This past Sunday, I decided to soak in the sights, sounds and smells of the Big Apple by taking the train from my home in northern Manhattan to Brooklyn. Then I'd walk all the way back -- or at least see how far I could go before my legs gave out.
The Manhattan Bridge was on my chosen path, which meant I arrived from Brooklyn into Manhattan directly in the heart of Chinatown: Manhattan Chinatown to be exact; both Queens and Brooklyn have their very own, for those not native.
Chinatown holds a very special place in my heart, since it was basically one of the two epicenters of video games in NYC, at least back in the day.
Since it's been ages, I decided to swing by J&L Game Trading, pretty much the last vestige of Chinatown's aforementioned glory days. It was a visit long overdue; like many other people, I had not only taken the place for granted, but forgot that it even existed. Funny enough, it was a dude from San Francisco who uttered its name recently, remind me to visit. I speak of Cesar Quintero, of Area 5 production company fame. He and his crew were visiting New York, filming various game haunts for their Outerlands series, I presume. I ran into him at last Thursday's New York University student showcase and distinctly recall him shaking his head when saying that one of their stops was J&L, I didn't think much of it. If I did, perhaps I'd have otherwise known what I would be confronted with that following Sunday: J&L was no more.
The doors were locked, and everything was being dismantled, put in boxes. There was also a sign on the door, thanking customers for many years of business and hoping that they'd stop by their new location, in Midtown. So they're not gone forever but still, it was officially the end of an era for Chinatown.
Chinatown holds a special place in my heart, since it was one of the epicenters of video games in NYC.
I don't claim to be a certified expert when it comes to New York's video gaming history, since I'm not originally from these parts (grew up in Washington State, in Nintendo's backyard, though I ended up being a Sega guy). But I've been here for close to 20 years, and have done the best I can to soak up as much knowledge as possible. Unfortunately, much of it remains undocumented. Only recently have certain individuals begun taking note of the history of games, with the major milestones being the primary focus. The culture of video games is also a relatively new conversation outside of small circles, hence why only a tiny corner of the canvas is covered thus far.
You'll find a couple of people with their own account of NYC's Golden Age of video games, though it can be difficult separating fact from fiction. Not pure fiction, mostly just nostalgia and personal biases. Ultimately, a large part of it is still a mystery, like when J&L first opened its doors. Everything I know about the earliest days, which was before my time, is courtesy of my closest gaming buddy who introduced me to it in the first place during college; J&L began life in the early '90s as a kiosk, in the underground mall at Elizabeth Street, across the street from the freshly discarded retail location. It was run by a pair of brothers, whom I believe still are the owners.
Back then, it was just these crazy kids and their friends selling bootleg SNES games via floppy discs and the hardware necessary to run them. Inevitably, the authorities showed up, and many places that were distributing pirated software went out of business. Yet the brothers stuck around and decided to go legit by offering genuine articles. This was around the mid '90s, when high schoolers who grew up playing Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis were now attending college. They were still playing games, now on the Sony PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64.
The late '90s saw the arrival of the Dreamcast, and Chinatown's video game business was booming. J&L's modest section of the mall had expended quite a bi, but even more room was necessary. They added a street-level store -- the one that just moved. For a while, both locations were operating simultaneously. Other game shops began popping up all over as well, though J&L's primary competitor was a store that didn't have an official name. Located in the same underground Elizabeth St. shopping center, it went by Penguin Village mostly, but they sometimes called themselves Initial D and EVO.
The primary attractions of these stores were their imports. Remember, this was prior to the Internet becoming widely available, before eBay even existed. Also, both J&L and Penguin Village still dabbled in somewhat dubious activities, by providing system modifications that allowed U.S. consoles to play Japanese titles (plus bootlegs, though this feature was never advertised).
Penguin Village's system was as follows: you'd drop off your PlayStation and pay whatever fee, then be instructed to come back in a few days. But it would be someplace else in the mall: a booth that sold cell phone charms a couple doors down. You'd give that shop's cashier your receipt and she'd nonchalantly hand over an unmarked envelope that contained a freshly modified PSX.
It's worth noting that bootleg games could still be easily found those days, but mostly in random gift shops, alongside bootleg VCDs (that's Video CDs for you kids out there, the precursor to DVDs; the format was a massive hit in Hong Kong). My favourite weird spot was again on Elizabeth Street, but in an upstairs apartment, where this greasy dude who seemingly wore the same wife beater every day offered bootleg Saturn and PC software in basically his living room. I should maybe also mention that this operation was just a few doors down from the local police precinct, and with zero incident. Piracy was just that rampant back then.
