The Pleasures of Protest: Taking on Gentrification in Chinatown

Working as a tenant organizer in New York’s Chinatown opened Esther Wang’s eyes to the ugly—and complicated—realities of gentrification in New York City.

Esther Wang | Longreads | August 2016 | 17 minutes (4,223 words)

 

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.”

I felt a complicated sense of belonging that I had never experienced before, complicated because I was, in many ways, an outsider…

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.

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.

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. I often observed people, usually tourists, who came to the neighborhood expecting some sort of ethnic theme park, and who were confused when instead they found a neighborhood that, like most, was a mixture of both quotidian pleasures and the mundane. (Case in point: a white family I once observed, standing on the corner of Essex and Hester Streets, right next to a dumpling stall. “But where’s Chinatown?” one of them asked, confused.)

I realized that long-time residents have a map in their minds of the places they live in that others lack. An empty loft building on Bowery that to me had the potential to become a future condo development, was for her the former garment factory where she had worked.

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.

I saw this most on display on the days I would accompany Zhi Qin Zheng to do outreach at Sara D. Roosevelt Park, the neighborhood’s central gathering place, a narrow, rectangular strip of a park shaded by the crowded tenement buildings that ringed it on both sides. On a typical day, it was packed – young families with their kids filling the playground, teenagers playing games of handball on the courts to the north, packs of middle-aged men standing around chain smoking. Everybody who lived and worked in Chinatown passed through this park, known in Mandarin as Grand Park for the busy thoroughfare that bisected it from east to west.

Residents like Ms. Zheng didn’t see their neighborhood as “authentic” or “unchanging.” A former garment worker who lost her job after the 9/11 attacks led to the closure of most of the garment factories in the neighborhood, Ms. Zheng knew intimately the struggles that residents of the neighborhood faced, not only from her years spent battling her own landlord, but from all the tenants who came to us every week during our office hours with eviction notices in their hands.

Was Chinatown gentrifying? Some didn’t think so. According to a New York Magazine article published in September, 2015, “Chinatown has largely resisted the laws of the real estate market,” despite occupying “one of the most desirable tracts of real estate in all of Manhattan.”

Yet the numbers told a different story. Census numbers show that the Chinese population of the neighborhood declined by 17 percent between 2000 and 2010, and according to NYU’s Furman Center, median rents in Chinatown had climbed from an average of $745 per month in 2005 to $946 just five years later, with newer residents paying upwards of $1500 per month.

For me, my work in the neighborhood was the way I actualized my political ideals; for Ms. Zheng, it was survival, nurtured by her belief, born from experience, that tenants could win. Together, we spent countless hours trudging up and down the streets of Chinatown, handing out brochures and flyers and talking to residents about gentrification. In these interactions, I often deferred to Ms. Zheng, a compact woman in her late 50s with a no-nonsense bob and tanned skin who spoke three Chinese dialects fluently, who could connect with other immigrant residents in a way that I couldn’t. As we walked, I would ask her questions about the neighborhood, and it was through her that I realized that long-time residents have a map in their minds of the places they live in that others lack. An empty loft building on Bowery that to me had the potential to become a future condo development, was for her the former garment factory where she had worked.

I began to understand that gentrification, which was so often described as white people moving into a neighborhood and displacing long-time residents, was actually a process that was far more complex. Was I myself a gentrifier? I had often asked myself that question, having first lived in Harlem and then later on, in Bed-Stuy, long-standing black communities whose blackness and affordability were being swept away by the same forces that were turning Chinatown into an extension of Soho or the Lower East Side, its small businesses replaced by art galleries and cocktail bars. The incongruity of my work in Chinatown with my presence in these neighborhoods struck me as an unresolvable contradiction, one where I was caught up in the zero sum game that is the housing market in New York City, a game that I didn’t want to play but couldn’t opt out of.

And yet, it was much easier to believe that gentrification was about individual people making the choice to move into a neighborhood versus the reality — that it was about capital and who had it; about laws and systems that were stacked against tenants; that private property was king, and always had been.

