Why Asian Americans Are Moving to NYC’s East Harlem

More low-income residents are moving into the traditionally Latino neighborhood. Nonprofits have stepped up, but more services are needed.

Bloomberg CityLab
March 3, 2023

In the lobby of a public housing building in East Harlem, Wanna Kingpayom eagerly accepted her weekly delivery of Asian groceries — a small bag of tofu, bok choy, rice and fruit.

GO TO ARTICLE

Kingpayom, 63, used to work at a restaurant that closed during the pandemic, so she welcomes the free food from Heart of Dinner, a nonprofit whose volunteers serve about 100 vulnerable Asian American residents each week. The group, formed during the Covid-19 crisis to help Asians in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan’s Chinatown, has more recently shifted resources to the area, also known as Spanish Harlem, to support a growing number of Asians moving into the neighborhood’s public and affordable housing.

Other organizations are making similar moves, even hosting Lunar New Year parties last month in the traditionally Puerto Rican neighborhood that’s grown more ethnically diverse in recent decades. In East Harlem — which spans roughly East 103rd to East 125th streets with a population of about 123,000 — people of Asian descent make up about 9.5% of the neighborhood, up from about 6% a decade earlier, based on the latest US Census data.

relates to Why Asian Americans Are Moving to NYC’s East Harlem
Wanna Kingpayom receives a weekly delivery of Asian groceries like tofu and bok choy from the nonprofit Heart of Dinner, which helps vulnerable Asian Americans.Photographer: Amy Yee/Bloomberg

Many Asian New Yorkers were disproportionately hurt by the pandemic after losing jobs in service industries such as restaurants and salons. They also had less access to health care and government aid programs because of language, cultural and technology barriers. Some residents of East Harlem make long commutes to Manhattan’s Chinatown or Queens to get multilingual medical care, buy Asian food, or get bills and letters translated.

“They lost their network,” said Eva Chan, founder of the Upper Manhattan Asian Alliance, a grassroots advocacy group. Living in East Harlem can be “very challenging,” she said.

Chan started the Upper Manhattan Asian Alliance with Lilian Chow, a fellow Harlem resident, after seeing the struggles of vulnerable residents compounded by a wave of anti-Asian hate crimes. In New York City, hate incidents against Asians in 2021 surged 361% to 129 compared with a year earlier, according to police department data. Across the US, nearly 11,500 hate incidents were reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a national nonprofit, from March 2020 to March 2022. More than 800 incidents were against Asian Americans aged 60 and up.

In East Harlem, Yao Pan Ma, a 61-year-old from China, was murdered in 2021 while collecting cans on busy 125th Street as cars whizzed by. His killer pleaded guilty to murder last month, targeted Ma because he was Asian, and will be sentenced to 22 years in prison, said Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg

Memorial for Yao Pan Ma, killed in anti-Asian hate crime
A press conference and memorial vigil is held for Yao Pan Ma on Jan. 21, 2022, on the street corner where he was fatally attacked in Harlem.Photographer: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

More social services are a good step, but it’s not enough for East Harlem’s neglected Asian community, said Chan. There are just a few Chinese-speaking social workers at area nonprofits to serve thousands of Asian Americans, she noted. “We need more resources to make a dent,” added Chow.

Shifting Demographics and a Growing Asian Population

More low-income Asians are moving into East Harlem’s public housing as they get off wait lists, including for senior housing. The area has one of New York’s largest concentrations of public housing buildings, and also has affordable market housing units. The share of public housing apartments in East Harlem was nearly 30% compared to 7.5% citywide, according to the Furman Center at New York University.

While the overall percentage of Asians in city public housing is 6%, their numbers have increased 40% from 2007 to 2020, according to New York City Housing Authority. Asians are also the city’s fastest-growing group of elderly residents — and are its poorest, according to advocacy groups AARP and Asian American Federation. They were the only racial group whose poverty rate increased from 2019 to 2020.

