Mark Lu Oral History Transcript

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Mark Lu Oral History Transcript

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Transcript

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A transcript of Mark Lu's oral history, recorded on April 8, 2017

Creator

Arielle Hersh

Date

April 8, 2017

Contributor

Arielle Hersh

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Arielle Hersh and Mark Lu

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Text

Narrator: Mark Lu

Interviewer: Arielle Hersh

Date: April 8, 2017

Place: Melrose, South Bronx NYC

Transcriber: Arielle Hersh


Abstract:

Mark Lu was born in China and immigrated to the US with his family in 1995. They settled in Kensington, Brooklyn, where Mark’s father ran a Chinese takeout restaurant while Mark attended Brooklyn College. He later pursued medical school at New York College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYCOM), but after realizing that it wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life, he shifted his focus and began a career in real estate. Mark began his career renovating houses and renting them out tenants in Columbus, Ohio in 2004 and then moved back to the New York area in 2008 where he worked on similar, but larger projects with an investment group in Long Island. In 2010, Mark’s partner of 10 years passed and he spent a year travelling. During this time he visited South Africa and Australia. In 2011, he returned to real estate in New York, and in 2012 he met his current partner, Luigi. In the same year, they moved to Via Verde in Melrose and Mark and Luigi began opening restaurants in New York. After a few years, they moved from Via Verde to a house nearby in Woodstock. Mark and Luigi are currently opening a restaurant in Melrose called Porto Salvo. In this oral history, Mark contemplates his role as a businessman in the process of gentrification and neighborhood change.

 

AH: Alright. Hi, this is Arielle Hersh and I’m here with Mark Lu, M-A-R-K space L-U. It’s Saturday, April 8, 2017. This oral history is for (Dis)Placed Urban Histories, NYU Gallatin Spring 2017 in collaboration with WHEDco.

Alright, so I guess to start can you tell me a little bit about your background—where you come from?

ML: Yes, well my name is Mark Lu and I was born in China, and I came to to the states in 1995, I think November 31, 1995. I remember when I first landed I came from southern part of China, so it was relatively warm, and then [I landed] … after they had a huge snowstorm of 1996, the blizzard of 1996, and I was really thinking like, “What am I getting myself into? It’s a totally different kind of weather” so it was very different in terms of environment. I was really looking forward because New York City, obviously, we thought of it as the center of the world and landing here is not what I expected it to be, so it was quite [an] interesting transition. Then I went on to Brooklyn College. I studied there [as a] chem major for four years and it was a very very wonderful educational experience at CUNY Brooklyn. Then eventually I went to medical school, studied at NYCOM, New York College of Osteopathic Medicine. Then just upon [my] last year, I think I realized my passion really was real estate and business, so I drop out of medical college and then went into real estate. And that is where I am today, continue doing real estate, both on the investment side and the brokerage side …

AH: Alright, so do you want to talk a little bit about China, about your childhood, what you liked to do growing up:

ML: Well in China I think, I think it was very different. I grew up in a relatively suburban area, so nothing really  in particular, but I think when I grew up it was really very academically-focused. I spent most of my time studying, and my parents, like many Chinese parents, are very much emphasizing on education is the way to move forward, way to move up. I really … listened to that, and I did very well academia, … My parents, when I was like four years old, five years old, [my mom] was telling like, “You’re going to be the doctor!” And she was telling my brother, who’s about like four years younger, “You’re going to be the lawyer!” You know, that kind of mentality. I always focused on that and then I did really well. However, … when I went to high school, … we knew that we were coming to United States, as immigrants, so … instead of going to Shanghai, which is the top university there, I decided that I was gonna stay in my own province to go to the college there because it would be easier to do the transition, all the paperworks and things. … I think the Chinese experience had taught me [that] education are very important, although that later on I did drop out of medical college … I do think that [education] provides a sense of character-building blocks for us as we go through education because the things that we learned in classes might not be super helpful or even you can find it online or somewhere—the content itself—but I think your interactions with your colleagues, and the experience as a whole, it builds a character in who you are. I think that’s an invaluable experience. For Chinese part of my life, oh about 19 years, I think that was very important to me … to understanding that educations are important, understanding what kind of person that I want to be, not what I want to go into do, what I’m going to do, but what kind of person I want to be. That I thought it was very important.

