Open City: Blogging Urban Change
Upon the occasion of the Mondrian opening
By Lena Sze


Mondrian Hotel

Walk around Chinatown and bordering neighborhoods these days and you might notice a marked proliferation of hotels.  Twenty, even ten years ago, these hotels would likely have been SROs (single-room occupancy), establishments serving a clientele of itinerant men or poor immigrants who cycled in and out of cheap bunks or otherwise tiny spaces.  These SROs on the Bowery and elsewhere in the city are under serious threat now, as the existence of the SRO Law Project, can attest to.

Go on a tour of the twenty blocks radiating from historic Chinatown (around Pell and Mott) and you’ll see fewer and fewer of these.  Instead there’s the looming 270-room Mondrian opening this month on Lafayette/Crosby with its “handcrafted cocktails,” gallery terrace, and $300-$500 a night rooms.  Adjacent the funeral parlors and other small businesses along the rim of Columbus Park, a glass “Hotel Mulberry” sticks a finger in the eye of this traditionally low-rise neighborhood.  Rather than, say, a small slaughterhouse on Grand Street with cages of chickens and rabbits, the “Solita” hotel stands.

Solita Hotel

That slaughterhouse wasn’t a pretty sight, but in the 1980s and 90s, it was a line of business extending far back into the neighborhood’s past.  It was owned by a Chinese family, the man greeting you a dashing Chinese John Wayne, with many of its customers recent immigrants wanting the freshest meat possible for their families.  You might be surprised to learn that for nearly a century before, that particular address was a slaughterhouse shack.  In the early 1900s and operated by Italians, the meat was consumed by the then-burgeoning immigrant Italian community nearby.

Little Italy circa 1900. "Mulberry Street, New York."

Of course there’s also the rapid-fire transformation of the Bowery into a developer’s dream: boutique hotels including “The Bowery” and “Cooper Square,” luxury rentals, new commercial hot-spots including the Whole Foods, fancy bars, tapas bars.  Walking along, you might wonder how long the lighting district and the restaurant supplies shops can last in this changing ecology.  On your stroll, don’t forget to pass the former “Music Palace” theatre (at Hester) demolished just a few years ago.  Music Palace was one of several Chinese movie-houses and cultural venues in the neighborhood where, from the 1930s through the 1970s, scores of Chinese immigrants and their kids would watch flicks (kung fu and other) as well as Chinese opera and culture shows.  By the 1980s and 90s, Music Palace was the last of these theatres— and it became quite a lonely place.  Music Palace’s demise ended the era of the Chinatown movie-house, but it might have also closed the curtain on a city rich with Yiddish theatre, the polyglot performance traditions of the Bowery, old Times Square.  For many, the controversial rezoning of the Lower East Side a few years back left a sour taste, and the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, working with Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, is trying to stall the over-development of this historic stretch.  Rumor has it in Chinatown that the Music Palace address will soon house a hotel, or possibly a shiny office tower like several already in the neighborhood.

Where the Music Palace stood

Organizers at CAAAV and Urban Justice Center released a report in 2008, a portion of which notes the overbuilding of hotels.  But you might also ask: why hotels—and why now?  You speculate perhaps it has to do with the orientation toward a tourist-services economy put forward by the City and mirrored by the “movers and shakers” of Chinatown’s business class, especially after September 11th?

Recently constructed tourist kiosk

Maybe the current zoning that allows as-of-right hotel construction in some manufacturing-zoned areas is to blame?  Maybe it even has to do with demand, the allure of staying, however briefly, in a neighborhood once rife with SROs, movie-houses, slaughterhouses, and the living history of working-class immigrants?

Wandering these old streets, what once was Rutgers’ farm or Delancey’s or Bayard’s—and long before that land that was no one’s farm or property—you might think of several generations of stories behind façade, beneath paint, or gone entirely.  Do you remember?  What was next to the post office on Canal Street before it was a drab, high-end Sheraton?  Will you remember?  What was life like in parts of Chinatown, SoHo, Little Italy before the Mondrian?

One Response to Upon the occasion of the Mondrian opening

  1. Trent Kurgan says:

    I such as the website, and am sure to always keep returning

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About Open City
Open City: Blogging Urban Change is an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Five commissioned writers, called Organizing Fellows, are working with community organizations and neighborhood folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown/Lower East Side (LES), Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn to collect oral histories and interviews, offer commentary about gentrification, neighborhood change, and produce new creative work around these themes. Read more.
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CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities was formed in 1986 (formerly known as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) as a response to an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes both in New York City and around the country (which included violence by police officers against Asians).
They have two offices – one in Manhattan’s Chinatown (which houses the Chinatown Tenants Union, and the new Asian Youth in Action organizing project) and the Youth Leadership Project office in the Bronx – and have members from all over the city. Over the years, CAAAV’s main campaigns have focused on community-based organizing work rooted in Asian immigrant and refugee communities. Although their advocacy and organizing work is focused mainly in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the northwest Bronx, CAAAV’s work also touches upon larger issues (such as affordable housing, war, and immigration) shaping communities all over the world: “Our work is primarily centered around issues facing New Yorkers, but always with a global analysis.”
CAAAV’s mission is to organize and build the power of working-class Asian immigrants, refugees, and youth to change concrete conditions and participate in a broader social justice movement. In the past, CAAAV’s work included organizing South Asian taxi drivers, Korean women workers, and Filipina domestic workers. Several of these organizing projects have gone on to become their own organizations, such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United. CAAAV’s current work focus on three different program areas: Read more.

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Community Announcements
Manhattan CB3 Land Use, Zoning, Public & Private Housing Committee
Monday, May 2 at 6:30 pm -- Rutgers Community Center, Gymnasium - 200 Madison Street (btwn Rutgers & Pike Sts)

Brooklyn CB7, Land Use/Landmarks Committee Regular meeting
Continued discussion on potential 8th Avenue rezoning

Manhattan CB3 Economic Development Committee Tuesday, May 3 at 6:30pm -- Community Board 3 Office - 59 East 4th Street (btwn 2nd Ave & Bowery)

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