Facing City Hall in Downtown Manhattan, a new exhibition by the Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) collective is loudly protesting the neighborhood’s gentrification. Featuring historical material from the nearly 40-year-old Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV), the expansive Degentrification Archives show, up through March 25, documents the decades-long fight against displacement and celebrates the work of activists today.
Chinese Americans began moving to what is now Chinatown in the 1870s. Since then, the neighborhood has grown in both population and size, expanding from a few blocks around Mott and Canal Streets to swaths of Little Italy, the Lower East Side, and Two Bridges. In recent decades, however, garment factories have shuttered, incomes have stagnated (except among the upper classes), rents have increased, and the number of Chinese people in the neighborhood has declined. In 2019, 33% of Chinatown and Lower East Side inhabitants were Asian. The two neighborhoods’ poverty rate stood at 24% (compared to 16% citywide), and income inequality had risen since 2000.
While its 19th-century tenement buildings bear testament to Chinatown’s origins as a working-class neighborhood, now the area posits a prime location for luxury real estate developers. It stands conveniently nestled between the hyper-expensive neighborhoods of Tribeca and Soho and the offices of the Financial District.
In the summer of 2021, Pace University Art Gallery Director Sarah Cunningham approached CAB Co-Founder Betty Yu to host an exhibition inside its sleek downtown space.
CAB began in 2016 with “placekeeping workshops” and light projections onto Chinatown buildings. These large-scale works displayed phrases such as “gentrification is modern colonialism” and “save Chinatown,” making the reality of displacement impossible to ignore.
“We decided to design the narrative of the exhibition through the lens of our CAB story,” Yu told Hyperallergic.
The collective embarked on the enormous task of curating its seven-year history. The result is an information-packed show that includes photographs, posters, banners, protest signs, video clips, and maps. The show also includes CAB’s more recent augmented reality placekeeping project, which uses audio and video to tell the stories of people directly impacted by gentrification.
Beyond focusing purely on the past, Degentrification Archives draws attention to the threats facing Chinatown today. “As we were planning, we became intrigued by the fact that the gallery literally faces City Hall,” said Yu. “We decided to use the exhibition to also send very deliberate messages of abolition and anti-displacement to Mayor [Eric] Adams’s administration.”
CAB has also embraced solidarity between non-Asian marginalized groups and addressed broader societal factors that contribute to displacement, such as incarceration. The arts collective has protested the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), which accepted $35 million dollars in a “community give-back” as part of a city plan to build a 29-story mega-jail in Chinatown (a project approved by City Council in 2019 but delayed by multiple lawsuits).
CAB has also addressed the culture industry’s role in gentrification since its founding. Degentrification Archives presents information about the 2017 protest of the Omer Fast exhibition at James Cohan Gallery, for example, which recreated a derelict Chinatown business; it also includes a map showing where galleries have moved into the neighborhood. Posters throughout the exhibition encourage visitors to think twice about “artwashing,” remind artists that “NYC is not for sale,” and provide artists and gallerists with ways to beneficially engage with their new neighborhood.
In a back room, Degentrification Archives also documents the history of a vital predecessor and contemporary collaborator, CAAAV, which began in 1986 as an organization fighting anti-Asian hate and published a newspaper. In the Pace University gallery exhibition, the 40-year-old publications are unsettlingly familiar: Headlines decry police brutality and racist violence.
“I had several young people come up to me during the opening to tell me that they were so excited to see the history of CAAAV,” said CAB Co-Founder Tomie Arai. “And how moved they were to see the first banner CAAAV created actually hanging in a gallery — not as a gallery artifact but as a call to action.”
CAB member Em He also remarked on the idea of living history. “We’ve done so much and it’s really nice to have the time to really review that together and celebrate,” said He. He added that it’s important for the work of current social movements to be reflected back to people; so often, only historical social movements are deemed important and discussed.
New York City changes fast, but by examining both past and contemporary organizing, Degentrification Archives ultimately asks viewers what Chinatown would look like today without the decades-long and never-ending labor of activists.
“When so much about gentrification is about loss, the exhibit is evidence that creative resistance can nurture community power and abundance,” said CAB member Diane Wong. “The places we love most in this city are defined by the people who call it home — Chinatown will no longer be Chinatown if those who live, work, and play in the neighborhood are no longer there.