AH: Yeah, do you want to talk a little bit about coming to the US and what was that like?

ML: I think what I mentioned … I came here ‘95 and just like any other immigrant, my father rent … a very small Chinese takeout restaurant and it was a little difficult at the beginning from the housing perspective. We lived in a 2-bedroom apartment and I had to live in a bunk bed with my brother, in a very very small room. So I think initially it was very different from the housing perspective compared to China. However, we understood that, …  it was very expensive in New York even back then, I mean 1995 the housing itself. And we had the goal of, “We want to buy our own house,” so we were saving a lot, so we weren’t spending. My father would work and I would go to college and then I always also understood that it would be beneficial, from financial perspective, that if I do well, that I can apply for scholarships, and have that kind of financial support to alleviate some of the burdens that my parents would have. So during the college years here, in CUNY, I had like two [or] three scholarships, so it was more than enough to cover the expenses of the tuition, and plus the school’s textbooks and all that expenses. I think I even brought home some money, which I thought was really nice at the time, so I was able to buy computers and, you know back then. … Again, I think for me educational experience, both in China and here, was very very wonderful. I loved it. … And I really appreciated, when I went to Brooklyn College, that I was able to interact with students from different backgrounds. I have friends who are Russian. I have friends who are Jewish. I have friends from Haiti. Different colors, different backgrounds, and we were forced to speak English—’cause for me English was a second language, and at age 19 was little bit difficult—but I think that forced me to interact with the people from different backgrounds and that we had to speak the common language of English, which really helped me to progress in terms of educationally and I guess in future, professionally. So I really, I really enjoyed it, and really appreciated it. CUNY, I do have to say, with the low tuition, obviously, more focus on the public benefit … I think it’s really, really needed to be preserved. The quality of the education that the public universities or public colleges that you provide for people who are financially not as secure at the time, I think it’s very important.

AH: How did you make the personal decision first to go to medical school, and then that that wasn’t what you wanted to do?