Low-income Asian Americans are also getting pushed out of Manhattan’s Chinatown by gentrification, said advocates in Harlem. That was the case for Aichoo Yap, 68, and her 70-year-old husband, who live in a public housing tower in East Harlem. They moved a couple years ago from Chinatown, where monthly rent was about $1,200. Yap also worked at a restaurant that closed during the pandemic, and her husband retired from his job delivering food.

Now they pay $300 each month for their one-bedroom East Harlem apartment. “Otherwise, we don’t know what to do,” said Yap.

relates to Why Asian Americans Are Moving to NYC’s East Harlem
Volunteers deliver Asian groceries to vulnerable Asian Americans living in East Harlem.Photographer: Amy Yee/Bloomberg

The couple are more settled in the neighborhood than they once were, but they don’t go out at night; they occasionally hear gunshots. (Crime is higher than in other parts of New York, with 18.7 serious crimes per 1,000 residents in 2021, compared with 12.2 per 1,000 citywide, according to the Furman Center.) Their grandchildren refuse to take the subway to visit them because they feel unsafe. And Yap isn’t used to some non-Asian items from East Harlem’s food pantries, so she receives Heart of Dinner’s culturally appropriate groceries. “It helps a lot,” she said.

Nonprofits Step Up

Anxiety among Asian Americans in East Harlem intensified in 2021 after Ma’s brutal murder. Ma immigrated to the US in 2018, and during the pandemic lost his job at a restaurant that closed. In 2019 his Chinatown apartment was ravaged by fire, and he moved to public housing in East Harlem. Ma’s wife worked as a health aide, and he collected cans to make ends meet.

His murder put a spotlight on other vulnerable Asians in the neighborhood and how to meet their needs. Union Settlement, established in 1895 in East Harlem, has worked with generations of New Yorkers. It first served Irish, Eastern European and Italian populations, then Hispanics and African Americans. Now it also assists people from West Africa, the Caribbean and China.

“We respond to the community as it shifts and changes,” said Jennifer Geiling, chief executive of Union Settlement. About a decade ago, the group started catering to East Harlem’s Asian residents, who are predominantly from China and speak Mandarin, Cantonese and Fujianese. It offers food aid, health assistance, senior and youth programs, and other social services.

relates to Why Asian Americans Are Moving to NYC’s East Harlem
Volunteers deliver food in East Harlem, whose Asian American residents typically have to buy Asian groceries in Chinatown or Queens.Photographer: Amy Yee/Bloomberg

After Ma’s murder, another nonprofit, Asian Americans For Equality, approached Union Settlement to start offering Asian food aid in East Harlem. Now AAFE and Union Settlement run a monthly pantry that distributes Asian produce and other items. Asian seniors regularly line up at the neighborhood’s other food pantries, said Poling Lau, a Chinese-speaking social worker with Union Settlement, “but they don’t necessarily get food that is culturally appropriate.”

But demand far outstrips supply. The Asian food pantry serves 115 people; more than 100 are on the waitlist. AAFE estimates that 1,500 East Harlem residents spend at least two hours on the subway each week commuting to buy Asian groceries.

This year, AAFE hopes to raise $15,000 to start connecting upstate New York farms that grow Asian vegetables directly to East Harlem residents. The food pantry currently relies on corporate donations, so a market-based model would be more sustainable. “We need to find a solution,” said Emily Rios, AAFE’s managing director of community services. Farms could accept food stamps from Asian residents and serve new customers in this farm-to-chopsticks model.

To test the idea, AAFE last year brought Asian elders to New York farms. They excitedly picked produce such as bok choy, cabbage, winter melon, scallions and more.

relates to Why Asian Americans Are Moving to NYC’s East Harlem
Nonprofit AAFE brought older Asian Americans to upstate New York farms last years to pick produce.Source: AAFE

“We didn’t have to instruct people how to harvest,” said Rios. The seniors had experience growing vegetables in their native China before moving to New York’s concrete jungle — and even gave the farmers tips on cultivation. “There was such nostalgia for people to be on a farm,” recalled Rios.

