Aug 22, 2023

Not Just a Fence: The Story of a Stainless Steel Status Symbol

Like the white picket fence, the stainless steel fence — prevalent in New York neighborhoods densely populated by Asian homeowners — evokes a sense of making it, but it's flashier.

Credit...Clark Hodgin for The New York Times

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By Anna P. Kambhampaty

On the residential streets of Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn, steel fences line almost every other house. They’re silver, sometimes embellished with gold, and they’re in striking contrast to the modest brick and vinyl-clad houses that they encircle, like a diamond necklace worn atop an old white T-shirt.

"If you have money to spare, you should always get the better option," said Dilip Banerjee, gesturing toward his neighbors’ wrought iron fences and basking in the shine of his own steel fence, handrails, door and awning that cost him about $2,800 to add to his unassuming two-story house in Flushing.

Like the white picket fence, long a symbol of the so-called American dream, the stainless steel fence embodies a similar sense of making it. But the steel fence is not muted or uniform; it twists and turns to the taste of the maker, personalized with various ornaments, including lotus flowers, "om" symbols and geometric patterns. At night, street lamps and car headlights exaggerate the glimmer of stainless steel that does not, cannot disappear into the darkness like wrought iron. Whereas some people might be turned off by the flashiness, standing out is exactly its point — the stainless steel fence is an undeniable signal that the homeowner has arrived.

"It's certainly a mark of middle class arrivals, especially for folks for whom this is their first home," said Thomas Campanella, a historian of city planning and the urban built environment at Cornell University. "There is a status element to the stainless steel."

The rise of these fences — commonly found on single-family houses but also surrounding restaurants, churches, doctors’ offices and more — parallels the growth of Asian Americans in New York. Last year, the city's Office of Immigrant Affairs reported that Asians and Pacific Islanders are the city's fastest growing racial group, increasing primarily by a surge in immigration. In 2010, there were more than 750,000 Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants in New York, and by 2019, that number grew to nearly 845,000. The city also found that more than half of those immigrants lived in Queens. Correspondingly, Mr. Campanella estimates that stainless steel fences started to take off in New York during the same time frame.

When his Hispanic neighbors moved and sold their houses to Chinese buyers, the fences started to spread, said Garibaldi Lind, a Puerto Rican resident who has lived in Sunset Park for decades. "There's two down there," he said, gesturing down 51st Street. "Up here, there's three more."

But other homeowners have also embraced the style of fence. "Throughout Queens Village and Richmond Hill, if you see a fence like this, it's typically a West Indian household," said Farida Gulmohamad, a Guyanese real estate agent.

"It is our status symbol," she added.

They’re not to everyone's liking. "I’m not a fan myself. They’re unavoidable, but they’re a strange thing where they’re too shiny or they call too much attention to themselves," said Rafael Herrin-Ferri, the photographer behind the book "All the Queens Houses." "They have a very tawdry quality about them. There's a lot of tawdry, cheap stuff in Queens, but they don't blend or complement any of the other stuff."

Still, for all their fanciness and gaudiness, the fences are also practical, requiring low maintenance compared to iron fences with peeling paint. Newly renovated houses for sale are dressed up from head to toe (or more aptly, awning to gate) in glittering steel.

Priya Kandhai, a real estate agent in Queens who frequently has listings in the Ozone Park and Jamaica neighborhoods, said, "South Asians and East Asians seem to gravitate more toward stainless steel because it looks nicer."

She said when she shows her clients houses with steel fencing and awnings, they feel that the house is more valuable and modern, similar to a kitchen having a stainless steel fridge instead of a white plastic one.

The story of stainless steel goes back several decades.

It was first invented in 1913 in the United Kingdom. It started to be adopted en masse in China in the 1980s and 1990s, according to Tim Collins, secretary-general of the World Stainless Association, a nonprofit research organization based in Brussels.

In recent years, "stainless steel has become more widely understood as a material with longevity associated with it," Mr. Collins said. "The ability to produce it and form it into interesting shapes and have symbolic features from people's home countries has been a more recent revolution." In comparison, wrought iron is much harder to customize, he added.

The popularity of stainless steel fences could be attributed to "people wanting to remember their heritage but also embrace a modern-looking material," Mr. Collins said.

Wu Wei, an associate professor at Nanjing University's school of architecture and urban planning, said that many private stainless steel companies formed in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces of China. "They made a lot of household products," said Ms. Wu, who remembered the first stainless-steel product in her home was a vegetable washing basin. In the ’90s, stainless steel products were considered valuable, but today, they’re "everywhere and everyone can have it, and sometimes you have to use it now," she said.

According to Ms. Wu, the ornate design of the fences could stem from the Chinese tradition of including lucky patterns on everyday objects. She said that Chinese characters (such as "fu" which means lucky), the white crane which stands for longevity, flowers which stand for blossoming and other auspicious symbols can be commonly found "in traditional vernacular dwelling in China." For the wealthy, Ms. Wu said, these symbolic designs became the aesthetic of choice.

