Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Pleasures of Protest: Taking on Gentrification in Chinatown

[ed. If there's anywhere I'd like to live in Seattle (if there was anywhere I could live in Seattle, it would be the Asian district - or Beacon Hill, the outermost reaches of its influence). Sadly, those communities won't be around in their present form much longer I'm afraid.]

On a cold night in the early winter months of 2007, I was with a group of tenants — all Latino and Chinese immigrant families — clustered together in front of their home, two buildings on Delancey Street that straddled the border between Chinatown and the Lower East Side. We were there, shivering in the cold, to protest their landlords.

Ever since they bought the two buildings in 2001, the owners of 55 Delancey and 61 Delancey Street — Nir Sela, Michael Daniel, and 55 Delancey Street Realty LLC — had been attempting to kick out the Chinese and Latino families who had lived there, but in recent months, the situation had come to a head. They had begun aggressively bringing tenants to housing court, often on trumped up charges (one lawsuit argued that, based on the number of shoes displayed inside the apartment, it was obvious that more than just one family lived there); offered several families significant buyouts to leave; and had refused to make basic repairs. For stretches at a time, and in the coldest days of winter, there had been no heat or hot water.

That evening, huddled in our winter coats and clutching hand-made signs, we waited for the arrival of one of the owners, who had agreed to meet with us and discuss our demands.

I had been volunteering with CAAAV, a tenant organizing group in Chinatown, and in the months prior, I had spent many of my nights going from apartment to apartment, often with Zhi Qin Zheng, a resident of the building as well as an organizer at CAAAV, helping to painstakingly document their living conditions and assisting residents in calling the city’s 311 hotline so that each housing code violation would be on record.

Their apartments were cramped, even rundown, but for these families, it was home, and they wanted to stay. Over the years, each building had become a small community, one where people felt comfortable leaving their doors open and asking each other to watch their children. “If we left, where would we go?” Sau Ying Kwok, a feisty grandmother with a nimbus of frizzy hair, wondered aloud. She had become one of the more vocal leaders in the building, along with the soft-spoken You Liu Lin, a man in his middle years with a penchant for Brylcreeming his hair as well as shoving bottles of water and perfect Fuji apples into my hands whenever I knocked on his door.

I often questioned why I was there on those trips. I had moved to the city three years prior from Texas, fresh out of college and possessing a vague notion that I would put my Asian American Studies degree to use and, in the words of 1960s radicals inspired by Mao Zedong, “serve the people.”

In a way, I was continuing the tradition of those who were part of the Asian American movement of the 1960s — young, mostly college-educated Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino Americans who not only coined the term “Asian American” but also immersed themselves in ethnic enclaves like Chinatown on the east and west coasts.

In Serve The People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties, her book chronicling the Asian American movement, Karen Ishizuka wrote that people had to become Asian American. It wasn’t about your ethnic background, but “a political identity developed out of the oppositional consciousness of the Long Sixties, in order to be seen and heard.”

But there has always been a disconnect between these Asian American activists and the people they served, who tended to be primarily working-class immigrants, a disconnect that I felt keenly. What was I, an ABC (American-born Chinese) doing in a mostly immigrant community, with my barely passable Mandarin? I didn’t really know, but I felt a complicated sense of belonging that I had never experienced before, complicated because I was, in many ways, an outsider — someone not from the neighborhood or embedded in its history, who wasn’t threaded through the day-to-day life that makes a grouping of city blocks a community. Yet the residents didn’t treat me as an outsider when they invited me into their homes; being Chinese, it seemed, was enough.

It was easy to understand why the owners would want to wholesale evict these families, who all lived in rent-stabilized apartments where rents were, on average, $1000 or less, far below what the owners could charge in the hot real estate market of lower Manhattan, where people fought for the right to pay $3000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.

That night, I got a lesson in what some have called the pleasures of protest. When Nir Sela and his wife arrived and saw the mass of people waiting for them on the sidewalk, when they saw the cameras, they quickly turned around and walked away. We began following them, scores of people chanting, “Shame on you! Shame on you!” They quickly got into a cab and sped away. Despite the abrupt cancellation of the meeting we had planned, everyone seemed pleased, smiles on their faces.

Soon after, the tenants decided to go on a rent strike. It was a success — a few months later, the owners capitulated, agreeing to make all the necessary repairs and to end eviction proceedings, along with a payment of $3000 to each household. Less than a year later, I would join the staff of CAAAV as a full-time housing organizer, still high off the success of that campaign victory.

