By Andrew Silverstein
This Op-Ed was originally published in The New York Daily News on July 13, 2011.
New York City Councilmen Peter Koo (R-Flushing) and Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) are pushing bills that would mandate store signs across the city to be at least 60 percent in English. The councilmen have carefully avoided framing the debate as a cultural issue. Instead they argue the bill would attract English speaking customers to ethnic enclaves and increase public safety.
On the face of it the councilmens’ arguments are weak. If English language signs could boost business, enterprising storeowners would have changed their signs already. In fact, Councilmen Koo’s own five Queens pharmacies might be in violation of the proposed law. If clearer signage could help police and firemen do their jobs, why haven’t we heard this from public safety advocates? And if the two politicians were sincere in this concern they would be more focused on the completely unmarked residential buildings and up-scale restaurants and bars without any signs across the city.
The use of pro-public safety and pro-small business rhetoric to argue for assimilation laws is not without precedent. In 1938 Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia passed a law that banished pushcarts from the crowded streets of the Lower East Side (LES). At the time, shopkeepers and politicians felt embarrassed by the thousands of Italian and Jewish street peddlers who they considered “too ethnic” and unsanitary. Laguardia, himself the son of Jewish and Italian immigrants, promoted his anti-pushcart law as a means to improve public safety by making streets less crowded and as part of a greater economic development plan for the LES. As the law went into effect, the city unveiled new “modern” indoor markets on First Avenue and Essex Street to house stalls for former street vendors. Like Koo and Halloran today, LaGuardia saw himself as a benefactor to the very immigrants he was targeting, claiming to turn “peddlers into merchants.”
Suzanne Wasserman, Director of the Gotham Center of New York History at the City University of New York Graduate Center, asserts that LaGuardia’s policies were part of a “de-ethnicization” project on the LES and never delivered on the promise of economic prosperity. In fact, Wasserman claims that overall business sharply declined. The foreign bazaar-like feel of the LES that LaGuardia attacked was actually the very reason that many shoppers visited the immigrant neighborhood.
As the owner of a tour company, Streetwise New York Tours, I find a similar dynamic exists today. Both locals and tourists visit ethnic neighborhoods because the atmosphere, including foreign language signs, give a feeling of being able to travel overseas by subway. Some enterprising business owners have come to embrace this appeal as a marketing strategy to attract English speaking customers. Jason Wang of Xi’an Famous Foods told The New York Times that he exclusively hires non-English speaking cashiers even for their East Village location serving a mainly American clientele because he claims “that’s more authentic.” Similarly, two trendy bars in Chinatown, Apotheke and Happy Ending, use old awnings with Chinese characters from closed businesses in order to draw in large crowds for their pricey cocktails.
If Councilmen Koo and Halloran are looking for a winning economic model for small immigrant businesses, they need not look further then their own council districts, where Flushing itself, with its store awnings in Korean and Chinese, has experienced extraordinary growth in past years. A 2007 report by the think tank Center for an Urban Future found that in a ten year period the number of businesses in Flushing grew by 55 percent as compared to less than ten percent citywide. Last month in The Daily News Councilmen Halloran praised this history, writing, “the growth of ethnic businesses on Main St. helped pull Flushing back from the brink when the neighborhood was deteriorating just a generation ago.”
Still some long time Queens residents take for granted this revitalization and focus on the foreign feeling of today’s Main Street. Seeing one’s neighborhood radically change its ethnic identity may be difficult for some New Yorkers, but its preferable to having your local economy devastated. Besides, this sentiment seems to be exaggerated considering that in 2004 a study by now Comptroller John Liu found only five percent of businesses in Flushing had signs without any English.
Beyond helping the city’s neighborhoods rebound from hard times, recent immigrants have also made the city more unique and vibrant. Getting off the subway and being surrounded by new sights, smells and languages is a distinctly New York experience. Instead of tampering with this economic success and burdening small businesses with the extra cost of changing their signs, Koo and Halloran should respect immigrant entrepreneurs and learn from the past. If not, then yet again in New York’s history, immigrant business owners will be hurt by policies that were supposedly meant to help them.
Andrew Silverstein is studying for a PhD in economics at the City University of New York Graduate Center and is the co-founder of Streetwise New York Tours.