The Odd History And Uncertain Future Of Chinatown Fair, NYC's Last Great Arcade

At around nearly the same time every year, rumors start to crop up that Chinatown Fair, the last beloved vestige of New York City's video arcade golden age, will soon be facing its final days.

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Feb 23 2011, 5:00am

At around nearly the same time every year, rumors start to crop up that Chinatown Fair, the last beloved vestige of New York City's video arcade golden age, will soon be facing its final days. It happened again last week when tweets and blog posts reignited talk of the legendary arcade's imminent foreclosure. As expected, the mood was heavy when we payed a visit to the legendary spot over the holiday weekend.

Without even talking to anyone, you could feel a sense of looming dread as gamers of all ages partook of their usual button-pounding pastimes. But the Fair, which has stood in one form or another on Mott Street just off Canal since the 1950's, isn't going down without a fight.

The situation – according to some of the patrons – was dire. "Wednesday is the last day" one regular said solemnly while observing a round of Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition. He was convinced it'd be one of the last matchups he'd witness at the historic arcade, whose enigmatic owner routinely clashes with the building's landlord to keep the business alive. "We're just trying to enjoy it while it's still here."

The Fair gained its reputation not just by preserving arcade classics like Galaga, Ms Pac-Man and the like, but by keeping current with the very latest versus fighting games, imported straight from Japanese arcades, oftentimes long before they hit home consoles in America. Because of this, Chinatown Fair has become a sanctuary for hardcore fighting game enthusiasts who crave live competition over the faceless grudge matches perpetrated by online gaming services like Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. In a sense, Chinatown Fair is the northeast's only remaining portal into Japan's still-thriving arcade scene; a timeless conduit into a culture that has all but disappeared in the western world.

But playing games like Marvel Vs Capcom 3 before anyone else wasn't always part of Chinatown Fair's allure. A quick look at the storefront's decaying sign reveals some peculiar attractions, now strangely absent: "World Famous Dancing & Tic-Tac-Toe" …? The story is a strange one, but pretty much on par with what one comes to expect from one of Manhattan's most vibrant and bizarre districts.

As it turns out, that sign used to read "World Famous Dancing & Tic-Tac-Toe Playing Chicken." Some photographs framed against the wooden wall of the arcade's cage-like managerial booth hint at the strange days when, according to ScoutingNY 's report, a white-feathered chicken named Lily played tic-tac-toe and "danced" to the tune of controlled electric jolts from inside a coin-operated metal and glass cage. The "game" was shut down in the late 90's when a concerned patron demanded the owner end the practice and hand over the bird, but the empty chicken cage and tic-tac-toe board still remain. The photos were a gift from the chicken's new owner so that the arcade staff could reminisce over their old friend.

Much like poor Lily, Chinatown Fair's owner has grown accustomed to being zapped — not by electricity, but the threat of eviction. And while the arcade's patrons insist the end is near, the staff is arguing otherwise.

"Ugh, if I hear that rumor one more time…" laughed Valentino Ventura, the arcade's manager of 3 years. His voice lined with frustration, he had no doubt been interrogated more than a few times that day about the Fair's ultimate fate. "We're not closing on Wednesday," he insisted, trying his best to shoot down the most alarming part of the rumor and clarifying that the owner would be attempting to negotiate with the landlord. "We have some collaborators in Brooklyn, so if worse comes to worse, we might just be moving to Williamsburg," he explained, confident that whatever happened next, the arcade would exist in one form or another.

Even if it had only half as many machines as the Mott Street location, a full-fledged arcade in one of Brooklyn's most frequented neighborhoods certainly wouldn't be a bad thing for NYC gamers. But would a relocation cause Chinatown Fair to lose more than its namesake?

Chinatown Manhattan has always had an anachronistic mystique about it. Despite rampant tourism, it remains an urban microcosm; a frozen alternate dimension impervious to the whims of the ever-changing metropolis that surrounds it. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the arcade, a videogame relic of decades past, fits so snugly within this quaint slice of reality. If a relocation is in order, which seems the most likely outcome, it would be a cruel separation indeed.

"It was strange and foreign beyond anything else I had seen in Manhattan," recounts Nick Goebel, aka Cataract, a competitive gamer who has been coming to the arcade from his home town in Bergen County, New Jersey for the past 3 years. "The arcade is something that refuses to leave or change and give in. The location just fits."

As local gamers prepare for the worst, it seems unlikely that even Williamsburg, arguably the cultural center of New York's most youth-populated outer borough, could evoke the same kind of atmosphere that Chinatown Fair offered — The feeling of walking into a run-down, dimly lit brick wall building and knowing that it's been an arcade and for as long as anyone can remember. Being able to look around and witness a living piece of history and experience these tangible connections to the decades-long story of videogames, and become a part of it.

But wherever it leads them, Chinatown Fair's staff aim to preserve the most important aspect of all arcades: Real connections with real people, and knowing that you don't need to have an HDTV and game console in your living room to try something new.

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