In the early days of 2020, the heart of Manhattan's Chinatown was dealt a blow by a massive fire at 70 Mulberry Street where several long-standing community non-profit groups were located.
The devastation of the historic building in the January 23rd, 2020 fire, and the upheaval of the community set the tone for New York’s Asian enclaves that year.
While Lunar New Year festivities across the city went on as planned that February, anxiety and fear were lurking in the background with the COVID-19 pandemic spreading across the world, bias crimes against Asian New Yorkers increasing as anti-China rhetoric came from the highest levels of government, and local Asian businesses lost customers precipitously.
With the arrival of the 2021 Lunar New Year Friday, representatives of New York’s Asian enclaves say the past year has been a brutal marathon with little relief in sight, and many of the same problems persisting.
“I feel like we continue to be left out of many things,” said Wayne Ho, president of the Chinese-American Planning Council. He pointed out that so far, “there's very few vaccination sites in Chinatown or in Flushing or Sunset Park.”
“We've been often left out of the conversation of essential workers, been left out of conversations around targeted communities of color,” Ho added.
Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, who represents Sunset Park, said he’s seen problems around language-appropriate outreach affecting his constituents, both to combat hesitancy about the COVID-19 vaccine and to help book an appointment.
The issues arise “whether you're an immigrant that says no to the vaccine because they don't have any sense about what this is at all, or they want the vaccine in the community, but the system is so convoluted that they can't even get an appointment, so they're the ones that are calling us and saying, ‘How do I get an appointment? How do I get something in my language?’,” Menchaca said in a phone interview.
He recalled the debacle at the Brooklyn Army Terminal in his district, where a fast-spreading rumor in January of available COVID-19 vaccines led to hundreds of people rushing to the site only to be turned away.
“How can people have any faith in the system right now, let alone have access to it with non-English (speakers) and processes and applications?” Menchaca said.
Even official measures to aid small businesses have been frustrating, Ho said, pointing to the evolving city and state guidance on operating restaurants.
Governor Andrew Cuomo reopened limited indoor dining in New York City on Friday, which may allow restaurants to mark the Lunar New Year over the weekend and garner more sales.
“Those restaurants that haven’t been able to do outdoor dining or indoor dining, and (now) they're looking forward to having some opportunity to not just bring in revenue, bring their workers back, but also celebrate Lunar New Year,” Ho said, calling the holiday the “Black Friday” for small businesses in Asian communities. “Everyone is hoping that indoor dining will be one of those opportunities to help bring resources back to Chinatown.”
“I think it's been welcomed that the governor is opening the capacity for indoor dining, and I think all of us are just trying to say ‘hey look, everyone's choice is their choice about whether or not they want to take risks to engage,’” Menchaca said. “But if you do support it [...} in Sunset Park it is like a perfect timing for Lunar New Year. It's not easy. So many businesses are going under already.”
The recent spate of violence against elderly Asian people has also reminded Menchaca of the ongoing bias problems locally as well.
“Many of us who represent large [Asian American and Pacific Islander] communities are asking for hate crimes support and review and investigations, so people can be brought to justice,” Menchaca said.
“Asian Americans see and feel and live the 300% spike in anti-Asian hate crimes since the arrival of coronavirus,” Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou said in remarks to the state legislature Wednesday as she introduced a resolution commemorating the Lunar New Year.
“The racism and the xenophobia isn’t new, but because of the leadership of this country and the normalization of hate and racism, there was an amplification and increase in hate crimes toward Asian Americans,” she added.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged $80 million to rebuild 70 Mulberry Street. But to heal from the past year’s struggles, New York’s Asian communities will need the support of the entire city, Ho said.
That support is “everything from protecting our safety, not just in terms of the public health aspect with COVID, but also helping out and keeping an eye out around anti-Asian violence,” he said. “Last but not least is just support the Asian American community economically, so please come back down to Chinatown, to Jackson Heights, to Sunset Park, to Flushing, to other neighborhoods just to support our businesses.”