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Esther Wang

The Pleasures of Protest: Taking on Gentrification in Chinatown

Illustration by: Katie Kosma

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.” Read more…