Art and activism in Manhattan's gentrifying Chinatown

Art and activism in Manhattan's gentrifying Chinatown

By Natsumi Yokura


Manhattan Chinatown has been an important social and economic hub for Chinese immigrants for more than a century. For many newcomers, it's also their first point of contact in the United States.

The neighborhood, like many others in New York, is now being transformed by gentrification. As high-end retail, art galleries, and residential developments take the place of mom-and-pop shops and tenement buildings, many fear that the Chinese community will soon be unable to live and socialize in the area.

But residents of gentrifying neighborhoods across the city are fighting back, and Chinatown is no exception. In 2015, artists Tomie Arai, ManSee Kong, and Betty Yu formed Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB), a group dedicated to fighting displacement through culture.

I asked them to answer questions about their work via email.


What are Chinatown Art Brigade's goals?

We’re a cultural collective committed to advancing social justice, formed in direct response to the rapid gentrification that we’ve been seeing in Chinatown. 

The three of us are artists, media makers, and activists who have history and deep connections in Chinatown. We’re working in close partnership with a Chinatown-based community organization that organizes for tenant rights, against evictions and displacement of working-class immigrant Chinese tenants. It’s called CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities’ (CAAAV) Chinatown Tenants Union. CAAAV has been one of the leading groups involved in the Chinatown Working Group (CWG), and in co-creating a community-led rezoning plan that would protect affordable housing and discourage displacement. CAAAV also partners with other groups who are organizing in the Lower East Side.

When we launched our collective, one of our major goals was to help advance and amplify the community-led organizing efforts against gentrification and displacement in Chinatown and the Lower East Side. CAAAV is doing the on-the-ground organizing work, and we feel that as a collective of artists, our role is to help amplify the stories and voices of those on the front lines who are most directly affected by displacement.

 Credit: Betty Yu

Credit: Betty Yu

More specifically, one of the goals of our projections has been to appeal to Chinatown NY City Council Member Margaret Chin and Mayor Bill De Blasio to pass the rezoning plan. Currently this plan is being ignored by the DeBlasio administration, despite the community’s outcry for it to be passed.

How do you view your role in Chinatown? In New York City?

CAB grew out of the cofounders’ individual work as artists, activists, and cultural workers with CAAAV, so it was natural for us to take the work to the next level in forming a collective. We were ready to take on this cultural organizing work in Chinatown, using art, culture, and media to help move hearts and minds—and hopefully provoke community members to take action.

[We’re] using art, culture, and media to help move hearts and minds—and hopefully provoke community members to take action.

The idea of public projections came from one of the founders, who had been supporting CTU’s tenant organizing work for a number of years. After hearing similar stories from tenants year after year, the hope was to bring the tenant conversations and housing demands beyond the traditional indoor meetings and out onto the streets.

Projecting critical tenant stories on buildings within the neighborhood for local residents to witness and connect with was a new way for Chinatown to creatively organize around active tenant campaigns. We were inspired by community-driven interactive projections from groups like The Illuminator, a political collective that has staged hundreds of projections in communities across the country. 

In this spirit, last year we launched Here to Stay, a project that includes a series of large-scale outdoor mobile projections that addresses the themes of gentrification, displacement, community resistance, and resilience in New York City's Chinatown. Over the summer we held cultural production workshops with community members, artists, and tenants. Through oral histories, storytelling circles, photography, placekeeping walking tours, and mapping activities, we co-created the images and content that would be projected onto buildings and public landmarks in Chinatown and the Lower East Side. 

Our evening projections in Chinatown have been successful, and we’ve received really positive responses from the community. Our September 24 and May 12 projections on the corner of Grand and Christie Street—which is one of the busiest intersections, with local vegetable vendors, shops and the subway station—were the most successful events.

An important part of the process was creating space for tenants to share their stories and build relationships with each other, and with artists who could apply their visual skills and storytelling methods for the public projections. The content for the projections was produced in close collaboration with Chinatown tenants and community members, who were the primary intended audience. To reflect the diversity of the neighborhood and the importance of language access, projections were created in Chinese, Spanish, and English.

We partnered with The Illuminator for the project. Their technical assistance and experience has been instrumental to Here to Stay’s success.

We were surprised at how the projections felt like celebrations despite the serious and sometimes angry nature of the messages around gentrification and displacement. People were excited. Seeing the stories and images of Chinese tenants projected onto neighborhood walls generated a huge amount of curiosity and attention. People on the streets were smiling, pointing, and gathering in groups to watch. Inviting passersby to send personal messages to landlords and share their feelings about Chinatown through the People’s Pad became a powerful intervention on the spaces in which they lived. There was a fierce sense of common purpose and pride.

What are the major challenges and opportunities facing Chinatown Art Brigade?

At a time when hyper-development and real estate investments on a global scale now threaten to evict and displace the residents who call Chinatown home, we also recognize that this is not just a Chinatown issue. Historic neighborhoods across the country—from Boyle Heights in LA to areas of Charlotte, North Carolina to Treme in New Orleans—are now facing destruction and erasure as luxury housing and widespread art-washing threaten to displace generations of families and small business who are the heart and soul of these communities.

 Credit: Khachick Simonian

Credit: Khachick Simonian

So as artists and activists, we have to constantly be reflective and ask ourselves, what does it mean for artists to make work during unprecedented times when our president, a billionaire real estate mogul, intends to divide us along lines of race, gender, and class? We understand that we need to not only strengthen our local coalitions as artists working alongside communities in the frontline, but also build multiracial, effective citywide and national resistance movements to challenge the ongoing threat to our fundamental right to housing, shelter, and safety. These times call for us as artists, activists, and organizers to work together to create art, culture, and media that moves hearts and minds to take action.

How can city government or other power structures help organizations like Chinatown Art Brigade, both in achieving their specific mission and in supporting cultural organizations in cities more generally? 

Our first and foremost commitment in our cultural organizing work is to honor and advance the work of CAAAV's Chinatown Tenants Union and the effort to pass the Chinatown Working Group’s rezoning plan that would protect and preserve Chinatown for its low-income tenants, residents, and small businesses, and dissuade big box development.

 Credit: Austin Scherbarth

Credit: Austin Scherbarth

Our partnership with CAAAV and their organizing effort is central to our work. We’ve heard from CAAAV members that their partnership with Chinatown Art Brigade has been an important asset and has amplified their tenant and anti-gentrification organizing work. Our cultural production has been co-created with CTU members and staff, and this is an important piece of our success. Through our 8-week workshops, we cultivated relationships and centered our cultural activities and storytelling around the tenants’ stories. The content, slogans, stories, and images were created in conjunction with the larger organizing goals of 1) getting more tenants to join CTU and the fight, and 2) educating gentrifiers and others to learn about the CWG rezoning plan and help pass and enact it.

In other words, the way that city government can support CAB’s work is by passing the CWG rezoning plan. Mayor De Blasio is fully aware of this plan.

Secondarily, the city can integrate parts of the People’s Cultural Plan into its official plan, acknowledging gentrification and displacement as a central issue threatening the cultural fabric of our communities of color.

Also, protecting tenants from harassment and eviction is paramount. Enforcing and passing robust housing laws that protect low-income tenants is essential.

Text has been edited for clarity.

Top image credit Wes Hicks.


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