Tea And Silk Slippers

Twenty years ago New York had only one Chinatown, in lower Manhattan. Now there are three others. One is in Flushing, Queens, and two are in Brooklyn, which has become a prime destination of Chinese immigrants: a fledgling one in Sheepshead Bay and a thriving one in Sunset Park. Since 1990 Sunset Park's Chinese population has more than tripled to 30,000, now comprising 22 percent of the total population. The streets are lined with Chinese restaurants displaying aquariums full of exotic fish, herbal-medicine shops, teahouses and carts of colorful silk slippers. The newcomers--who hail largely from Guangzhou and Fujian provinces--are drawn to Sunset Park for its wealth of commercial space and private housing. In addition, the neighborhood's N train links it directly with Chinatowns in Manhattan and Queens, where many work or visit relatives.

The influx has revitalized the neighborhood. A hilly enclave of majestic brownstones and small apartment buildings, Sunset Park first became blighted during the 1930s, and continued to deteriorate through the '70s. Old-time locals remember when squatters used to live in vacant storefronts along Eighth Avenue, where Chinatown is now centered. But this latest influx of immigrants, combined with a real-estate boom in New York City, has caused neighborhood property values to soar. Many Yuppies, priced out of the housing market in Manhattan and the more upscale parts of Brooklyn, have also moved to Sunset Park, where one- and two-family houses have doubled in price since 1998, to $160,000 and $275,000 respectively. For many immigrants, buying a home in Brooklyn is the first step toward success in America. Says borough historian John Manbeck, "The concept of Brooklyn is you live there, you identify with your neighborhood, you grow up and you move on to big things."

The Chinese share Sunset Park with a host of other new arrivals. Dominicans and Mexicans have opened taquerias and other businesses to the west, near the waterfront. Polish and Middle Eastern immigrants live farther east, where their shops mingle with the Chinese ones along Eighth Avenue. For the most part, the ethnic groups get along--often much better than they do back home. Khalil Mustafa works in his brother's Middle Eastern grocery store, located on the border with the largely Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park. Mustafa, an Arab from Jerusalem, says his bookkeeper and many of his customers are Jewish. He points at a TV playing news about an Israeli attack on Lebanon. "Over there, we fight for our freedom, for our land," he says. "Over here, what are we going to fight for? We're living well, that's all that matters."

Immigrants are changing more than just the economic landscape. Jonathan Rieder, a sociologist at New York's Barnard College, says they're also changing perceptions of race. Asians, and to some extent West Indians, he points out, are being deracialized because of their upward mobility. They're following in the footsteps of Italians and Jews, who in the early 1900s were seen as inferior, "mongrel" races, but gained respect with their success. At the rate Brooklyn's Chinese immigrants are going, there'll be a Chinatown in every neighborhood before long.

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