More English signage good for immigrant enclaves
May 31, 2011 | 4952 views | 0 0 comments | 43 43 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In New York City, foreign language store signs serve as a prominent symbol of our multiculturalism - especially in outer borough immigrant enclaves - but they also pose a problem for shoppers and a safety hazard for police and firefighters, fueling a long-standing debate over assimilation and economics.

Now the City Council is expected to weigh in, after two lawmakers introduce a bill requiring that English account for at least 60 percent of the writing on store signs. Small business owners would have four years to change their awnings.

Like most good legislation, it’s sure to stir controversy; nobody likes to be told what to do by the government, least of all small business owners who take pride in, and rely on, their independence to survive. But clearly something has to be done and this law seems like a reasonable solution.

In Flushing, for example, Korean and Chinese-language signs dominate entire city blocks. The neighborhood has a well-deserved reputation among foodies for its eclectic, inexpensive fare. Knowing where to go - and what to order - is next to impossible, however, unless diners can read store signs and menus pages.

That issue extends to shopping in general.

Councilman Peter Koo, the founder and owner of a popular local drugstore chain, believes true bi-lingual signs will stimulate immigrant-run businesses, attracting curious shoppers who might have stayed away before. He’s probably right, though proving the law’s impact in real dollars might be difficult.

What’s indisputable is the effect it would have on public safety.

Cops and firefighters searching for a home or business in an emergency have building numbers to go by. But in the heat of the moment, when every second counts, signs with easy-to-read English names would make locating addresses that much faster. At a time when the Bloomberg Administration is threatening to close fire companies, any bit of help for the city’s bravest is welcome news.

The law is sure to spark anger in immigrant communities.

Some people will see it as an attack on non-English speakers, yet another push by the government to bring immigrants inline with mainstream American culture.

But that’s not its purpose.

The idea is not to force assimilation, but to provide business owners with a greater opportunity to show off - and profit from - their cultural heritage. It makes sense, and there’s no better example than Brighton Beach to show that it works.

The Russian neighborhood is full of restaurants, clothing and specialty stores that cater to the surrounding community. But because there’s plenty of English signage the area has also become a favorite with visitors from elsewhere in the city and international tourists interested in Russian culture.

That’s the kind of win-win the city is looking for.

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