Chinatown Fights Back Unification in the Face of Change

With gentrification continuing to wreak havoc in the Lower East Side, it is normal for people to feel as though there is nothing they can do about the issue. However, that is not the case for the people of Chinatown. The residents, business owners, and workers of Chinatown are all well-aware of their circumstances and how gentrification affects them all. In fact, before a new coffee shop was debuted in a building along Canal Street, the building’s boarded-up storefront had been vandalized with the Chinese word for “gentrification.” In addition, groups such as the Chinatown Working Group, the Chinatown Art Brigade, and CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, work to fight against gentrification in the place they call home.

In comparison to other Chinatowns across the country such as Boston and Philadelphia, New York City’s Chinatown is considered to be the “very last stand” when it comes to keeping its cultural community alive in face of gentrification. It has the advantage of having a large base of jobs, helping to keep its community intact. However, it may soon fall to the level of its fellow Chinatowns as gentrification continues to rampage throughout the city. Professor Peter Kwong of Hunter College argues that the best way to stop the displacement of the local businesses and restaurants is through rezoning and laws that protect tenants.

Formed in October 2008, the Chinatown Working Group (CWG) is a community-based planning initiative on the future of New York City’s Chinatown, with the goal of supporting the community’s residents, workers, businesses, and visitors. A coalition of more than fifty organizations and residents, the organization has been working for the past eight years on a rezoning plan that would “restrict height limits, create anti-harassment laws targeted at landlords, generate affordable housing,” and most importantly, “protect small businesses in Chinatown and the Lower East Side.” However, despite the group’s efforts, their plan continues to be rejected by the Department of City Planning, but the advocates refuse to give up and continue to protest on a daily basis outside City Hall in order to call attention to the issue.

The Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) is another organization that fights against gentrification. Formed in 2015 by artists Tomie Arai, ManSee Kong, and Betty Yu, CAB defines itself as “a cultural collective that recognizes the power of art to advance social justice.” In 2016, CAB launched “Here to Stay,” a community art project consisting of large-scale outdoor mobile projections that address the issues of gentrification and displacement, as well as community resilience in New York City’s Chinatown. The project has since been implemented within the streets of Chinatown, as seen on one night in September 2016, when a series of large-scale, multilingual messages—all of which were written by the residents—were projected onto buildings. The people of the Chinatown community know that they are all at risk of being taken over by newer businesses and a younger, non-Asian population. Their identities are pushed to the side and their sense of community has been shaken up, yet they continue to fight back as much as they can.

In addition to their own community projects, CAB also works closely with the organization, CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities. Formed in 1986 by Asian working-class women who were alarmed by the spike of hate violence on Asian communities, CAAAV works together with CAB in order to achieve the goal of successfully campaigning for an equitable community-based rezoning plan that can fight gentrification and protect the rights of people who need affordable housing.

Gentrification is something that is not going to go away any time soon. If anything, it is only going to keep growing and spreading itself throughout the rest of New York City, as it can be seen not only in the Lower East Side, but in other parts of the city such as Harlem, Chelsea, and Brooklyn. Groups such as CWG, CAB, and CAAAV make up the front lines of this battle against gentrification, and it is through their work that the people of Chinatown are able to stand a chance against this foe.