The nonprofit Carter Burden Network started serving older adults more than 50 years ago and expanded into East Harlem in 2013. Back then, 90% of clients it served were Hispanic, said Bill Dionne, its executive director. Now they are 26% Asian, 34% Hispanic, 20% African American and 20% white.

In addition to reduced-price meals and food aid, Carter Burden also offers classes such as calligraphy, dance, Tai Chi and pottery, some taught by Chinese-speaking teachers. It hosted a Lunar New Year celebration on Jan. 20 as it has in recent years. “It’s not just about food,” Dionne said. “People need companionship.”

relates to Why Asian Americans Are Moving to NYC’s East Harlem
A Lunar New Year party in January 2023 at Carter Burden Network’s older adult center in East Harlem, which also offers calligraphy, Chinese dance and art classes.Photographer: Amy Yee/Bloomberg

That human connection is palpable even without speaking the same language. Cyril Darensbourg, 55, started volunteering with Heart of Dinner in 2022. The New Orleans native can’t communicate with many clients. “But I can sense their excitement,” said Darensbourg. He raised two children in East Harlem, yet had had no idea about its burgeoning Asian population until recently.

Lola Yu, 30, also volunteers with Heart of Dinner. She has lived in Harlem for four years but grew up with parents who spoke limited English. “I know how isolating that can be. It’s hard to do things like pay bills or ask directions,” she recalled.

Yu speaks Mandarin and Cantonese and said it is satisfying to translate for residents. “I felt like I could be doing something,” she explained. “It’s time to have a voice and step up for people.”

In the lobby of a public housing building in East Harlem, Wanna Kingpayom eagerly accepted her weekly delivery of Asian groceries — a small bag of tofu, bok choy, rice and fruit.

Kingpayom, 63, used to work at a restaurant that closed during the pandemic, so she welcomes the free food from Heart of Dinner, a nonprofit whose volunteers serve about 100 vulnerable Asian American residents each week. The group, formed during the Covid-19 crisis to help Asians in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan’s Chinatown, has more recently shifted resources to the area, also known as Spanish Harlem, to support a growing number of Asians moving into the neighborhood’s public and affordable housing.

Other organizations are making similar moves, even hosting Lunar New Year parties last month in the traditionally Puerto Rican neighborhood that’s grown more ethnically diverse in recent decades. In East Harlem — which spans roughly East 103rd to East 125th streets with a population of about 123,000 — people of Asian descent make up about 9.5% of the neighborhood, up from about 6% a decade earlier, based on the latest US Census data.

relates to Why Asian Americans Are Moving to NYC’s East Harlem
Wanna Kingpayom receives a weekly delivery of Asian groceries like tofu and bok choy from the nonprofit Heart of Dinner, which helps vulnerable Asian Americans.Photographer: Amy Yee/Bloomberg

Many Asian New Yorkers were disproportionately hurt by the pandemic after losing jobs in service industries such as restaurants and salons. They also had less access to health care and government aid programs because of language, cultural and technology barriers. Some residents of East Harlem make long commutes to Manhattan’s Chinatown or Queens to get multilingual medical care, buy Asian food, or get bills and letters translated.

“They lost their network,” said Eva Chan, founder of the Upper Manhattan Asian Alliance, a grassroots advocacy group. Living in East Harlem can be “very challenging,” she said.

Chan started the Upper Manhattan Asian Alliance with Lilian Chow, a fellow Harlem resident, after seeing the struggles of vulnerable residents compounded by a wave of anti-Asian hate crimes. In New York City, hate incidents against Asians in 2021 surged 361% to 129 compared with a year earlier, according to police department data. Across the US, nearly 11,500 hate incidents were reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a national nonprofit, from March 2020 to March 2022. More than 800 incidents were against Asian Americans aged 60 and up.

