- Associated Press - Sunday, July 3, 2011

NEW YORK — 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.

City Council members Dan Halloran and Peter Koo are drafting legislation that would require store signs in the city to be mostly in English, saying 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,” Mr. Halloran said.

The issue has cropped up before in the district. Similar legislation was proposed in the 1980s by then-council member 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 Mr. 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,” spokesman Matthew Sweeney said in a statement.

Mr. Koo, who currently represents Flushing on 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,” Mr. 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.”

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