English Mandatory Store Sign Bill Sparks Controversy

By Karen Zraick
|  Monday, Jul 4, 2011  |  Updated 8:44 AM EDT
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The teeming streets of Flushing, Queens, can feel like a different country.

A booming Chinese population exists alongside a longtime Korean enclave. On a recent afternoon, the sidewalks were jammed with shoppers browsing and haggling in stores offering everything from iPhones to herbal remedies. Stalls selling fragrant dumplings and tea shops did a brisk business.

Day trippers from Manhattan or the suburbs often come to eat and shop here on weekends, savoring the broad array of foods and products available. But to some, the area can feel a little too foreign.

Republican City Councilmen Dan Halloran and Peter Koo are drafting legislation that would require store signs in the city to be mostly in English. They say police officers and firefighters need to be able to quickly identify stores.

The change also would protect consumers and allow local shops to expand outside their traditional customer base, the council members argue. But merchants say it would be an unnecessary and costly burden on small businesses and would homogenize diverse pockets of the city that cater mostly to immigrant residents.

"People must respect that this is a special area and please respect the Asian culture," said Peter Tu, executive director of the Flushing Chinese Business Association. "They have their own life in this area. When you walk in the street, you don't feel like you are in America."

Two bills are pending in the council to change language on store signs. One, introduced in May, would authorize inspectors with the city Department of Consumer Affairs to enforce a little-known state law that requires businesses to display their names in English. The second bill, which will be introduced later this summer, would stipulate that the sign should be at least 60 percent English. Businesses would have four years to comply, after which they'd face fines starting at $150.

 

"This is designed for public safety, consumer protection and to start increasing the foot traffic into the stores," Halloran said.

The law on the books — passed in 1933 and dubbed the true name bill — classifies a violation as a misdemeanor but is not enforced. Its primary intent was to protect creditors and consumers from fraud by informal stores that popped up during the Great Depression.

The president of the Flushing on the Hill Civic Association, David Kulick, said store signs provoke different concerns these days, mostly from longtime residents who find it insulting or off-putting when they can't read them.

Assemblywoman Grace Meng said she's heard many of those complaints. She started a task force on the issue last year and supports the council legislation.

"The heart of the issue is not just about an English sign," Meng said. "They don't feel like they can communicate in their own neighborhoods."

The issue has cropped up before in the district.

Similar legislation was proposed in the 1980s by former Councilwoman Julia Harrison. Her successor, John Liu, now city comptroller, commissioned a survey eight years ago and found only a small percentage of signs did not include English.

A spokesman for Liu said the legislation was probably unnecessary.

"In an ever-changing global city, this issue has surfaced for the past 100 years in different parts of New York, involving a panoply of languages from Yiddish to Spanish to Greek and now Chinese and Korean," Liu spokesman Matthew Sweeney said in a statement.

Koo, who currently represents Flushing in the council, owns five local pharmacies with signs in English and Chinese. He said he would change his own signs to comply with the law.

"This is America, right? English is the main language," Koo said. "If I go to a Spanish or Polish neighborhood I would like the sign to at least be in English so I can understand."

Dian Yu, executive director of the Flushing Business Improvement District, said most stores in Flushing would have to change their signs to comply with the law because they include English but not enough of it.

Yu added that there was a misperception that local merchants don't want non-Asian customers. Many shops simply cater to Asian customers because they make the bulk of the purchases, he said.

The bills' prospects remain unclear.

Councilwoman Diana Reyna, chair of the small business committee, said in a statement it would strain relationships between immigrant entrepreneurs and the government.

Councilman Peter Vallone, chair of the public safety committee, said there are unresolved questions about how the legislation would work, such as whether the size of the lettering would matter.

The Department of Consumer Affairs referred questions to the mayor's office, which declined to comment. A police spokeswoman, Detective Cheryl Crispin, said in an email the department was "not aware of this arising as a police issue."

Meng said the bill was part of a wider strategy to encourage interaction between different groups in her district.

"My goal in bringing up this whole issue a year ago was to bridge the gap between cultures," she said. "This is not going to solve it. But it's part of the resolution."   

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