Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Double Happiness: Bayard Street Between Mott and Elizabeth

One tourist to-do, done

By David Crohn

Did you go to Chinatown for the Chinese New Year? Neither did I.
I haven’t been to Rockefeller Center for the tree-lighting ceremony either, and I’ve been living here for almost a decade. I did go to the Statue of Liberty though. It was when I was little and all I remember a big green foot.

But of all the standard touristy things, I’ve always felt like Chinatown for the New Year celebration was the one to do. The dancing dragon, the fireworks and confetti—it sounds like a really fun migraine.

But here comes the confession: Before last week, I’d never even been to Chinatown. Sure, I’ve skirted the boundaries, seen signs entirely in pictograms, but I had never walked along Mosco or Pell, streets that are unique to the neighborhood.

So, in honor of the Year of the Pig, which began last week, I trekked down to what was historically the heart of Chinatown. The boundaries have extended past Delancey Street in the north and down to Chambers Street, but it all started here, just below Canal and east of Baxter Street, a few blocks from the famous Five Points. Once I came to Bayard Street between Mott and Elizabeth Street, it was like standing in front of the Eiffel Tower or gazing across the San Francisco Bay at the Golden Gate Bridge—I had wholly arrived at my tourists' destination.

This stretch of Bayard Street is a narrow and frenzied passageway. There’s so much foot traffic that drivers passing through don’t bother honking their horns as they ride their brakes from one end to the other. I went just a few days after the official first day of the New Year, and the neighborhood seemed to be mildly hung over. Shiny, multicolored confetti marinated in mud and slush; no one but me jumped when kids crossing the street scattered little balls of paper that exploded in small bangs when they hit the street. The magnificent building at 62-64 Bayard, with its layers of terraces covered in streamers and red flags, looked like Bourbon Street if it were in Beijing.

I ended the day with the kind of Chinese-American food I’ve never seen on the paper menus piling up on my doorstep back home: A pork bun and a red bean bun at the Golden Fung Wong Bakery around the corner at Mott and Mosco Streets. They passed the wallet taste at $2.55 including a soda. It would take time, but if I lived here I think I could get used to a warm, sweet piece of bread filled with an amber paste of unidentifiable sweet goop and bite-size pieces of pork.

When people find out that I write this column, the first thing they always ask me is, Where I can I find reasonable rents in Manhattan? I’ve always said Chinatown. There are still dark corners of the Lower East side where you can find a studio for $1,000, but chances are it won’t be anywhere near a subway station. On this block, on the other hand, there’s a two-bedroom apartment going for $1,450 a month. It’s pretty small (280 square feet) and up a four-floor walk-up, but that’s a great deal, especially considering the close proximity to the N and R trains and fresh fish stores. Lots of fresh fish stores.

What Happened Here
During the wane of the Qing dynasty—China’s last—Chinese sailors and traders began trickling into the United States; after arriving in New York during the middle of the 19th Century, most immigrants continued on to the West Coast pursuing the “Gold Mountains” of California. Those that stayed behind formed the seed of modern-day Chinatown, and thousands more came back East to escape violence and discrimination on the West Coast, although what they found here wasn’t much better. By 1882, there were some 2,000 Chinese people, almost entirely men, living near the Five Points slum. They washed or made clothes and slept up to 15 in a single tenement apartment.
Today there are 70,000 to 150,000 Chinatown residents, most of whom are Chinese but with some Latinos, Filipinos, Burmese, Vietnamese and Caucasian hipsters thrown in.

Feel like Chinese? Let’s see, there’s the Green Bo Restaurant, New Yeah Shanghai Deluxe (sic), the Moon House, Hsin Wong, Mr. Tang… This is one of the few neighborhoods in Manhattan where a cheese sandwich might be considered exotic. There’s also a Chinese ice cream place on this block, just in case you have a hankering for the red bean or green tea flavors during the summer months.

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