But in a city where finance capital reigns, this sense of victory wouldn’t last for long.

* * *

Chinatown as we know it today didn’t really exist until the 1970s, when, in the wake of the 1965 Immigration Act, Chinese immigrants began arriving in large numbers.

Yet as early as the 1850s, one could find a small bachelor community of Chinese men living in what was then known as Five Points (and what some today have called “America’s first slum”), a neighborhood that had arisen on top of a landfill whose residents were free blacks as well as Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants. Jacob Riis in his influential 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, devoted an entire chapter to Chinatown, writing dismissively, “Chinatown as a spectacle is disappointing. Next door to the Bend, it has little of its outdoor stir and life, none of its gayly-colored rags or picturesque filth and poverty.” Yet the neighborhood, he noted, had already taken on the tinge of the exotic, New Yorkers believing it was rife with far more opium dens than actually existed.

The black residents fled after an anti-abolition riot; the Chinese men, sailors as well as workers who had moved from the west coast in the wake of increasingly oppressive laws and racist mob violence, stayed because they had nowhere else to go. “Residents of New York Chinatown could not cross Canal Street into Little Italy without the risk of being beaten up;” wrote John Kuo Wei Tchen, the historian and founder of the Museum of Chinese in America, “laundry men in the scattered boroughs and suburbs illegally lived in the back of their shops because they could not rent apartments.”

By the early 1960s, there were only 5,000 residents of Chinatown, mostly elderly men who lived on the blocks clustered around Columbus Park. The neighborhood surrounding it was in decline, the Irish having moved away decades prior, and the Jewish and Italian immigrants who had come to define the Lower East Side having already begun fleeing in rapid numbers.

Without the 1965 Immigration Act, Chinatown would have faded away. But as tens of thousands of immigrants began flocking to New York City, the empty tenements and boarded up storefronts filled with families and small businesses, and the old garment factories once again hummed with the sound of sewing machines, this time manned by a workforce of Chinese immigrant women. Chinatown mushroomed over the next two decades, spreading until it was bordered by Soho and Tribeca to the west and the East River on the opposite end, with Delancey Street settled as the line delineating Chinatown from the Lower East Side.

According to the scholar Peter Kwong, this expansion ended by the mid-1990s, halted by the revitalization of the neighborhoods bordering Chinatown. The events of 9/11 further destabilized the neighborhood, located as it was so close to the Financial District, but, as Kwong put it in the New York Times: “The root cause of the decline of Chinatown predated the 9/11 attack; the collapse of the garment industry and years of harm done by real estate speculation had already taken their toll on the community.”

I didn’t know any of this history when I came to New York City in 2004 and moved into an apartment in central Harlem, itself a neighborhood in flux, where I paid $750 each month to live with two roommates. Like most, all I knew was that Chinatown had a lot of Chinese people, and that fact alone drew me to the neighborhood on evenings after work and on weekends. Having grown up in south Texas, I had moved in large part out of a desire to live somewhere where I could feel a sense of belonging that I hadn’t had as a child.

People expressed a lot of strange beliefs about Chinatown, ideas that became increasingly more bizarre to me the more time I spent in the neighborhood. It’s often described as “gritty” or “dirty,” or as “exotic.” Other commonly used descriptors are “authentic” and “unchanging.”

Those descriptions made me cringe, not only for the casual racism underpinning them and, in the words of the scholar Lisa Lowe in her book Immigrant Acts, “the gaze that seeks to exoticize [Chinatown] as antiquated artifact”, but because they miss an essential truth of the neighborhood — that what is thought of as exotic or authentic to some, is simply the minutiae of life for others. (...)

And yet I too was guilty of a sort of fetishization, for I had my own foolish, romantic notions of the neighborhood, tinged with a nostalgia for a home I had never had. Eating dumplings wasn’t just a meal — it was embracing my culture. During the four years that I worked in the neighborhood, these notions were quickly disabused by the everyday life and reality that I saw around me. I began to understand that Chinatown was a vibrant neighborhood of the present, the kind that urban planning writer and activist Jane Jacobs described as displaying the “exuberant diversity” that she believed characterized the best cities, the ones that thrived.

by Esther Wang, Longreads |  Read more:
Image: Katie Kosma