ML: So as I mentioned [when I was] four and five years old, my parents already, or my mom at least, was telling me that I was going to be the doctor, and that had always been my focus, which I did. When I was in China I was already medical college … ‘cause the … Chinese system is that you go through high school, and then maybe the top 0.1%, then you get to directly go to medical school. They have a standardized test, and then by the score of that test, the tops, really top percent, you get selected to medical college. There is no college, like a pre-med like that we have here. I went there for a year, but with the understanding that I wasn’t gonna staying. I came to America with also the understanding that I was gonna continue the medical path. When I went to Brooklyn College, I took pre-med courses and I was pre-med, chem major, but I was pre-med. Everything was really according to plan. Then I did the MCAT. I didn’t do as well as I was hoping to, but I did get into two colleges, so I picked NYCOM, which is New York College of Osteopathic Medicine, which is closer because it’s closer, it’s less expenses for me … The other one is in Philadelphia, so I thought New York was better. Everything was according to plan for the first two years. The academia was great. I don’t have a problem with academia, but then as I was going into rotations, into different hospitals, I think that’s when I realized that the profession itself—at least in United States—is a little different than what I was expecting it to be. I think there is a lot of focus on salary, a lot of focus on the … not on the doctors, but at least you’re hearing that. On the morning, … I would be there like five o'clock and then go through my first rounds, and then sit down with the interns and residents, and then you go through their rounds of their patients, and then, you have 10-15 minute gap waiting for the attendings to arrive. And the people would be talking about what they wanna talk about. Then, very often—I was in Long Island at the time—and then, very often, the subject would be, you know, so and so just bought a boat, so and so just bought a house that’s worth this much or worth that much. I mean it’s all great, but I think I resented that a little bit because I came from the Eastern background and I thought the medical field—yes, you would make a very decent living, but on the other hand I wasn’t prepared to be so upfront with money. I think I wasn’t, so I resented that a little bit. Then I thought to myself, “Wait, if going into medical field means to make money, I think there’s plenty of other fields that makes money.” I said at the time Wall Street [is] at the height of those … financial gains. I thought they would make a lot of money—why would I be in this field? … That was back in 2003. I went into medical school in 2000. 2003 when I finished my first year rotation which is my third year of medical school I had that crisis. I think crisis is Who am I? What do I wanna do? I think that maybe when I was so focused on academia I never was going through my search for myself, my own identity. I think … that manifested into dropping out of medical school, which is very painful for my parents because they felt that they invested a lot of time, money, expectation. They were very disappointed. But I think that I stuck it out and I thought, regardless of this decision is going to be right or wrong, it has to be my decision because I always thought that was my parents’ decision to go into medical school. I fulfilled that, and then for the first 20-something years of my life, and I said, “Now it’s time for me to define who I am and to find out who I am, what I want to do.” That’s when I drop out of medical school. That was in 2003, maybe July when I … finished the rotation year. Then I had asked for a year of leave of absence, just in case if I were to go back, so I thought it was a great thing to do. Then, during the year of searching, I think I was really looking to see what I’m good at, what should I do? My parents at the time, although my father owned the restaurant, but he was always very entreprenuer-spirited, so he thought of owning the building that they had the restaurant on. He didn’t speak English, so at the time he asked me if I can communicate with the owner, and … see if we can make a deal happen, which, I kind of helped. Then, we purchased the building, and then he was very happy, and then I helped managing the building. I thought that was very interesting, to acquire something. … It’s the same thing as a business: you acquire something, you have to run it efficiently to make profit. I thought that was very interesting. As I was going through college and continuing through medical school I was helping him doing that, and then during the year of searching I think, you know that might be something that I would be interested in exploring, so I did, and …  I took a course. I took my credit card out and I swiped one of those Trump University courses (laughs) no, but yes, something like that. It was like $2,500 at the time was quite expensive. I took out my credit card and bought the course and I went in and I remember the teacher said something like, “I know you guys spent a lot of money to be here.” I think the guy’s name is James Smith, he said that “95% of you is going to finish this course, which is only one week, and leave here and do nothing, and only 5% of you is going to go