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Gentrification, the Art Gallery Influx, and Other Pressures on Manhattan’s Chinatown

The Chinatown Art Brigade is fighting against the displacement of local Asian Americans who are being pushed out by gentrification led by luxury condos, art galleries, and other high-end businesses.

Image from the September 28 projection event that was a collaboration between Chinatown Art Brigade and The Illuminator. (all images courtesy Chinatown Art Brigade)
Image from the September 24 projection event that was a collaboration between Chinatown Art Brigade and The Illuminator. (photo by KahEan Chang, image courtesy Chinatown Art Brigade)

Displacement and gentrification in Manhattan’s Chinatown has accelerated in the last few years. The influx of art galleries, hi-rise luxury condos, and hotels is jarring. At the same time, Chinese immigrant working class tenants are facing landlord harassment, living under unsafe conditions, and forced evictions. Small businesses, stores and restaurants that have been serving the Chinatown community for decades are closing to make way for high-end establishments, businesses, and art galleries.

Another projection on September 28
Another projection from September 24 (photo by Louis Chan, image courtesy Chinatown Art Brigade)

In the past eight years, 100 galleries have opened in Chinatown with over 60% of them opening up in the last three years. Since galleries have been priced out of Chelsea they have been moving into Chinatown, it has been dubbed by some of the media as the “last frontier of downtown New York.” These galleries have contributed to the rapidly rising rents. There are galleries that are paying upwards of $9,000 a month, while low-income tenants next door are paying hundreds of dollars to share a small room in a dilapidated building. This kind of inequality is unconscionable. While it’s true that the galleries are one part of the larger machine of gentrification, it’s important as community-based artists that we hold these artist institutions accountable for their role in displacing Chinatown residents.  Their real estate choices have real consequences that affect people’s material living conditions. A 2013 report by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund revealed that the number of Chinese residents in the area has declined between 2000 and 2010, while the number of white residents has increased. In 2011 less than half of the Chinatown population was foreign-born.

Projection from September 24
Projection from September 24 (photo by KahEan Chang, image courtesy Chinatown Art Brigade)

In 2015, I along with ManSee Kong and Tomie Arai formed the Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) which is a cultural collective that recognizes the power of art to advance social justice. The three of us are artists with deep activism, cultural, and artistic roots in Chinatown.  Chinatown Art Brigade is working closely with CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities’ Chinatown Tenants Union, a grassroots organization that has been organizing in for tenant rights, fighting evictions and against displacement. Today our collective has grown and is comprised of Chinatown based artists, residents, tenants, and activists.

This past year, CAB became a recipient of the A Blade of Grass Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art. With their support we’ve been able to engage community tenants, activists, and members in using art and culture to help change hearts and minds on this issue.  This past summer we held our “Here to Stay” cultural production workshop series with Chinatown tenants, activists, and residents. Through eight weeks of storytelling, oral histories, “placekeeping” anti-displacement walking tours, photography, mapping, and drawing participants crafted powerful images, animations, and videos. These were featured in our “Here to Stay” Projection event this past Saturday, September 24 in Chinatown. With the technical help of The Illuminator we highlighted the tenant voices and the stories of those most impacted by displacement. We projected messages like “Who did you displace to open your gallery” and “Who did you displace so you can live in your luxury condo?”

The public contributing to the projection campaign in Chinatown on September 24
The public contributing to the projection campaign in Chinatown on September 24 (photo by KahEan Chang, image courtesy Chinatown Art Brigade)

In addition, we highlighted the Chinatown Working Group (CWG) rezoning plan, that is a community-led plan that would protect Chinatown, affordable housing rezoning and discourage displacement. In our projections we appealed to Chinatown city councilmember Margaret Chin to adopt the CWG community-led rezoning plan. Local residents and passerby joined in on our live Karaoke and and wrote anti-gentrification messages through the interactive People’s Pad that were projected live. There will be other projections forthcoming.

We formed the Chinatown Art Brigade out of necessity.  As artists and activists who have a combined 70+ years of organizing, arts, and activism in Chinatown, we felt a compelled to respond proactively to the massive gentrification happening in Chinatown. Our community is under attack in more ways than one. When we look at the history of Chinatown, we must remember and understand the historical context. In the mid-19th century, due to severe anti-Chinese sentiment, The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed into law. It didn’t protect Chinese immigrants and citizens, so they had to create their own community organizations, social services, and networks. This racist law was only repealed in 1965. The small businesses, community-based services, apartments that Chinese folks have created and called home for so many decades are vanishing and under attack.  

Projection from September 24
Projection from September 24 (photo by KahEan Chang, image courtesy Chinatown Art Brigade)

This current wave of mostly white, (not Chinatown-based) artists and galleries that have moved into the neighborhood have received some recent media attention. Some of these artists exotify and essentialize Chinatown, describing it’s ‘smells’ and ‘chaos, colors, and odors’ that make Chinatown desirable for them. In a this recent article, one artist even says: “ There is an energy that feels more like a village — a village that doesn’t much care about contemporary art — that reminds me of other smaller places I’ve lived.” This is not only an offensive but an ignorant comment. Chinatown has had a rich history of arts and activism. Basement Workshop was a Chinatown-based Asian-American political and arts organization was active in the 1970s into the 80s. The New York Chinatown History Project became the current Museum of Chinese in America. There is no doubt that arts, politics, culture, and food are a vibrant fabric of the Chinatown community.

In an effort to open up dialogue with these galleries, CAB along with Wing on Wo (W.O.W.) Project, the oldest store in Chinatown, organized  the “Chinatown: New York’s Newest Gallery Scene?” panel discussion back in July 2016.  We invited commercial gallerists to attend. Not one of them attended.

This influx of galleries are part of the ecosystem of gentrification. in Chinatown. We as artists are deeply concerned about the future of Chinatown. We’re not anti-art but we are anti-displacement. We want to have an open dialogue with these galleries. Do they understand what is at stake? Do they know who they are displacing? Do they understand how they are agents of gentrification? We are hoping to spark dialogue with those galleries and artists that do care about Chinatown and are interested in being good actors in the community. We will be planning future events where constructive conversations can take place.

The Chinatown Art Brigade is hosting at panel on October 22 at Artists Space (55 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) as part of the Decolonize This Place residency. The panel will be co-presented by Decolonize This Place, Artists Space, and Chinatown Art Brigade.

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