In East Harlem, Yao Pan Ma, a 61-year-old from China, was murdered in 2021 while collecting cans on busy 125th Street as cars whizzed by. His killer pleaded guilty to murder last month, targeted Ma because he was Asian, and will be sentenced to 22 years in prison, said Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg

Memorial for Yao Pan Ma, killed in anti-Asian hate crime
A press conference and memorial vigil is held for Yao Pan Ma on Jan. 21, 2022, on the street corner where he was fatally attacked in Harlem.Photographer: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

More social services are a good step, but it’s not enough for East Harlem’s neglected Asian community, said Chan. There are just a few Chinese-speaking social workers at area nonprofits to serve thousands of Asian Americans, she noted. “We need more resources to make a dent,” added Chow.

Shifting Demographics and a Growing Asian Population

More low-income Asians are moving into East Harlem’s public housing as they get off wait lists, including for senior housing. The area has one of New York’s largest concentrations of public housing buildings, and also has affordable market housing units. The share of public housing apartments in East Harlem was nearly 30% compared to 7.5% citywide, according to the Furman Center at New York University.

While the overall percentage of Asians in city public housing is 6%, their numbers have increased 40% from 2007 to 2020, according to New York City Housing Authority. Asians are also the city’s fastest-growing group of elderly residents — and are its poorest, according to advocacy groups AARP and Asian American Federation. They were the only racial group whose poverty rate increased from 2019 to 2020.

Low-income Asian Americans are also getting pushed out of Manhattan’s Chinatown by gentrification, said advocates in Harlem. That was the case for Aichoo Yap, 68, and her 70-year-old husband, who live in a public housing tower in East Harlem. They moved a couple years ago from Chinatown, where monthly rent was about $1,200. Yap also worked at a restaurant that closed during the pandemic, and her husband retired from his job delivering food.

Now they pay $300 each month for their one-bedroom East Harlem apartment. “Otherwise, we don’t know what to do,” said Yap.

relates to Why Asian Americans Are Moving to NYC’s East Harlem
Volunteers deliver Asian groceries to vulnerable Asian Americans living in East Harlem.Photographer: Amy Yee/Bloomberg

The couple are more settled in the neighborhood than they once were, but they don’t go out at night; they occasionally hear gunshots. (Crime is higher than in other parts of New York, with 18.7 serious crimes per 1,000 residents in 2021, compared with 12.2 per 1,000 citywide, according to the Furman Center.) Their grandchildren refuse to take the subway to visit them because they feel unsafe. And Yap isn’t used to some non-Asian items from East Harlem’s food pantries, so she receives Heart of Dinner’s culturally appropriate groceries. “It helps a lot,” she said.

Nonprofits Step Up

Anxiety among Asian Americans in East Harlem intensified in 2021 after Ma’s brutal murder. Ma immigrated to the US in 2018, and during the pandemic lost his job at a restaurant that closed. In 2019 his Chinatown apartment was ravaged by fire, and he moved to public housing in East Harlem. Ma’s wife worked as a health aide, and he collected cans to make ends meet.

His murder put a spotlight on other vulnerable Asians in the neighborhood and how to meet their needs. Union Settlement, established in 1895 in East Harlem, has worked with generations of New Yorkers. It first served Irish, Eastern European and Italian populations, then Hispanics and African Americans. Now it also assists people from West Africa, the Caribbean and China.

“We respond to the community as it shifts and changes,” said Jennifer Geiling, chief executive of Union Settlement. About a decade ago, the group started catering to East Harlem’s Asian residents, who are predominantly from China and speak Mandarin, Cantonese and Fujianese. It offers food aid, health assistance, senior and youth programs, and other social services.

relates to Why Asian Americans Are Moving to NYC’s East Harlem
Volunteers deliver food in East Harlem, whose Asian American residents typically have to buy Asian groceries in Chinatown or Queens.Photographer: Amy Yee/Bloomberg

After Ma’s murder, another nonprofit, Asian Americans For Equality, approached Union Settlement to start offering Asian food aid in East Harlem. Now AAFE and Union Settlement run a monthly pantry that distributes Asian produce and other items. Asian seniors regularly line up at the neighborhood’s other food pantries, said Poling Lau, a Chinese-speaking social worker with Union Settlement, “but they don’t necessarily get food that is culturally appropriate.”