out and really do something, and that does not even guarantee that you are gonna be successful, but at least 5% of you that will start doing something.” I remember that, so I always say to myself, Okay, regardless of success or failure that you want to be that 5% that at least do something, which I did. Then I did continue communicating with the people from the class, and I did realized he was speaking from experience. A lot of people going into those classes expecting get rich quick or make tons of money of that sort without understanding that there’s a lot of hard work involved. A lot of people that I communicated with didn’t really move forward doing anything. But I did, so I remember after that … I researched about six-seven different markets in America, and I settled in Columbus, Ohio because I thought the entry was very low. When I say entry, meaning the purchase of the properties is very low, and return on investment is relatively higher, compared to New York market, ‘cause New York is what I know, and I was helping my parents doing rentals and properties. But you’re looking at maybe like a 6% return on investment, so every $100 you make $6. But in Columbus Ohio, which is decent, mid-sized American city, where you can purchase a property (laughs) for, at the time, I believe it was 2004. You can purchase a two family property, which is what I did. My first one was  $36,000 for two families: 3 bedrooms, 3 bedrooms. I was putting another twenty-something thousand dollars and I renovated the units and make it nice and neat and tenants would love to live in, and I rent it out. I rent it out, and then I refinanced. At the time, credit was good, so I refinanced and then I get more money, and reinvest it. I continued doing that. It’s like flip-the-house or something like that, except I didn’t sell them, I just refinanced them and get the money and … purchased more properties, renovated them, and then put in tenants, and then cash out, and then continue doing that. I did about 27 properties. That’s how I got into real estate. I really liked it because I felt that, and the same thing I think relates to Melrose here … I think real estate is not necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s the people who’s doing it with the intentions. If your intentions are to make as much profit as possible disregarding the people who’s living in there, the people who you are servicing, then it’s a problem. But I think if you’re intention is good, in terms of saying, I want to provide a quality housing to people who need it, I think that’s where the market comes in and balanced it out … because you have to make sure that it makes certain profits, just like, you know, when Bronx was burning, when Melrose was burning back in 1970s, the reason why is because the landlords no longer make money, so how can you expect them … to be maintaining the property to a good quality and people want to live in? I thought housing to me is really about … service, that somebody is providing a service, and somebody is needing that service. And then behind that service being met, is people. I think it’s really the judgement of the people who’s good charactered or bad charactered, or who’s more focused on pure profit or understanding that they need to fulfill certain responsibilities at the same time they are taking profit. I thought that was what I learned from my initial investment career, that I was able to provide housing that is … that people wanted to live in, and was happy to stay there because I always thought, if they stay there longer, then from a profit perspective, there’s no lag time. People don’t move in and out, then I don’t have to have a two month that nobody lives there without collecting rent. I always thought if you treat people nicely that people also understand, and also respect the space that they live in. I learned from that experience. And then when I felt that I was ready, graduating from that smaller market back to New York, that’s when 2007-2008, when the housing market crashed and for me, I thought that was the perfect opportunity for me because my business model is I need to buy it in a very inexpensive manner that I see what other people don’t see, and I’m doing to invest the capital to renovate it to the way that I think people would like the product to be, or service to be, and then put them in. I partnered with two other people. That’s 2008—2007, 2008, and 2009. I partner with three other people and we did investment group and then we actually flipped the houses in Long Island. We focused on anywhere between $200,000-$400,000 projects. … That’s a lot bigger than the Columbus, Ohio. I did that, and that was actually rather successful as well. I remember as people were saying don’t buy houses because 2007-2008 house value is going down, [but] … people still need to live somewhere. Then the first-time homebuyers that we interacted with, they are very excited to see the quality of the work that they are buying into, ‘cause we usually take pictures along the process of our renovation, so they see … what kind of material putting under the floor, that you don’t see, so they are very excited. We constantly have buyer that … during the housing crisis we have buyers who’s saying, “Oh where’s your next project? I have relatives who’s looking to purchase. Can you please tell us?” We never had to wait like everybody else, put the house on the market for month