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Manhattan’s Chinatown is one of the oldest and largest concentrations of Chinese people outside of China. Still comprising more than 90,000 inhabitants as of today, its colorful banners and bustling street marketplaces are a persisting fixture of Lower Manhattan. It can trace the inklings of its history down to a single person, Guangzhou-born businessman Ah Ken, who was the first person to permanently settle in the area that is now known as Chinatown in 1858. Today, it faces decline due to rising rents and the looming threat of gentrification, but holds with it an illustrious history, from Ah Ken’s original cigar shop to the days of the Chinese Exclusion Act to the immense expansion and diffusion to other New York Chinatowns after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

And yet, amid the changing times, demographics, and culture of what began as a small outcropping of the first Chinese immigrants to America, are the conversely unchanging roads and alleys that frame it. Some, like the infamous Doyers Street, are able to be traced back to the late 19th century. Others, like Pell Street, have only become recently recognizable due to its exposure on film and television.

In any case, if you ever find yourself wandering around Canal Street with little to do but learn about Chinatown’s history and people (as is frequently the case), the only thing you need to do is follow the streets. Here are a 5 notable alleys to check out:

5. Catherine Lane

Catherine Lane-Chinatown-Broadway-Alleys-NYC copy

Sitting right between Broadway and Lafayette Street is a small causeway currently covered in scaffolding. Catherine Lane, like Catherine Street in the Lower East Side, was named for the wife of Henry Rutgers, a veteran of the United States Revolutionary War and a New York City philanthropist who donated $5,000 (which now equates to about $100,000 today) to the faltering Queens College in New Brunswick, NJ, now named in his honor as Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. The Rutgers lived in New York for much of their lives and operated a small farm in Southeast Manhattan. Today, Catherine Lane is flanked by an office building and a laundromat, with a parking lot entrance halfway down.

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3 Comments

  1. Amy says:

    I object to the description of Chinatown as “disease-ridden and violent” during the Chinese Exclusion years (1882 to 1943). That stereotypical portrayal of Chinatown was superimposed and peddled by the mainstream, largely white society and media of the time and factors significantly in the widespread discrimination against the Chinese during that period. Notorious hucksters like Chuck Connors led ‘slumming’ tours for uptown white clientele and paid Chinese to stage shoot-outs and fake opium dens for the entertainment of these voyeurs. It’s not to say that there wasn’t real violence sometimes or real illness and poverty in Chinatown, but it wasn’t any more than in other precincts of the City and certainly not so much as to be able to say it was the overriding character of the area for 60 years. For the most part, as it is today, Chinatown was simply a place of community, culture and commerce – Chinese lived, shopped and socialized there because they were often unwanted and sometimes violently attacked in other parts of the City.

    • michelle young says:

      Hello Amy, you make an excellent point. While this post was written by an Asian American, and edited by myself (a Taiwanese American), we missed this aspect and should have been more sensitive. My college research was on the way Asians and Asian Americans are portrayed in the media (from analysis in fashion design to architecture), and this miss on my end is a reminder how dominant, misleading narratives can creep in, even amongst those who are aware. We’ve edited the article accordingly.

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