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  • “It’s really an American story,” Wellington Chen said as he scribbled blue ink across the Chinatown map.

    Rather than listing the prominent places in the area, Chen named the prominent people that once strolled its streets. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Jacob Riis – he rattled them off faster than I could write them down.

    I had stumbled into his office at the Chinatown Partnership on a wet afternoon, in search of both information and an escape from the rain. I expected the standard rundown of famous landmarks or picturesque monuments, but instead Chen, the organization’s director, gave a historical rundown of the community.

    He explained how a variety of people have lived in and contributed to the neighborhood; the Chinese are simply the most recent and have been there the longest.

    “The thing is, most Americans don’t know this,” he said as he admired his work.

    He went on to explain that the neighborhood is still changing. Like much of Manhattan, gentrification is forcing longtime residents out of Chinatown and into New York City's outer boroughs.

    But a string of government buildings – City Hall, federal courthouses (the streets and areas crossed out on the map) – also harm the neighborhood, he said. Tourists wandering between the World Trade Center and Wall Street are prevented from strolling into Chinatown by a chain of administrative structures.

    "They are literally choking us," he explained.

    According to Chen, in the latest chapter Chinatown’s American story, it seems to be the American institutions that are one of the neighborhood’s biggest threats.
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