But demand far outstrips supply. The Asian food pantry serves 115 people; more than 100 are on the waitlist. AAFE estimates that 1,500 East Harlem residents spend at least two hours on the subway each week commuting to buy Asian groceries.

This year, AAFE hopes to raise $15,000 to start connecting upstate New York farms that grow Asian vegetables directly to East Harlem residents. The food pantry currently relies on corporate donations, so a market-based model would be more sustainable. “We need to find a solution,” said Emily Rios, AAFE’s managing director of community services. Farms could accept food stamps from Asian residents and serve new customers in this farm-to-chopsticks model.

To test the idea, AAFE last year brought Asian elders to New York farms. They excitedly picked produce such as bok choy, cabbage, winter melon, scallions and more.

relates to Why Asian Americans Are Moving to NYC’s East Harlem
Nonprofit AAFE brought older Asian Americans to upstate New York farms last years to pick produce.Source: AAFE

“We didn’t have to instruct people how to harvest,” said Rios. The seniors had experience growing vegetables in their native China before moving to New York’s concrete jungle — and even gave the farmers tips on cultivation. “There was such nostalgia for people to be on a farm,” recalled Rios.

The nonprofit Carter Burden Network started serving older adults more than 50 years ago and expanded into East Harlem in 2013. Back then, 90% of clients it served were Hispanic, said Bill Dionne, its executive director. Now they are 26% Asian, 34% Hispanic, 20% African American and 20% white.

In addition to reduced-price meals and food aid, Carter Burden also offers classes such as calligraphy, dance, Tai Chi and pottery, some taught by Chinese-speaking teachers. It hosted a Lunar New Year celebration on Jan. 20 as it has in recent years. “It’s not just about food,” Dionne said. “People need companionship.”

relates to Why Asian Americans Are Moving to NYC’s East Harlem
A Lunar New Year party in January 2023 at Carter Burden Network’s older adult center in East Harlem, which also offers calligraphy, Chinese dance and art classes.Photographer: Amy Yee/Bloomberg

That human connection is palpable even without speaking the same language. Cyril Darensbourg, 55, started volunteering with Heart of Dinner in 2022. The New Orleans native can’t communicate with many clients. “But I can sense their excitement,” said Darensbourg. He raised two children in East Harlem, yet had had no idea about its burgeoning Asian population until recently.

Lola Yu, 30, also volunteers with Heart of Dinner. She has lived in Harlem for four years but grew up with parents who spoke limited English. “I know how isolating that can be. It’s hard to do things like pay bills or ask directions,” she recalled.

Yu speaks Mandarin and Cantonese and said it is satisfying to translate for residents. “I felt like I could be doing something,” she explained. “It’s time to have a voice and step up for people.”

In the lobby of a public housing building in East Harlem, Wanna Kingpayom eagerly accepted her weekly delivery of Asian groceries — a small bag of tofu, bok choy, rice and fruit.

Kingpayom, 63, used to work at a restaurant that closed during the pandemic, so she welcomes the free food from Heart of Dinner, a nonprofit whose volunteers serve about 100 vulnerable Asian American residents each week. The group, formed during the Covid-19 crisis to help Asians in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan’s Chinatown, has more recently shifted resources to the area, also known as Spanish Harlem, to support a growing number of Asians moving into the neighborhood’s public and affordable housing.

Other organizations are making similar moves, even hosting Lunar New Year parties last month in the traditionally Puerto Rican neighborhood that’s grown more ethnically diverse in recent decades. In East Harlem — which spans roughly East 103rd to East 125th streets with a population of about 123,000 — people of Asian descent make up about 9.5% of the neighborhood, up from about 6% a decade earlier, based on the latest US Census data.

relates to Why Asian Americans Are Moving to NYC’s East Harlem
Wanna Kingpayom receives a weekly delivery of Asian groceries like tofu and bok choy from the nonprofit Heart of Dinner, which helps vulnerable Asian Americans.Photographer: Amy Yee/Bloomberg

Many Asian New Yorkers were disproportionately hurt by the pandemic after losing jobs in service industries such as restaurants and salons. They also had less access to health care and government aid programs because of language, cultural and technology barriers. Some residents of East Harlem make long commutes to Manhattan’s Chinatown or Queens to get multilingual medical care, buy Asian food, or get bills and letters translated.

