Open City: Blogging Urban Change
5×5
By Sahar Muradi

 

Last Saturday spent five hours on Forsyth on the same five-block stretch: Rivington to Hester.  Mission was two-fold: conduct land use surveys for AALDEF (Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund) and find Moy.  Half-succeeded at both, but the best part was staying planted on that little length of earth and watching how things go by.

AALDEF is a civil rights group that works on behalf of Asian Americans.  The surveys are part of their multi-city study of land use decisions in historic Chinatowns.  In order for folks living and working in LES/Chinatown to determine the course of their neighborhood, they first need to see what’s there.

So I joined a handful of volunteers who signed up to go a-walking and a-tallying. At the training, the coordinator had a stack of walking routes charted out via Google Maps, and she randomly handed me “Section #55: Forsyth Street (Start: Delancey –> Broome –> Grand –> Hester).”   From January to June, I had walked this path twice a week, from my apartment on 6th to Pace High School, where I ran an after school program.  Of all the possible paths!  How fitting, I thought, to go back there now that I quit that job.  How would it feel to walk down that street again, same body, new eyes?

I started at one on Rivington.  Passed by a playground and spotted a camel.  Bronze and seated right there between the soccer field and the nursing home.  A camel in Chinatown!  Something about those animals, about all these big goofy animals in playgrounds across the city (the frog on Houston and Allen), that I love. So I turned the fence and walked into Rivington Playground.  Before I could pull out my camera, I spotted a swing set, an empty swing set.  There wasn’t a second thought, just a leap:

Swinging up into golden trees,

as if:

totally

unfastened.

Fifteen minutes. People walked by, looked twice. Smiled really wide, like, right on.  It was right on. Woman in Parks & Rec jumpsuit pulling trash can passed behind me.  I can step down, I said.  You’re fine, you’re fine. Enjoy! The feeling never changes. I wanted to say, there are two swings!

Got off and met with the camel, briefly, for three portraits, before walking across the way to M’finda Kalunga Garden.  Founded in 1983, the name means “Garden at the Edge of the Other Side of the World.” It’s named in memory of the African American burial ground once located nearby at 195 Chrystie, which closed in 1853, was excavated, and soon built over.  The New Museum on Bowery is partially built over the cemetery.  I walked in and weaved through short paths and past serene ceramic bunnies in wheelbarrows.  Followed the sound of rakes scraping.  Students from NYU’s honor society, Beta Alpha Psi, were volunteering for the day, part of their pledge requirement.   Talked with a couple for a bit, about school, service, and if they knew about the significance of the park (they didn’t).

Weaved my way back to the gate and met the volunteer greeter, Jennifer Marcus, who was just ending her two-hour shift.  She told me more about the garden, including that they have two hens and a rooster. When they first got them, there was so much attention that everyone, Asians, Latinos, Russians, everyone, who passed by would get so excited and share about how they grew up with chickens. It was a real unifying thing. I wish we had recorded it. Lately, the neighbors have been complaining about the roosters, how loud and rooster-like they were.
Turned out Jennifer had lived in Kabul in the ‘60s.  Was passing through on the hippie trail.  And still remembered TV Mountain, Chicken Street, and the Dari word for “bribe”.  Incredible, I thought, and begged her for an interview.

Out of the Garden and finally at the corner of Forsyth and Delancey, first stop on the land use survey.  The Seventh Day Adventist Church housed in what used to be a synagogue, a white cross pasted neatly over the Star of David. Two women outside, buzzing a door.  Would I like to join their youth group at 5?

Walking slowly toward Broome toward Grand, looking up at the tenements. Trying to be discreet. How many stories? Occupied or vacant? Commercial or residential?  How many trees on this block? And parking spaces? And where was Moy?

Moy is a man I’d met more than a year ago when I was still commuting from Kensington to this block. He worked at A&J Plumbing. Gave me a good deal on rope I bought for tug of war. He is black, was born in China, is fluent in Mandarin, and is a star martial art fighter.  I would say hi every now and again, passing by.  I hadn’t seen him in months.  I wanted to ask him about being two, about being in between.

I walked in, excuse me, I’m looking for the black man that speaks Chinese. Owner tells me he left and is working somewhere else, a grocery store around Catherine and Madison.  How do you know him?

I passed the high school and it did not bark. I passed the high school and it barked.  I passed the high school, and it said: we are still here! Thought of my students: had Kylie finished One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Was Jon still defending Republicans?  Was Chloe still smoking?  What about sweet William and his random declarations of love? It stung to look at the building and see my changed relation.