to try your luck if anybody bites it … We were very lucky. … I think from that experience, from that 2007 to 2009 I think my experience taught me that I think it’s as like, as all the previous ones … It’s like you have to treat people like if you were … the recipient of that product or the service what would you expect? If you can put yourself in other people’s shoes then I think your product is gonna be very much in demand. So that was very nice. [In] 2010, one of the family tragedy had happened. My partner of 10 years passed away. That was huge hit for me. … I lived in Long Island, I did very well (laughs). We had like a—you know from material perspective, we did very well—we had like a five bedroom house is almost one acre. From material it looked very nice, but I think that tragedy, when my partner passed away that it taught me like, all those materials really mean nothing when you don’t have the person you love, such as your family members, your parents, your sibling, your husbands and wives, partners, I think it means very little. From 2010 to 2012 I kind of drifted, kind of lost myself … again. So I traveled. I traveled to different parts of the world. I was very lucky because … I did very well on the financial aspect, so I was able to go to Australia … I went to South Africa, I went to all different parts of the world … to kind of well, either find myself or lose myself, either way that I think, just to get away from where I was. And then, by the time … 2011 ends, that I … kind of feel that it is important, like what I did, was important. That when the whole world was talking about housing crisis: … who was responsible for it, who should go to jail and all that stuff, you know, I felt that what I did was important because I thought I’m a little guy, I’m not, a developer who develops 100 unit buildings or something. I just thought that … if I can take a house or building and I can make it nice that people want to live in, either rent, or purchase in the future, I think that’s important. I think that’s for people to take responsibility of their own once I finish mine. So I decided to come back and [in] March of 2012 I restarted my investment career. And then that’s when I met my current partner and then I think he helped me as well in term of understanding that life … has more to do with a process, not the end, where you’re going to be. I think that I was back on my feet by the time 2012. … I didn’t know Melrose ‘cause I grew up in Brooklyn, I lived in Long Island. … Yet, when my partner … he’s Italian, and he said, “I would like to have an apartment. I don’t wanna be renting.” I was in real estate, so I said, “Okay, that’s great,” because to me renting is never a long-term, it’s a transition. He said there is a place called Via Verde—it looks beautiful. I said where is it? He said, “It’s in the Bronx.” And my immediate reaction at the time was Bronx, like are you sure? We lived in Upper East Side at the time, which is a very established neighborhood, and … I would never associate ourselves with Bronx, thinking what about the safety? What about how will people look at us? You live in Bronx? And there’s any kind of … understanding that people would associate with Bronx. So I was very biased back then. And then, he asked me, he said, “Why don’t we take a look? It doesn't hurt to take a look at the project, doesn’t hurt to take at look at the neighborhood.” June of 2012 he showed me the project and he showed me the neighborhood and … I came from an investment perspective, … and the moment I look at that Third Avenue where you came up from the subway, 149th St and Third Avenue, I immediately knew that was where Fulton Street used to be in Brooklyn, what downtown Brooklyn now is, very much like that. Very commercial, yet … has so much potential that’s so underutilized. So I … the decision to purchase Via Verde … was really on the investment aspect. He bought it for the purpose of the, “I want a home. I want a place that it’s mine, that I call home.” All the amenities there is really attractive: all the LEED certifications, all the rooftop gardens, the gym, and doorman. Those are really amenities that sometimes you find in the city, Manhattan or Brooklyn. I thought that was very nice. We bought, and then we moved in in 2012—August 31st 2012. And then about four-five years later, … we’ve outgrown the space, so we decided that  … we love the neighborhood so much, we want to stay close by, but we would like a house so we have more outdoor space. For that four-five years I saw the growth of Melrose, Woodstock, Mott Haven, and I say let’s look around here. Then we immediately found something that’s like, about four-five blocks from there. So we also purchased a house. That’s where we live now. We love it. We have a front yard, backyard. We have parking. You’re still in the city, but … you don’t feel you’re cramped. You don’t feel like everybody else is on top of you. That’s a great feeling. We have … grape vines in the backyard. In the summertime, it’s really beautiful when the morning, four-five o’clock you get up sometimes, and then you can sit outside, underneath the grape vines and have a cup of coffee, and I thought … that was important to us, the quality of it. We find the quality of life that’s here, that it’s hard, or very expensive to find in Manhattan or Brooklyn. Now we consider, we really consider Bronx our home. We consider Melrose our home.