“They lost their network,” said Eva Chan, founder of the Upper Manhattan Asian Alliance, a grassroots advocacy group. Living in East Harlem can be “very challenging,” she said.

Chan started the Upper Manhattan Asian Alliance with Lilian Chow, a fellow Harlem resident, after seeing the struggles of vulnerable residents compounded by a wave of anti-Asian hate crimes. In New York City, hate incidents against Asians in 2021 surged 361% to 129 compared with a year earlier, according to police department data. Across the US, nearly 11,500 hate incidents were reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a national nonprofit, from March 2020 to March 2022. More than 800 incidents were against Asian Americans aged 60 and up.

In East Harlem, Yao Pan Ma, a 61-year-old from China, was murdered in 2021 while collecting cans on busy 125th Street as cars whizzed by. His killer pleaded guilty to murder last month, targeted Ma because he was Asian, and will be sentenced to 22 years in prison, said Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg

Memorial for Yao Pan Ma, killed in anti-Asian hate crime
A press conference and memorial vigil is held for Yao Pan Ma on Jan. 21, 2022, on the street corner where he was fatally attacked in Harlem.Photographer: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

More social services are a good step, but it’s not enough for East Harlem’s neglected Asian community, said Chan. There are just a few Chinese-speaking social workers at area nonprofits to serve thousands of Asian Americans, she noted. “We need more resources to make a dent,” added Chow.

Shifting Demographics and a Growing Asian Population

More low-income Asians are moving into East Harlem’s public housing as they get off wait lists, including for senior housing. The area has one of New York’s largest concentrations of public housing buildings, and also has affordable market housing units. The share of public housing apartments in East Harlem was nearly 30% compared to 7.5% citywide, according to the Furman Center at New York University.

While the overall percentage of Asians in city public housing is 6%, their numbers have increased 40% from 2007 to 2020, according to New York City Housing Authority. Asians are also the city’s fastest-growing group of elderly residents — and are its poorest, according to advocacy groups AARP and Asian American Federation. They were the only racial group whose poverty rate increased from 2019 to 2020.

Low-income Asian Americans are also getting pushed out of Manhattan’s Chinatown by gentrification, said advocates in Harlem. That was the case for Aichoo Yap, 68, and her 70-year-old husband, who live in a public housing tower in East Harlem. They moved a couple years ago from Chinatown, where monthly rent was about $1,200. Yap also worked at a restaurant that closed during the pandemic, and her husband retired from his job delivering food.

Now they pay $300 each month for their one-bedroom East Harlem apartment. “Otherwise, we don’t know what to do,” said Yap.

relates to Why Asian Americans Are Moving to NYC’s East Harlem
Volunteers deliver Asian groceries to vulnerable Asian Americans living in East Harlem.Photographer: Amy Yee/Bloomberg

The couple are more settled in the neighborhood than they once were, but they don’t go out at night; they occasionally hear gunshots. (Crime is higher than in other parts of New York, with 18.7 serious crimes per 1,000 residents in 2021, compared with 12.2 per 1,000 citywide, according to the Furman Center.) Their grandchildren refuse to take the subway to visit them because they feel unsafe. And Yap isn’t used to some non-Asian items from East Harlem’s food pantries, so she receives Heart of Dinner’s culturally appropriate groceries. “It helps a lot,” she said.

Nonprofits Step Up

Anxiety among Asian Americans in East Harlem intensified in 2021 after Ma’s brutal murder. Ma immigrated to the US in 2018, and during the pandemic lost his job at a restaurant that closed. In 2019 his Chinatown apartment was ravaged by fire, and he moved to public housing in East Harlem. Ma’s wife worked as a health aide, and he collected cans to make ends meet.