We were too often confusing the visible symptoms for the cause. Maybe it felt good and even righteous to sneer at these urban pioneers moving in with their CB2 sofas and their love for cold brew coffee, but the recent arrivals I met on those nights going from building to building and knocking on doors, who admittedly fit the description of a gentrifier — white, young, college-educated — weren’t the problem, though they could be startlingly obtuse (one complained to me about the smells emanating from her neighbor’s apartment). They needed a place to live, after all. I guess I did, too. But so did the residents of Chinatown, and for them, there was rarely the option of moving to another gentrifying neighborhood. They depended on their rent-stabilized apartments. Once they were forced out, their chances of finding another rent-stabilized apartment were practically nil, and if they did happen to find one out of sheer luck or connections, the rent would most likely be much higher.

Chinatown was a place layered with Ms. Zheng’s history and that of the people who had built the neighborhood over decades. It was this history and her version of the neighborhood that needed to be saved, not mine, and in the summer of 2008, she would have to fight for her home and the homes of her neighbors one more time, for the two buildings on Delancey Street would once again be, as a news article put it, the focus of the “gentrification wars” that were raging in the neighborhood.

* * *

For a time, it seemed as if everyone, not only in New York but in cities around the country, was talking about gentrification. A new national coalition called Right to the City had launched at the inaugural United States Social Forum in 2007, inspired by the writings of the French Marxist Henri Lefebvre. Their name came from what Lefebvre called the “right to the city,” a “transformed and renewed right to urban life” possessed “firstly of all [by] those who inhabit.” For Lefebvre as well as his contemporary Jane Jacobs, the planning of city neighborhoods should be in the hands of their residents, who they believed were the ones who knew best what kind of development was needed.

They were heady words, thrilling words. Yet radical politics meant little to most residents of Chinatown and to the tenants of 55 and 61 Delancey, who simply wanted to be able to stay in their homes.

In the spring of 2008, less than a year after the successful rent strike at 55 and 61 Delancey, residents of the two buildings began calling us and coming to our office on Hester Street, bringing letters that said the buildings were under new management. A few months earlier, they had been sold (again!) for $20 million to the real estate investment firm Madison Capital, whose slick website described the two buildings as an “underperforming” asset, one in which they would commence a “repositioning strategy” that would focus on the “renovation and releasing of under market residential apartments.”

I was constantly going to housing court, whose hallways were invariably packed with black, Latino, and Asian tenants. I rarely saw a white person who wasn’t an attorney.

We soon learned what their “repositioning strategy” entailed, some of which was already familiar to the families who lived at 55 and 61 Delancey Street — delaying repairs in order to frustrate residents into leaving, resulting in leaky ceilings that went unfixed to the point that some began caving in, or taking days to fix the hot water that suddenly stopped working; taking tenants to court, where they would have to prove that they did in fact live there; and offering buyouts of up to $60,000. Other tactics were new, and meant to deliberately harass the Chinese residents in the buildings — at one point at the end of 2008, someone went around and tore down the red and gold Lunar New Year decorations that many families taped to their doors, and shortly after, the management company barred them from putting them back up, claiming they were fire hazards (a Christmas wreath adorning the exterior of a market-rate apartment, however, was allowed to remain).

Yet much of what Madison Capital had done wasn’t illegal; as for the rest, we would have to take the private equity firm to court to prove that it was harassment, using a new law passed just a few months earlier by the city council (previously, harassment wasn’t considered a local housing law violation). The families on Delancey Street once again would have to mobilize.

From the outset, it became clear that Madison Capital — whose lawyer, in a curious twist, was Candace Sela, the previous owner’s wife — would go to greater lengths than the previous landlords had in their efforts to push people out, going so far as to accuse one of the tenants, Ding Juan Zhang, of being a prostitute in the court papers they filed to evict her. At one of the first organizing meetings we held, crowded on the second floor landing of one of the buildings, we were suddenly interrupted by a police officer, responding to a 911 call from the superintendent who claimed we were causing a disturbance. The lawyer who was there with us argued that we were merely exercising our First Amendment rights, that we were breaking no laws by meeting. I tried to placate the officer, a young Asian man, promising we would be quiet. After that, he left, and we continued our meeting; this would happen two more times in the following months.

