly 40 percent increase in white residents, there is no breaking even.
Stretched out over some of real estate’s most valuable plots of land, Chinatown has long been pressured by skyrocketing housing costs. In a neighborhood where the median annual income is $34,400, median monthly rent is $2,775, totaling $33,000 annually. Many existing residents have long been driven out and incoming immigrants deterred from settling in.
Those who remain mostly live in rent-stabilized apartments – a generation of aging long-time residents.
By the time of the 2015 American Community Survey, the Chinese population in Queens and Brooklyn soared above 200,000 per borough. The population in Chinatown, on the other hand, barely hovers over 45,000. Although Chinatown is a fraction in area, the pattern is unmistakable.
Chinese-American life in New York has largely shifted to Queens and Brooklyn. People are finding less and less reason to contend with Chinatown’s cost of living. Rents in Sunset Park and Flushing average nearly half of Chinatown’s, and soaring numbers of supermarkets allow residents equal, if not greater, accessibility.
As street vendors, Yu and Shin are seemingly unaffected by rising rents or property taxes. Yet, as the Chinatown of the past is dismantled, so are their livelihoods.
Shin is past retirement age, Mr. Yu not too far off. When it is time, he plans on moving back to California, where his extended family and son reside.
“We cannot hope about what will happen to Chinatown,” he said, as he placed several handfuls of cherries into a red plastic bag. “It is what it is.”