Both J&L and Penguin Village still dabbled in somewhat dubious activities, by providing system modifications that allowed U.S. consoles to play Japanese titles
Once the 2000's rolled around, everything changed. One by one, the various game shops disappeared. J&L closed its original location and went back to being just one store. Penguin Village, which also expanded into two separate spots in the mall, soon scaled back and was eventually no more. Chinatown became a shell of its former self, plain and simple. But why? Well, some of the reasons are pretty obvious. First you have the most obvious culprit: the Internet was one of the biggest blows to Chinatown as a whole.
A considerable chunk of the economy was built around pirated entertainment, and it became pointless to purchase bootleg DVDs once digital distribution became so easy. When it came to games,the Internet made importing easier and cheaper. It's also worth considering how many more esoteric Japanese games made their way to America on the PS2 than did on the PSone. See Katamari Damacy on PS2, for example.
Something else happened, which pretty much sucked the life out of Chinatown across the board: 9/11.
The events of September 11th devastated the entirely of New York City, but one of the hardest hit areas was unquestionably Chinatown, which has yet to fully recover even 13 years later. As one of the largest residential area to be directly impacted by the attacks (Chinatown was only 10 blocks away from the Twin Towers), the local economy took a massive nosedive. Many tourists were afraid to frequent that part of Manhattan for years to come. Many local businesses, including stores and restaurants, which thrived on outside money, simply could not weather the aftermath.
Even though I don't know the entire J&L backstory like the back of my hand, I'd eventually become friendly with many of their employees and everyone cited 9/11 as one of the biggest blows they ever faced. All things considered, it's a miracle that they were able to hang in there as long as they did.
The new location of J&L is 1026 6th Avenue of the Americas. According to their Twitter feed, they hope to be open for business this Wednesday, May 28th. Here's hoping they find success at their new location. Here's also hoping they have that brand new copy of Puzzle Fighter for the Game Boy Advance, which was what I was planning on picking up this weekend.
I guess that's it when it comes to video games and Chinatown, right? Not exactly.
J&L employees said 9/11 as one of the biggest blows their business ever faced.
Immediately after seeing the remains of J&L's now former location 28 Elizabeth St, I decided to head a few blocks south to the location of the neighbourhood's old arcade, Chinatown Fair. And it was comforting to see that the place was full of life. Some dudes were at the sit-down Street Fighter IV machines. Two girls were playing air hockey. A father and son were playing some Japanese rhythm game.
The original Chinatown Fair closed its doors in early 2011, with one of the former staff members setting up shop in Brooklyn Chinatown shortly afterward. This other establishment, called Next Level Arcade, was deemed the heir to the Chinatown Fair dream, but one year later, Manhattan Chinatown's arcade re-opened its doors, much to the surprise of everyone.
This new place is Chinatown Fair in name only. It's a pastel-painted spot that's less about the hardcore fight fanatics and more about creating a family friendly atmosphere. That has angered some longtime fans of the original Chinatown Fair, but I think hate for the place is asinine.
It is no easy feat to open any new retail business related to video games, no matter where you are, but in the economically impoverished neighbourhood that is Chinatown? That takes a lot of guts. Also, the Big Apple could stand to have a new place to enjoy some games. Which, funny enough, is exactly what's happening these days; a new Barcade is only days away from opening here in Manhattan, with another to follow soon. Plus you have a legit army of hipsters "curating" indie arcades all across Brooklyn. But guess what else it needs more? A place for families where a parent can take a child and simply have some fun times with him or her.
There's a documentary on the horizon, called aptly enough Arcade: The Last Night At Chinatown Fair. I am hopeful that it won't simply dwell on just the hardcore fighting game players who love to push their own agenda and will actually explore that place's rich, 50 year history, which includes a whole cast of characters, including local members of the Triads and a tic-tac-toe playing chicken.
Gaming in Chinatown isn't quite dead. Long live Chinatown!
Matthew Hawkins is a NYC-based game journalist who has written for NBC News, MTV Multiplayer, Siliconera, Gamasutra and GameSetWatch, to name a few. Matt's specialty is game culture, which is the focus of his self-published zine, along with the art shows that he curates on the behalf of the Attract Mode collective. Matt has also been known to make a few video games himself, on occasion; he once came close to making a Charles In Charge RPG for Ubisoft, swear to God. You can keep tabs on his personal home-base, FORT90.com.