Lower East Side Residents Clash Over Development and Displacement

Article and Photo by Jazz Boothby | December 20, 2021

“You would never have walked these streets past dark when I was growing up,” Matt Lueng said as he sat in the Lower East Side’s Seward Park. Originally born in Hong Kong, the 64-year-old has lived in the neighborhood since he was nine. 

“You can talk forever about ‘gentrification’ or ‘cultural appropriation’ but I don’t miss how it used to be,” said Lueng.

Lueng argues that the changes brought on by the influx of bars and restaurants which have opened in the Lower East Side over the past decade are mostly positive. “Junkies used to shoot up outside my elementary school. I don’t care if a methadone clinic gets replaced by a restaurant. In my opinion, that’s a good thing,” he said.

While residents like Lueng welcome the changes in the area, others are not happy. Dozens recently gathered at Pier 35 to protest the construction of four new luxury apartment buildings. The protestors argued that such development will cause displacement and increase the cost of living in the historically working-class neighborhood. 

Megan Montgomery is one of them. She is 22, was born in Alabama and has lived in the Lower East Side for four years. “We don’t need luxury real-estate coming to this part of town. Things are already too expensive and it should be up to the people who live here to determine what is and isn’t allowed to be built,” Montgomery said.

In light of steady waves of gentrification over the last few decades, the Lower East Side has managed to remain relatively inexpensive for renters. The median gross rent in Lower East Side/Chinatown increased from $990 in 2006 to just $1,070 in 2019. In contrast, in Greenwich Village a one-bedroom monthly rent averages around $3,738 and in Tribeca that price tag increases to $6,250

Despite rental fees remaining fairly stable, the rates of homeownership in the Lower East Side have decreased by 2.8 percentage points since 2010. In 2019, the homeownership rate in Lower East Side/Chinatown was 10.8 percent, lower than the citywide share of 31.9 percent. Around 23 percent of households in Chinatown and the Lower East Side are classified as “severely rent-burdened,” meaning renters spend around 50 percent of their income on rent. That is due in part to the fact that in the area the Median household income in 2019 was $42,010, about 40% less than the citywide median household income ($70,590). Meanwhile, the poverty rate in Lower East Side/Chinatown was 24.0% in 2019 compared to 16.0% citywide. In contrast, some of the building luxury units sell for anywhere between $1million to $4 million

While Lueng views the area’s changes as mostly positive, he is also concerned about the cultural impacts of commercial development. Kiki’s, a popular Greek restaurant located on Division Street, used to be the site of Lueng’s grandfather’s printing services shop. The new owners kept the storefront’s original signage, written in Cantonese. “I’d be lying if seeing his sign regularly didn’t hurt a smidge,” he said.

The concerns about gentrification are both echoed and refuted by some business owners in the neighborhood. Matteo Ahmed, the owner of Stop1 Food Market — a small grocery store in the Two Bridges neighborhood, supports the protestors. 

“Everything is getting more expensive here. And look where we are? We’re surrounded by the  f—ing projects, man,” Ahmed said “We need some housing authority to make sure folks don’t get kicked out of their homes, at the very least.” 

Meanwhile, Drake Lamar, who operates Lamar’s Bagel Express, feels differently. “I hope if people with money move in, it will mean more cops and less crime. I have kids, so I’m always worried about safety,” he said. 

There are several public housing towers nearby the proposed construction site of the luxury units. Despite polarizing community members, the high rises began construction in November and will be viewed as outliers amongst the surrounding housing projects. 

“I don’t have any animosity towards any newcomers in the area. Because here’s the thing,” Lueng said, “we’re always gonna retain the culture and the history. It’s the Lower East Side!”