Open City: Blogging Urban Change
By Jerome Chou


One of the great books about neighborhood change in New York is Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. In the book’s final chapter, Berman describes how his childhood neighborhood was razed in the late 1950s and early 1960s to make way for the Cross-Bronx Expressway, displacing tens of thousands of small business owners and residents. Looming over the story is the towering figure of Robert Moses—chief planner for most of New York City’s major 20th century bridges and roadways, beaches and parks—who ignored all calls to alter the Expressway’s path.

The roles of villain and victims in Berman’s story seem easily cast. “And yet,” he writes, “And yet, it is not the whole truth.” He continues:

What if…we had managed to keep the dread road from being built? How many of us would still be in the Bronx today, caring for it and fighting for it as our own? Some of us, no doubt, but I suspect not so many, and in any case—it hurts to say it—not me. For the Bronx of my youth was possessed, inspired, by the great modern dream of mobility. To live well meant to move up socially, and this in turn meant to move out physically; to live one’s life close to home was not to be alive at all. Our parents, who had moved up and out from the Lower East Side, believed this just as devoutly as we did—even though their hearts might break when we went.

It’s a wrenching admission: as Berman puts it, “Moses entered our soul early.”

But is it true today? Is it true in Chinatown? This past winter, even as I took a temporary sublet in Chinatown for Open City—paying twice my usual rent for the privilege—I wondered if the children of Chinatown’s recent immigrants want to stay where they’d grown up.

Over the winter, I met Theresa and Marian Zhen, two sisters who grew up in a one-bedroom apartment on Madison St in the southeastern corner of Chinatown. At times, up to ten people—including Theresa and Marian, their brother, and various grandparents and uncles—shared two bunkbeds in the apartment. Now 23, Theresa works as a paralegal in Manhattan and volunteers with the Chinese Progressive Association. Marian, a year younger, is a senior in college. In separate interviews, both of them spoke about their experiences growing up in Chinatown, leaving the neighborhood, and whether or not they’d want to live there again.

Marian's birthday, Sept 1998, in the Zhen's Chinatown apartment

THERESA: We had very little space. We had large bedroom, a small common room, a narrow kitchen, and a bathroom that was almost part of the kitchen. The bathroom door opened in, and you couldn’t fit in the bathroom if the door was open. There was a gaping hole in the bathroom wall—I could always hear our neighbors next door. We had rats. We always had water dripping from the ceiling.

My mom worked in a garment factory seven days a week. My dad worked in restaurants outside of Chinatown. For a while, he and his co-workers were bused up to a place on 86th Street; he would leave when we went to school, and come back around 11pm. The restaurant was next to a pharmacy. They would throw out all kinds of things, like makeup kits after they’d expired. My dad would pick up garbage bags full of stuff and bring them home for us to play with. For Christmas we would draw Christmas trees and tape them to the wall. For New Year’s we would color old newspaper and cut it up into bits—that was our confetti.

There’s shame in living in Chinatown. You’re working like a dog, making very little money. You want your kids to have the best, but you can’t save enough money. You live in a cramped space. Because you rent, you have no land. This symbol of status and wealth, you can’t have it. You’re like a peasant, until you can purchase a home.

MARIAN: I went to P.S. 1 for elementary school [at Henry and Catherine Streets]. For Junior High, I went to Baruch in Gramercy. It was my first time experiencing something outside of Chinese culture. When I got to Baruch I remember everything being so different. P.S. 1 celebrated their 100th anniversary while I was there. Everything was old: the banisters, the classrooms, the desks. It was known for being haunted—it always had this dark, kind of scary feel. Baruch was this brand new building. It was sunny inside. We had a choice of classes.  The neighborhood was much more clean, there were no markets, it was much quieter. Everything was very subtle.

Sixth grade was really tough. There were a lot of different cultures. For lunch, everyone had sandwiches, but I usually brought a Chinese bun, and everyone made a big deal about it. At P.S. 1, there were a lot of Asian-centric things: a lot of teachers were Chinese, there were cultural dances, New Year’s celebrations. We didn’t have those at Baruch. One time we had to do a science fair project, and I remember thinking ‘I have no idea what a science fair is.’

Theresa and Marian's grandfather, in the family's bedroom

THERESA: In college, this group called the Asian American Activism Committee was doing a workers organizing campaign for GAP garment factory workers. I was talking to this guy and he started to explain what a sweatshop is. I told him “I know what a sweatshop is. My mom worked in one.”

I started going their meetings, and that’s when I really started thinking about what being Asian American means. Like I always checked the box “Asian American,” but what did those two words hyphenated together mean? One time we had to do this group exercise called a “footprint activity.” You had to complete this phrase: “I walk in the footsteps of…” And I answered “every single person who’s ever lived in Chinatown.”

I think a lot of my cousins haven’t had those kinds of experiences. I know they’d rather live on Park Avenue. It’s a symbol of success, that you can leave Chinatown. But I think of Chinatown as this community of working class families trying to better their lives.

All the places that used to trigger my childhood memories are gone. All those old Chinese herb shops—it pains me there are so few now. But I feel at home here. I would love to live in Chinatown again.

MARIAN:  Freshman year I studied abroad in Beijing, and I fell in love with China. I just had this feeling of home. Being on the street and understanding what everyone is saying. You’re doing Chinese things, speaking Chinese, and people don’t look at you like it’s quirky or weird. It feels like what my parents taught me, all of their old stories, and beliefs, and superstitions.

After venturing out of Chinatown, it feels like it’s way too much of a bubble—you feel like you’re inside, but there’s something larger outside. No one outside Chinatown knows what it’s like. If I lived there now, I’d feel like I was limiting myself, going back to the same thing over and over. In China, you don’t feel like you’re in a bubble.

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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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Featured Profile
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)

Read more.

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