AH: What do you like about Melrose the most, or just like about it?

ML: Well, discovery I guess … because we came from a background that is very much distant from [that], although I’m an immigrant, but … everybody has its own culture and own circle. I think I was still rather biased as you can see from 2012 about Bronx, about Melrose. Then, after I moved here I think I discover a lot of people, which I’m always very curious. And then, food. I never even knew that I liked Mexican food. I always … I always look at those taco trucks and I’ve tried, and my friends would take me to some Mexican restaurants, which tend to be a little gourmet, and this and that, and then I never felt that I liked it. And then I moved to Melrose and the selections are limited, so sometimes you’re forced like okay, I’m gonna try it. So you try different restaurants here, tend to be a lot of Spanish restaurants, and we discovered a lot of things … By being forced into something because of limited selections you tend to discover something you didn’t think you would like. I thought in terms of here, the discovery of a different culture, of different ways of living, of different people living under different circumstances was … is what I love the most. I think I had it in Brooklyn when I first came, but as we grew and get more involved in our professional lives, or daily livings, we lose sight of that. We lose sight of other people who might still be struggling. We lost sight of other people who live differently than us. I think Melrose provides me that. It’s a constant reminder of where I came from, that year we lived in a very small apartment and had bunk beds, and the rent was expensive for us as we are trying to save money to purchase buildings or houses. I think that’s what I love the most, and at least where I live. It’s not apartment, which I showed you Via Verde is the apartment. But, the communities there, because the currently house that I live in, I know all the neighbors. You get out in the yard in the morning people are out and about, and you say hello, and you tell them when you are going and where you are going because my partner and I, we travel a lot. We tell them, “Oh, we’re leaving. Can you keep an eye on the house?” Yeah, You know cameras, and all that but I think it is better somebody else eye, that somebody cares about you. They are watching out for the best of your interests. So I thought that’s where I live, I like. You still have that sense of feeling, which I’m very accustomed to when I was in China, but not anymore here. Then I found it, and again, I think in Melrose here, you have a lot of diversity. You do have, you do have people who are in different stages of financial success, so I like that.

