Open City: Blogging Urban Change
By Jerome Chou


It’s a warm Saturday in early fall. On a path leading into Chinatown’s Columbus Park, there are two bands: old men, mostly playing erhu, a traditional 2-string fiddle that likes to slide in and out of tune. Though they’re spitting distance apart, the bands are playing different songs: one’s a fast, jittery tune, the other’s a version of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” Standing at the confluence of the two songs, you feel you are caught between rival school orchestras.

I talk to one of the musicians, a middle-aged man who seems surprised at the attention.  “Do you like this music?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say.

He lifts an eyebrow at me. “Young people don’t usually like this music.”

I ask him why the bands play so close to each other. He says: “This is the best place in the park to play.”

Columbus Park, circa 1902

Columbus Park sits on what was first a swamp, then a neighborhood—one of the city’s densest and most infamous slums, known as Mulberry Bend or “the Bend.”  The name was coined by muckraker and housing reformer Jacob Riis, who lived there in 1870 as a new immigrant from Denmark.  A quarter century later, Riis and close friend Theodore Roosevelt, then New York City Police Commissioner, helped raze the tenements to create the park. At its dedication in 1897, one speaker declared “Without Riis, there would be no park.”

(Riis, author of How the Other Half Lives, whose story is as unlikely and mythical as any New Yorker’s. Riis, who once begged for scraps and slept the streets, and would later engineer the wholesale demolition of the Bend. Riis, tireless chronicler of the slums, who pioneered the use of photography to tell his stories. Riis, who loathed the Chinese for their failure to assimilate, their lack of Christian faith, their opium, yet still supported changing immigration laws to allow Chinese women to join their husbands in the U.S., writing “then, at least, [the Chinese man] might not be what he now is and remains, a homeless stranger among us.”)

Beyond the entrance, the park opens out onto a paved plaza where every ornamental boulder, every wrought-iron railing, every bench is occupied, mostly by elderly Chinese.  They gather in small groups to play Chinese chess or blackjack, the dealers doling out red poker chips from plastic wanton soup containers. A handful of people practice martial arts in a pavilion overlooking the plaza . Farther south, passersby move warily past a pack of teenagers who are huddled around the comfort station trading Pokemon cards.

At the center of the park is a large, artificial turf field, the kind that the Parks Department has introduced throughout the City. Made of recycled tires and small strands of plastic, the new turf needs no watering and survives the year-round assault of New Yorkers’ feet better than grass, but cannot accommodate all activities. Tents or volleyball nets that require putting poles in the ground are prohibited; seniors who practice tai chi prefer the stability of asphalt. Some residents grumble that the new turf fields are extremely popular with people from other neighborhoods, who play in fee-based soccer leagues. As I walk past, a group of football players starts shouting at a group of soccer players to get off their field.

The park was designed by Calvert Vaux, better known for his work with Frederick Law Olmstead to create Central Park and Prospect Park. In 1870, the year Riis arrived in New York, Olmsted wrote that parks were the only places in the city where people of all walks of life came together.  Today Columbus Park still feels like a place where many different individuals and tribes co-exist–if not come together–claiming a small pocket of the city, and sometimes fighting to hold onto it. In other words, it feels like the neighborhood around it.

One Response to Turf

  1. Lisa Chen says:

    This is my favorite park in all New York. Thanks for the Riis history on it!

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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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Manhattan CB3 Land Use, Zoning, Public & Private Housing Committee
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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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