Chinese people immigrating to the United States in recent years brought with them this affinity for stainless steel. And as steel-fence fabrication shops started to crop up in Queens and Brooklyn, New Yorkers of all backgrounds started to install these fences as well.

Cindy Chen, 38, a first-generation immigrant, had stainless steel gates, doors and window guards at the house where she grew up in China. When looking for an apartment in New York, she knew she wanted one protected by stainless steel.

Poking her head through the steel window guards of her parlor floor apartment in Sunset Park, she said that "because it doesn't rust and it's more comfortable to live in," Chinese people tend to like steel. "It makes the house look newer and more well-polished," she said, adding that "most of the newly renovated houses across the street here have these kinds of stainless steel products." The steel fencing and guards helped her feel safer. (Pandemic-fueled hate crimes against Asian Americans have soared in New York since 2020, and many Asian American residents have been wary of attacks.)

Mr. Banerjee, 77, who emigrated from Kolkata, India, in the 1970s, said he always aspired for more. "My parents never drove a good car, but I have a Mercedes," he said on a recent spring afternoon, standing at the top of his doorsteps adorned with stainless steel railings.

One of his first jobs was working in a jute mill in India. When he first came to New York, he crashed at various friends’ apartments. He started applying for jobs he saw advertised in the newspaper, and he eventually got hired as an engineer at a firm.

After getting settled in 1998, Mr. Banerjee bought the house he now lives in, and over the years, he painstakingly renovated every bit of it, making it fit the vision he had — the carpets, the windows, the garage and, of course, the fence were all swapped out. "The fence protects it all. It's growing in value," he said proudly.

Hui Zhen Lin, 64, who's lived in her house in Sunset Park for 10 years, said that the steel gates and railings on her home were there even before she moved in, but they were certainly part of the property's appeal. "These stainless steel products are great because they are clean," she said. They don't have to be repainted like iron, and they appear naturally polished.

Xiu Zou, 48, who moved into an apartment in Sunset Park just two months ago, said that she felt more comfortable in a home with a stainless steel door. "They’re good," she said. "They’re better than wooden doors because they’re safer."

Behind it all are metal fabricators. Off College Point Boulevard in Flushing, stainless steel fabrication workshops and showrooms are pervasive. Inside, employees can be found fusing and shaping steel to fit bespoke designs, with sparks flying everywhere and the walls covered in sample gate patterns.

On a weekday morning this spring, Chuan Li, 37, a co-owner of Golden Metal 1 Inc., was negotiating prices with some customers who’d walked in looking for a custom fencing job. Mr. Li immigrated to the United States from Wenzhou, China, about 15 years ago, and he's been a metal fabricator for more than a decade. He learned the trade here in New York, while working for a kitchen design shop in Flushing.

Steel work was more of a means to an end, rather than a calling, for Mr. Li. "I had no choice, really. I had to make a living. You know us Chinese people — we just go to work and get off work and go to work and get off work every day," he said.

And though he spends most of his days working with the material, he’d never install a steel fence at his own home, he said. "I don't like any of them one bit. I look at these things all day every day," Mr. Li said. "At my house, we just use plastic fences."

But Mr. Li gives customers what they like, designing a fence after meeting with a client who tells him which patterns they prefer. He then starts piecing together the raw materials, bending them, welding them and then finally polishing the finished product. Mr. Li charges about $75 per foot for each job.

"This is the only thing we could do when we got here," said Hao Wei An, 51, a co-owner of New Tengfei Stainless Steel. "I used to do this stuff back in China."

Mr. An has one son who is in college, but he hopes he doesn't carry on the family business. "I would not let him come work here," he said. "Look at me — I wear a mask every day. And it's not because of the pandemic, but it's because there's too much dust and smoke in here."

Though the material may not be particularly exciting to the fabricators, for Anne Wu, an artist and sculptor in Flushing, the stainless steel fences have provided plenty of inspiration. Last year, for a piece commissioned by The Shed, an arts center in Hudson Yards, Ms. Wu created a massive, whimsical stainless steel installation. "Usually, when you’re walking around the city, the relationship that people have to this material is as a facade, something that they look at from the outside. But I wanted the piece to take up enough space that viewers felt like they could walk through it," Ms. Wu, 30, said.

The material had long been an object of fascination for Ms. Wu. She watched her mother's block in Flushing slowly become inundated with stainless steel fixtures over the last 10 years, and she started to collect scraps of the material she found in the industrial parts of Flushing. On a trip to visit family in a rural part of Fujian, China, a few years back, she saw a large stainless-steel gate between two stone pillars that left her entranced.

"Flushing itself is a very interesting yet complicated landscape of all different people coming to live in one place," Ms. Wu said. "These stainless steel fences change the appearance of the original structure they’re added to so vastly, and eventually the landscape as a whole. On a material level, the steel reflects everything around it, so it's sort of like taking in its environment, while remaining really bold and calling for attention."

Haidee Chu contributed reporting and translation.