In January of 2010, a year after we filed the lawsuit, the case was settled. We had technically won, but it felt hollow. Some of the families, tired of constantly having to battle a revolving door of landlords, chose to move away, and how could anyone blame them for leaving? Every time I went to the building, it seemed as if someone new was moving in.

Meanwhile, in the same time period, tenants had been evicted wholesale from 81 Bowery, a single room occupancy building, after city inspectors found it ridden with housing violations. I was constantly going to housing court, whose hallways were invariably packed with black, Latino, and Asian tenants. I rarely saw a white person who wasn’t an attorney. A fire destroyed the Hong Kong Supermarket on East Broadway and Pike Street, and it was announced that a hotel would be built in its place. Another local supermarket, the Pathmark on Cherry Street, shuttered its doors, and it was rumored that it would be replaced by a 72-story luxury condo building. The former site of the Music Palace Theater, a Chinese-language theater which closed in 1998, became a gleaming new Wyndham hotel.

It was hard not to feel that we were engaged in a Sisyphean task, trying to staunch the blood flowing from a thousands gaping wounds with the tiniest of Band-Aids.

Shortly after Superstorm Sandy hit, I left New York City and Chinatown for Beijing, fleeing the neighborhood that I both loved and had begun to despair would be able to remain. Each tenant and family that moved away, each supermarket that then turned into a hotel, was a hammer that chipped away at my now-tenuous belief that the neighborhood could somehow escape the forces of change that had overtaken so much of the city.

* * *

It’s trendy these days to opine that gentrification isn’t all that bad, or that it’s misunderstood. Some even argue that it’s a myth, or that it actually benefits poor people.

I suspect that these articles are mostly written by people who have never had their heat turned off in the dead of winter or been offered a buyout to leave their home, people who have never received a frantic phone call from someone late at night saying that they’re being told to move out immediately and that they don’t know what to do and have no place to go. The toll of this type of displacement can never be fully told by the statistics that are duly trotted out in these articles. What I learned in those years I spent in Chinatown is that you need to measure it by each family that is forced out, each change that weakens the vitality of a place that has been created over decades.

There is a lot of handwringing over the future of Chinatown, whose Chinese population is now third in size to Flushing and Sunset Park. To some, change is inevitable. Chinatown is, after all, itself the product of new immigrants coming in and filling the vacuum left behind by others. But not all change carries equal weight. The Chinatown of the past and present, a place where generations of immigrants have been able to add their own imprint, a place where layers of history commingle and coexist all at once? It’s that neighborhood that is disappearing.

Recently, I went back to 55 and 61 Delancey Street, where I spent so many of my evenings in my twenties. The surrounding blocks, now boasting two oyster bars and a smattering of coffeeshops, had changed, and so had the two buildings, where empty apartments were now being rented for upwards of $4000 per month.

At the end of 2012, right after I had left New York City, 55 and 61 Delancey had swapped hands yet again, this time being sold for $50 million as part of a package that included buildings in Soho and the West Village. After the sale, another wave of evictions had begun, furthered along by Misidor LLC, a firm that specializes in helping “management companies and property owners to buy out and relocate low-rent tenants” and “identify and vacate illegal tenants.” Misidor’s website, before it was shuttered in 2014 by the Attorney General for the company’s role in harassing residents of rent-stabilized apartments, boasted that it had succeeded in relocating “hundreds of tenants.”

I was curious if any of the people I had worked with remained — the sharp-tongued Sau Ying Kwok; You Liu Lin; Ding Juan Zhang. The carpet was new, and the walls were freshly painted, as were the doors to each home, now done in a matte dark grey. And those tenants I remembered, who had fought for years for the right to claim a piece of New York City their own?

Ms. Kwok still lived there, but the rest? They were gone.

* * *

Esther Wang is a writer based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @estherxlwang

Editor: Sari Botton