Inside the NYC neighbourhood with the fastest growing Asian population

Yumpling, a Taiwanese eatery, opened its first brick-and-mortar restaurant in August 2020, when New York City was in an uneasy limbo between waves of the coronavirus. Indoor dining was still banned, but the owners had signed the lease right before the pandemic and could not keep paying rent on an empty storefront.

To their surprise, they sold out of food within three hours of opening their doors in Long Island City, Queens. A line of Asian Americans waited around the block for beef noodle soup and pork dumplings.

Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, Yumpling, which had operated a food truck in Manhattan, is one of at least 15 Asian-owned businesses — including a Mandarin child care centre and hair salon — that have opened in the neighbourhood since March 2020.

“The whole rise of the Asian American population has been crazy,” said Chris Yu, 30, a co-owner and native of Taiwan.

Long Island City, nestled in the western corner of Queens with waterfront views of Manhattan’s skyline, is a microcosm of a sweeping demographic shift: a booming Asian population that has become the fastest growing racial group in the country and its most populous city.

Asian residents were the driving force behind a 7.7% rise in New York City’s overall population since 2010, according to Census Bureau data released in August, upending predictions by demographers that the city’s population was shrinking.

Across the country, people identifying as Asian — a sprawling group of nearly 20 million people who trace their roots to more than 20 countries — are moving into cities like Los Angeles and Houston, but also growing rapidly in states like North Dakota and Indiana. In West Virginia, the Asian population rose even as the state’s overall population declined.

The census data also showed that among New York City neighbourhoods, Long Island City experienced the fastest growth in residents who identified as Asian, a fivefold increase since 2010. The nearly 11,000 Asians who live in the neighbourhood make up about 34% of its population.

The surge in Asian residents has transformed neighbourhoods — from Bensonhurst in Brooklyn to Parkchester in the Bronx — with the potential to significantly reshape New York’s housing market, small businesses and political representation. In June, a record six Asian American candidates won their Democratic primaries for City Council, including the seat representing Long Island City.

Yumpling, a Taiwanese restaurant that sold out of food within three hours of opening its doors, in the Long Island City neighbourhood of Queens on Oct 9, 2021. Janice Chung/The New York Times

The Asian population in New York City jumped by more than 345,000 since 2010 to make up 15.6% of the city’s population, according to census data, accounting for more than half of the city’s overall population increase in the past decade. Asians were the only major racial group whose population increased in all five boroughs.

In recent years, Long Island City has evolved from an industrial area — a longtime haven for artists and Italian immigrants — into a sea of luxury apartment towers. It became a centre of international attention in 2019 after Amazon announced and later backed out of plans to move its second headquarters there.

Part of the population growth has been driven by students and recent graduates from China and Korea, a far different profile than the restaurant workers and home health aides who have lived for decades in enclaves like Manhattan’s Chinatown and are now driving the growth of newer Chinatowns across southern Brooklyn.

The newcomers to Long Island City are attracted to the luxury apartment buildings, which are one subway stop from Midtown Manhattan, but cost less.

“I moved here and never regretted it,” said Jike Zhang, a 28-year-old software engineer who immigrated from China to upstate New York in 2015 for graduate school.

Zhang moved to Long Island City in 2018 after seeking out a rental building with a basketball court. She played several times a week, a way to befriend other Chinese millennials in the building, and recently bought a one-bedroom condo nearby.

Among Long Island City residents who identify as Asian, the three largest ethnic groups are Chinese, Japanese and Korean, according to 2019 census data.

Long Island City has also drawn a growing number of second- and third-generation Asian Americans looking to raise young families in a quiet waterfront neighbourhood. The influx of families has fuelled a shortage of school seats and turned education into a hot political issue.

David Oh, 43, moved to Long Island City in 2010 from Manhattan, where he works in finance, because he was getting married and wanted more space. Like many parents in the area, Oh grew up in Queens, where his mother still lives. He wanted a neighbourhood where his children, ages 5 and 8, could easily visit Chinatown in Flushing.

“They don’t grow up feeling ashamed of their backgrounds or feeling like it’s inferior or not American,” said Oh, who is Korean and Chinese American.