AH: Yeah, do you want to talk a little bit about the restaurant and how this started out?

ML: Yes. Everything actually do come back to Melrose. So, when I met my partner, my partner was a chef. He’s an Italian chef. He was trained in Tuscany. He came to United States I think maybe ‘96, ‘97. And then he had his life, and then we converged our lives in 2012. At the time he worked at Alfredo of Rome, which is a very prestigious restaurant right by Rockefeller Center. I mean, I was in real estate—I eat, but really didn’t know much about restaurant business except my dad opened the restaurant and it was takeout, and I always thought that was very hard-working. My dad would go there open the store at 10 o’clock and we would come home at 11 o’clock at night, if lucky. I always remember we always stayed up until he comes home and then we would go to bed. I always took late morning and afternoon classes, so I don’t have to get up so early. In my mind the restaurant business is very difficult and time consuming, not a lot of money. All the Chinese restaurants that you see, spread out on the different blocks … it’s a very very long hours of work with not much, comparatively, it’s not a lot of money for the hours that they work. But I think it’s a typical way that immigrants live, and even in Melrose as you can see there’s a lot of Spanish families that open small mom and pop Spanish restaurants, and that … it’s a way to provide for the family, and I think more importantly, that the family can be together, ‘cause usually they’re family-run restaurants. So I liked it, and I didn’t like the fact that he was in restaurant business. At the time he didn’t have any restaurants, but I knew he was a chef and his ambition is to open restaurants. And of course as a partner you support what your partner do. I think my strong suit is business, and his strong suit is cooking and, I guess knowing the ins and outs of operations. He has a great thing about design. … We’ve owned four restaurants since we together. We sold one, but he designed all of them. He even built one. The third one he built with two other people, physically using his hands built it, which I was very very impressed. As I was getting more involved with his ventures, I think I realized that restaurant or any business that we do, it comes down to the core of you’re providing a product or services that other people are looking for, and how do you make the product and services best-suited for the people that’s coming. After understanding that I think i get less of a resentment, more of a involvement. I helped him from the business side of it. Running the business, there’s a lot of things besides what you see here, Health Department inspections, and applying for liquor license, and those point of sale systems, swipe credit cards with the percentage. There’s a lot of things that goes into a business, and that’s what I love. That’s actually what I love, because I feel like it doesn’t matter what profession that you choose, you must have a business sense. Because the ins and outs of money, is important because if you consider money as a game, then you need to know the rule of the game. You can utilize the rule of the game for yourself, and at the same time, if you’re good-hearted, you can utilize the rule of the game for the people you love, and eventually for the people you see and wanna help. That’s how I view it, and … I like to understand the rule of the game, and I want to be able to utilize it for the people I love and for people that I think that deserve help. That’s how I view it. We opened our first restaurant in East Harlem. We tend to like areas that are developing. The first restaurant was back in 2012 right after we bought the house and the Via Verde apartment, and then … we opened up our first restaurant in East Harlem right on the East 116th Street by Lexington Avenue where the explosion happened. When the explosion happened we had to shut down our restaurant and all that stuff. So we were there. We like the areas that really is up and coming because I think—well which goes back to this whole gentrification and displacement thing is that we didn’t understand what our role is, as entrepreneurs and as investors. What’s our role in this whole gentrification? Are we the bad guys? Are we the good guys? Who are we? Because we’re coming in here in an area, let’s say, East Harlem is … called Spanish Harlem, it’s very Hispanic, low rented. … Before it was a Mexican restaurant, and then we took it over and we turned it into a wine bar. We didn’t have an idea. We just went in, and we just thought wait, the demographic demands that they wanted something nearby that it’s a little bit different than the traditional Spanish restaurant—not that … they don’t serve the food but the demographic is changing. People are looking for good bottle of wine with friends hanging out, have nice plates of pasta or some elegant prosciutto, or something of that nature. We went in without understanding of that. We really didn’t think that we’re playing any part in gentrification, but as we moved into those neighborhoods, our second and third restaurants in Hamilton Heights, one’s called the Draft House, the other’s called the Anchor Winebar. As we are getting more and more involved in the restaurant business we realize we do play a part because … the restaurant that was there before no longer makes profit—they closed doors. We go in, we cater to a different demographic. Now, obviously the pricings of the menu items are much higher and for the people who now moving into the neighborhood, they are looking it as, it’s a bargain ’cause compared to where they used to go: Village, or Midtown, it’s a bargain, and they get the same quality of food or better. So they feel like this is great. Yet, the neighborhood people, … the old-timers who’s lived there for a while, then they realize wait, then my favorite Spanish restaurant just closed, and I can’t afford to go to that wine bar to have $12 a plate prosciutto. I guess we struggled a little bit. I mean, not from the business perspective, but we struggled a little bit to say okay … are we invading other people’s space? What are we? Are we the bad guys? I think … we had to struggle a little bit of that, like from a personal and moral perspective, we had to look for, and then we still continued looking for it, but we find a lot more peace understanding that we are complementing, we are part of the transition, that we providing product and service to people who’s coming in, who’s need it. In terms of the bigger picture, we can’t. We don’t have the ability to control the bigger picture. We can only do it from a small perspective is that when people coming in regardless of their race, their background, we treat them the way everybody else is. We don’t say if you’re coming in, you don’t dress the part, we don’t put you in the worse table than the better table. We just don’t. We treat you exactly the same. And I think that’s … I think that’s what we can do. We don’t know in a bigger picture where we are, but we know from a smaller perspective, from us, that as personal perspective, we treat everybody equally. Everybody who was in the neighborhood, or who is coming into the neighborhood we treat them equally. I think that’s all we can do. And we cannot further decide. It’s not in our place to really judge what we do, who we are, are we the good guys, are we the bad guys, because only … later  on people get to know. The character of a person is established throughout time. It’s not … you are a good guy today, and you are good guy forever. No, I think it’s throughout the time that your behavior and your action … have other people decide who you are. We are rather excited kind of, because this new restaurant is very close to where we are, and this is in Melrose, which from a business perspective it’s a very up and coming area. We like it. We like the prospect of it. … From Via Verde, I think the complaint—I’m very active with the board—is like there’s not restaurants—there’s restaurants—but very limited selections and mostly Spanish food. They were saying if I wanted to go somewhere to have Italian, to have sushi, I have to go all the way to the city. Then fortunately, or unfortunately (depends which side you are on), Mott Haven is really up and coming, and they have some sushi restaurants and things … but that’s all the way 132 Street. It’s not walking distance, and many people who live here—not like us, we have vehicles—so you have to go to subway, take maybe two-three stops, and you have to walk, ‘cause it’s on 6 train line, not on 2 and 5 train line. So for them they realize their immediate neighborhood of Melrose is lack of selections of what they are looking for, at least complementing to what they are used to. I think that’s the complaint that I get the most. I think it’s different people. The old timers here, they’re used to what they have and they are comfortable. For the newcomers who are coming in, they are looking for something that’s new, that’s not here. So there’s this tug of war in terms of understanding, saying well I need this service, yet the service that’s coming in is not going to be comfortable for the old timers. I think that’s where the differences are. So anyways, we love it. We love what we do. We have chosen this spot because we realize … we know that Melrose Commons is finishing, we know that Elton’s Crossing is being built up. We didn’t know is that the Music Heritage Center is going to be there. We bought the property without understanding it, but … now knowing that’s coming, this particular 161st Street is going to be a really, I guess desirable, and … a little bit cultural spot. I thought we would fit in really well, helping the patrons of the Music Heritage Center to have a place to gather. There’s also the Bronx Defenders who’s here, and they are very professionals. … We’ve kind of communicated with them and asking them what they are looking for in terms of their food choices and things of that. We do the best we can to understand the people who are already here, what they are looking for, incorporate into what we are thinking we can serve. We’re really excited. Rather excited.