In the playground, bells and monkey rings.  Men with hands in pockets and women with shopping bags. Little girl yelling, this is the tornado house, get in the tornado house, it will keep you safe! Football on the track and cards at the tables. On the southeast corner, the mobile church, bible classes out of a truck.  First Lesson: Simon Says.

Simon Says find Moy. Simon says walk to Madison and Catherine.  Simon Says get lost. Simon says walk into C&J Deli and say hello, does Moy work here?  Simon Says come back after 9.  Where are you from anyway? Are you Muslim?  You’re out!

Some questions all the time.  From everyone. 1-2. 1-2. Are you from X? Are you Y? The Palestinian shop owner, the Malian cab driver.  To be in communion with another.  To have points of intersection. Isn’t that why I was chasing Moy? Isn’t that why I was all exclamations meeting Jennifer?  But the convergence seemed so much wider today, open-faced to the world.

Walking back to Forsyth, back toward Delancey, 6 o’clock, finishing up the surveys.  Chinatown at dusk.  The Park still clanging, the benches full.  Passed two men who excitedly and drunkedly told me they’d caught a shark.  What was that like? We talked in a dance, and they offered me red bull.  Open-faced, no walls.

Then coming back toward Houston, I ran into two girls from college. It had been ten years. Ten years. They lived across the street from M’finda Kalunga.  We didn’t say anything usual—what do you do, what do you do, what do you do—we just talked about the rooster, about the park, about being right there.  We laughed. I don’t remember ever laughing with them in college. Different circles.  But we just giggled there on the street, ten years later.

That was my day, my five hours on five blocks on Forsyth.  Something so refreshing and infinite about that: standing on a short plank and seeing its forest.

5 Responses to 5×5

  1. Susan Yung says:

    Hi Sahar,

    I grew up in the ‘hood you are presently assigned to describe during 1963-1979. I also peruse the area often. Due to encroaching gentrification after the Hispanic’s and Jewish’s diasporas to the suburbs, I find the ‘hood is in worse social conditions for the new immigrant generation than in my youth. In those days, there were “bums” (homeless alcoholics & gangstas) along Bowery spilling over to Roosevelt Parks that had no facilities or children playing. Presently, the area is overcrowded with basketball players, Chinese kids everywhere where unemployed Chinese immigrant men hangout on the corners of Forsyth and Hester Sts near the “newly modernized” school which is a cul-de-sac.

  2. Sahar says:

    Hi Susan,

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, what a wave of changes. And to have personally witnessed and experienced that… Would love to hear more about your impressions of the neighborhood as a youth and prior to the exodus of the Hispanic and Jewish populations. What was it like growing up there? What was memorable about the neighborhood? Challenging?
    And why do you think it is in “worse social conditions” today?

    I like how you refer to Pace High School as a cul-de-sac, which, indeed, it does fall into one. And in that, the school seems to have an odd relationship to the rest of the neighborhood.

  3. Susan Yung says:

    I’m sorry, but you will only have surface quality and second-hand experience from interviewing me. Unfortunately, it will be a set back and productive progress for Chinatown’s gentrification that CWG is already unable to prevent. After attending CWG meetings, I observe that white speculators/developers are constantly advising the local poor working ethnic class immigrants to vocally petition the city government for social services and urban improvements while they submit new plans for fashionable bars, high-priced restaurants, hotels and chic boutiques to Community Bds 1, 2,& 3.

    My advice is to view my video “Democracies in Chinatown: 1974-1994″ by Susan L. Yung on vimeo, which will answer yr queried questions. It was shown in 2009 @ Film Archive Anthology where only one Chinese guy saw it after my email blast in the Chinatown & LES communities. Too bad this has to be hidden so that developers can slip in to gentrify the urban poor neighborhoods and keep multi-culturism at a minimum.

    I wondered why the AA Writer’s group selected an “outsider” to wander LES streets to highlight the camel in a children’s playground and maybe attend the new exclusive storefront galleries while I remain anonymous, unemployable, downsized, suicidal, etc.

  4. Sahar says:

    Dear Susan,

    Thank you for your comment. We think it offers a necessary texture to the ongoing conversation on gentrification in Chinatown/LES and elsewhere and raises some important questions, which is very much the aim of this blog.

    Also very much on our minds is the tone/language of your email (which suggests potential self-harm). Please let us know if you would like to be directed to resources that might help you through some of those thoughts.

    Sahar

  5. Pingback: Urban Omnibus » Open City: Blogging Urban Change – Sahar Muradi

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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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