Local businesses are racing to meet the demands of the changing demographics. Along Jackson Avenue, a main commercial corridor, signs on vacant storefronts advertise new businesses opening soon: Dun Huang, a hand-pulled Chinese noodle chain; Paris Baguette, a Korean bakery chain; and Mito, a sushi lounge.

Many local business owners are young immigrants like Nigel Huang, 27, who opened a bubble tea shop called Teazzi on the ground floor of the apartment building where he lives in the penthouse unit.

Huang, who grew up in China before attending college and graduate school in the US, noticed a need for more Asian food and beverage establishments, saying he and his friends were often choosing to wait up to two hours for Chinese food delivery from Flushing.

“Why do more and more Asian people want to do business here?” Huang said. “It’s because they see the potential of this developing area.”

Still, the spike in the neighbourhood’s Asian population is not only a story of upward mobility. It also reflects the vast economic disparity among Asian New Yorkers, who have the widest income gaps of any racial group.

The Asian population is rising in another part of Long Island City, inside Queensbridge Houses, the country’s largest public housing complex. In 2019, Asians made up 11% of its tenants, according to a recent court filing.

Immigrants from China, Korea and Bangladesh have moved in after they could no longer afford to live in areas like Lower Manhattan or Astoria in Queens, according to tenant advocates.

“Our Asian working-class tenant leaders have been fighting against the kind of luxury development that gentrified them out of their previous homes,” said Alina Shen, an organiser for Asian tenants in Queensbridge.

The challenge of representing such a broad constituency will likely fall to Julie Won, a liberal Democratic candidate expected next month to win the City Council seat that represents Long Island City — as well as Astoria, Sunnyside and Woodside in Queens.

Won, a 31-year-old tech consultant, said she consciously tried to avoid perpetuating model minority stereotypes about Asian Americans on the campaign trail. She told voters about immigrating from South Korea as a child and growing up in poverty in Queens, watching her mother scrub other people’s feet in nail salons.

After Won’s primary victory in June, she found that she won a strong base of white voters, as well as Tibetan, Nepalese and Bengali voters, after she recruited organisers focused on those communities. But her support among Chinese and Korean voters was lower than expected.

She said encouraging civic engagement will require, for instance, hiring a fluent Mandarin speaker to do outreach with local Chinese-owned businesses.

The dog run in Gantry Park in the Long Island City neighbourhood of Queens on Oct. 7, 2021. A fivefold increase in Asian residents since 2010 is transforming the area’s restaurants, housing and politics. (Janice Chung/The New York Times)

“At the end of the day, if they don’t trust you, they will not be interacting with you,” Won said.

Elliot Park, a Korean American resident who voted for Won, said the anti-Asian attacks across the city became a force for new political activism. Though a handful of attacks occurred in Long Island City, the large Asian population provided a sense of safety, said Park, whose family business, Shine Electronics Co, has been operating in the neighbourhood since 1984.

“There was really no anti-Asian hate stuff around us except in the subway,” Park, 43, said. “But on the street? Forget about it. There’s going to be 10 other Asians behind you.”

In addition to public safety, education has also become a hotly contested political issue in the area. With the surge in new families, the local public elementary school had wait lists for years to get into kindergarten.

Natsuko Ikegami, a real estate broker, moved to Long Island City in 2017 from East Harlem because she believed it was a safer community. Her Asian American clients often choose Long Island City, she said, in order to send their children to a high-performing public school, instead of paying for private school.

“For many Asian parents, education is so important,” said Ikegami, who immigrated from Japan to the US in the 1990s. “There is a saying in my language that the first three years of a child’s life determines a lifetime.”

The neighbourhood emptied during the pandemic when many international students flew back home and families relocated to the suburbs, prompting some buildings to offer four months of free rent. Rental prices in Long Island City are now surging back to prepandemic levels, partly because international students have returned to school.

Their return has been a relief for April Jiang, 29, a Chinese immigrant who is planning to open an Asian-inspired fried chicken restaurant in the area next month.

Her other Long Island City restaurant, Yin Traditional Hot Pot, struggled last year without Chinese students. When the restaurant opened in early 2020, she focused on authentic Sichuan flavours, without worrying about whether the broth would be too spicy or the pork intestines too off-putting.

“We thought about whether we had to balance the flavours to make Americans come here, but we really don’t need it,” Jiang said, citing the high demand from international students. “Our kitchen, they just cannot handle it.”

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