His murder put a spotlight on other vulnerable Asians in the neighborhood and how to meet their needs. Union Settlement, established in 1895 in East Harlem, has worked with generations of New Yorkers. It first served Irish, Eastern European and Italian populations, then Hispanics and African Americans. Now it also assists people from West Africa, the Caribbean and China.

“We respond to the community as it shifts and changes,” said Jennifer Geiling, chief executive of Union Settlement. About a decade ago, the group started catering to East Harlem’s Asian residents, who are predominantly from China and speak Mandarin, Cantonese and Fujianese. It offers food aid, health assistance, senior and youth programs, and other social services.

relates to Why Asian Americans Are Moving to NYC’s East Harlem
Volunteers deliver food in East Harlem, whose Asian American residents typically have to buy Asian groceries in Chinatown or Queens.Photographer: Amy Yee/Bloomberg

After Ma’s murder, another nonprofit, Asian Americans For Equality, approached Union Settlement to start offering Asian food aid in East Harlem. Now AAFE and Union Settlement run a monthly pantry that distributes Asian produce and other items. Asian seniors regularly line up at the neighborhood’s other food pantries, said Poling Lau, a Chinese-speaking social worker with Union Settlement, “but they don’t necessarily get food that is culturally appropriate.”

But demand far outstrips supply. The Asian food pantry serves 115 people; more than 100 are on the waitlist. AAFE estimates that 1,500 East Harlem residents spend at least two hours on the subway each week commuting to buy Asian groceries.

This year, AAFE hopes to raise $15,000 to start connecting upstate New York farms that grow Asian vegetables directly to East Harlem residents. The food pantry currently relies on corporate donations, so a market-based model would be more sustainable. “We need to find a solution,” said Emily Rios, AAFE’s managing director of community services. Farms could accept food stamps from Asian residents and serve new customers in this farm-to-chopsticks model.

To test the idea, AAFE last year brought Asian elders to New York farms. They excitedly picked produce such as bok choy, cabbage, winter melon, scallions and more.

relates to Why Asian Americans Are Moving to NYC’s East Harlem
Nonprofit AAFE brought older Asian Americans to upstate New York farms last years to pick produce.Source: AAFE

“We didn’t have to instruct people how to harvest,” said Rios. The seniors had experience growing vegetables in their native China before moving to New York’s concrete jungle — and even gave the farmers tips on cultivation. “There was such nostalgia for people to be on a farm,” recalled Rios.

The nonprofit Carter Burden Network started serving older adults more than 50 years ago and expanded into East Harlem in 2013. Back then, 90% of clients it served were Hispanic, said Bill Dionne, its executive director. Now they are 26% Asian, 34% Hispanic, 20% African American and 20% white.

In addition to reduced-price meals and food aid, Carter Burden also offers classes such as calligraphy, dance, Tai Chi and pottery, some taught by Chinese-speaking teachers. It hosted a Lunar New Year celebration on Jan. 20 as it has in recent years. “It’s not just about food,” Dionne said. “People need companionship.”

relates to Why Asian Americans Are Moving to NYC’s East Harlem
A Lunar New Year party in January 2023 at Carter Burden Network’s older adult center in East Harlem, which also offers calligraphy, Chinese dance and art classes.Photographer: Amy Yee/Bloomberg

That human connection is palpable even without speaking the same language. Cyril Darensbourg, 55, started volunteering with Heart of Dinner in 2022. The New Orleans native can’t communicate with many clients. “But I can sense their excitement,” said Darensbourg. He raised two children in East Harlem, yet had had no idea about its burgeoning Asian population until recently.

Lola Yu, 30, also volunteers with Heart of Dinner. She has lived in Harlem for four years but grew up with parents who spoke limited English. “I know how isolating that can be. It’s hard to do things like pay bills or ask directions,” she recalled.

Yu speaks Mandarin and Cantonese and said it is satisfying to translate for residents. “I felt like I could be doing something,” she explained. “It’s time to have a voice and step up for people.”

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2023-02-03/why-asian-americans-are-moving-to-nyc-s-east-harlem

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s