There are 21,000 safe deposit boxes in this bank. Why so many? It's in the heart of Chinatown and the Chinese are savers - savers of cash. This bank, like others in the neighborhood (Commerce Bank, Bowery Savings, e.g.) all have had to accommodate Chinese community's tradition and customs where boxes are used for storage of cash and other valuables. There is a large cash economy in Chinatown.
Safe deposit boxes are an accommodation that require space and building considerations. When the Chinatown branch of Commerce Bank was built (it opened in 2005), an entire floor was added for safe deposit boxes - 7,500 as opposed to 500 which would be typical in a Commerce Bank elsewhere. And the HSBC Bank at 11 East Broadway has 12,000 boxes.
This landmark neo-Byzantine building at 58 Bowery was built in 1924 and designed by architect Clarence W. Brazer. Graced with an enormous bronze dome, this building is still very easily missed amid the hubbub that is Chinatown. And architecture does not particularly shine in this neighborhood and is typically the last thing an individual looks for when here. The best viewing is from some distance - see it from a vantage point across the Bowery towards the Manhattan Bridge.
Many Chinese who bank in Chinatown no longer live there but continue to bank and use safe deposit boxes in the neighborhood. Familiarity, frequent visits for shopping, visiting relatives. Amid a banking crisis, old traditions of cash in mattresses and boxes are starting to look like a smart idea. Maybe there is safety in numbers ...