AH: And as far as—you touched a little bit on neighborhood change—it’s a process that just happens, not good or bad, but it’s something that just, the market goes one way?

ML: I think everybody plays a part. I think I had mentioned. It’s either good or bad. It is a process. Everybody plays a part, so it depends who plays the part and when. It determines that the pace of transition. I don’t think transition is stoppable. I think it’s not benefitting who or what. It’s selfish to say that we need to preserve the neighborhood for the people who’s already here because people who are coming are also people—as I said from the very beginning—being displaced from other neighborhoods, and they deserve a place to live, and they deserve a standard that they think fits them. I think it’s just a continuation of the whole evolution of New York City as a whole. I think I’ve mentioned it to you the activists who were here, the Yolanda Garcia played a huge part by protecting the people who were here, not to be suddenly displaced, meaning they would have very little chance of participation or their voice to be heard. Yet, I don’t think it would have stopped the transition. I think it helped in a way of putting a voice into the whole design of the neighborhood. … Why is transition not stoppable? Because people grow. … I mean, when I say grow, people grow in age. As they grow in age, their needs are different. My neighbor, she is 82 years old. The property that I bought, the owner was 78-79. They’re coming to a spot that they’re transitioning out of the neighborhood. Now not everybody is, but certain populations are transitioning out of the neighborhood, and the newcomers are coming in tend to be younger. Their needs are going to be different. This is unstoppable because of the aging and the growth. Yolanda Garcia passed away, now what’s next? Of course we have WHEDco, we have other organizations that are here. Now, I think it’s just organizing some kind of voices to be part of the entire design, and I think that design, that voice, in that grand design, it’s important, yet I think the voice of people who’s coming in is also important. It’s just how to balance it out. It’s not to say one group is better, worse, than the other, it’s just they are different. They have different needs, and they all deserve to have a place that they’re comfortable with. They all deserve to have a place where they can go be safe, have a place to live, have a place to eat. I think those are the two very important things. That’s why, I think, my partner and I fit in really well, in terms of I’m in real estate—provides housing, where he’s in restaurant business—that provides the food. As long as the intention of all the group that’s behind it is good, that’s the most important thing. It’s not what’s happening, but … during the process the people behind it that’s more important. …

AH: Yeah, before we end, I want to circle back—you mentioned a number of times the restaurant that your parents had in Brooklyn. What neighborhood is that and can you tell me a little bit about it, what it looks like?

ML: Very very small. I think my father owned that particular restaurant from 1992—before I came to the States—to about 2004, 2005, something of that nature. Very small. … That neighborhood, for the last 20 years has been changing. It’s called Kensington, and I don’t know if you know much about Brooklyn, but Kensington was—I mean not in terms of demographic makeup or racial makeup, is not Hamden Heights, East Harlem, or Melrose—yet it was very similar in the way of working class, immigrants. That’s when we first came. And then, it changed. It became very Russian. And then it changed again: it became very mixed. That was probably, maybe like 10 years ago, it became very mixed. Now, Kensington is very Bangladesh, they even call it Little Bangla. People from the country next to India. That … maybe happened about five to seven years ago, and then continues to be. Yet, you have this whole continued pushing of gentrification where it used to be Park Slope, I’m sure you’ve heard of, and then the next stop on the F train is Windsor Terrace, and then the next stop is Kensington. So you do push that sense of … Actually your professor Rebecca lives in Kensington. So you have that so-called gentrification is the young professionals who keep pushing in from center of Manhattan, where universities and offices are, it kind of radiates out. And it keeps pushing. Now, Kensington is a very desirable neighborhood for young professionals. … Circling back to the restaurant, my dad sold the restaurant in 2004, but they continued to live there. They live right at the corner. Every time I go and visit them, I see the change. I see the people coming and going. And I see the restaurants are changing. Now, the Bangladesh restaurants not as good as they was five, six, seven years ago. Now, there are small little coffee shops. There are bar that are popping up, that not the Bangladesh people would eat or drink. But that’s how neighborhoods transition and I think that Melrose is same kind of transition. If I can say anything about our interview here—it’s different, it’s a progress. Neither good nor bad, it’s a progress. It’s different. And I think we should embrace difference.

AH: Alright, I think that’s a great place to end. Thank you so much.

ML: You’re welcome.

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Citation

Arielle Hersh, “Mark Lu Oral History Transcript,” (Dis)Placed Urban Histories: Melrose, accessed May 23, 2024, https://www.melrosestories.org/items/show/20.