Since the 1960s Manhattan’s Chinatown has featured bilingual street signs. Installed following a massive influx of Chinese immigrants to the city with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, the signs aimed to make navigation easier for Chinese New Yorkers who might not read English.
Recently, however, street signs have begun to disappear. Although New York is a city where more than 3 million residents from around 200 countries speak more than 700 languages, the population in Chinatown is shrinking. Accordingly, at least seven bilingual street signs have been removed and replaced by English-only ones since the 1980s.
Last week, New York City Councilmember Christopher Marte introduced the “Keep Chinatown on the map” bill proposal, which is pushing to keep the language of Chinatown in the streets. In March of this year, the New York Times reported that bilingual street signs had been replaced with English-only signs. Marte argues that the loss of these signs does not only burden immigrants — it also is threatening to slowly erase Chinatown from the map.
At a press conference on May 4, he said: “We have to stop that. What we have seen in the past decade is that they have taken down 155 bilingual signs and now in Chinatown we only have around 100. We are going to change that.”
Marte’s bill looks to both protect existing bilingual street signs while also adding additional signs. Additionally, this initiative would be implemented across all five boroughs in Chinese ethnic enclaves.
“The way it is going to work is that every council member can recommend up to 15 signs in their district and DOT has to put 250 bilingual signs in per borough, per year. DOT claims they want to bring equity and inclusion to New York City, but what’s more symbolic than street signs when it comes to the Department of Transportation? There is nothing more symbolic to our city than that,” Marte said.
According to Marte, the bill would require removed signs to be brought back.
The Executive Director of the Chinatown Partnership, Wellington Chen, currently working with the NYC Department of Transportation already came out supporting the proposed legislation. Chen is the first Chinese American to serve on a community board and local development corporation in Queens and was also recruited to serve on the NYC Board of Standards and Appeal.
“Chinatown is off the grid, and people are constantly lost,” Chen said. “It can be hard for English speakers at times, let alone those who do not have signs in their language to navigate by.”
In addition to safety and navigation concerns, Chen also said it is an extra comfort to have amidst the dark times of anti-Asian hate.
“We don’t want you to get lost,” he added.
According to a NYCDOT spokesperson, the agency already has a plan to replace the monolingual signs, and they look forward to working with Council Member Marte on this issue.