Annie Ling’s photo essay on the residents at 81 Bowery, published in the New York Times, struck a chord. What stood out most to me was the residents’ resilience, their communal lives, and their attempts to retain a sense of dignity as they worked to eke out a better life for family members back home.
A few weeks ago, I spoke to Ms. Long about her experiences at 81 Bowery and in the neighborhood, and I asked her what outsiders might find most surprising:
81 Bowery is a unique community. It’s not an SRO [Single Room Occupancy building], at least a traditional one. The people there are renting single cubicles or rooms, but the hallways are used as communal spaces, and there are no ceilings to the cubicles. So, the people are connected in these integral ways, and together, they have made their homes there for the past 12 to 20 years.
They are very conscious of how people appear, how they are seen, they are skeptical of outsiders. But once you are invited in, they are amongst the warmest people I have met. They were beyond hospitable.
Because they live in cubicles, right away people think that these people have no choice, that they are unhappy, but really…. They live there because they want to send everything they earn home. It’s more like a family there. It’s so much more communal than most people can imagine. They built their homes there. They’re almost brothers, sisters. They said that, and I sensed it as soon as I walked in. If they ever left, they would lost the [physical] proximity, but also the [emotional closeness, the] support they lend one another. They have each other’s back, especially during tough times.
With one resident there, there was an instant connection. They don’t have pictures of their families on their walls. With this resident, he immediately asked me how old I was, and then he talked about his daughter—She is the same age as me, and he hasn’t seen her in 17 years. I never saw my dad growing up, either—
Being there, I worked to understand why they did the things they did.
I’m not a furious snapper. So I hung out, and I looked for real moments—a sense of a specific place, a specific time—
I also asked Ms. Long about her experiences in Chinatown overall, and how she came to document the stories here, especially the ones we don’t usually see, off the streets, behind doors and walls:
I moved to New York 3 years ago and lived near Chatham Square, in the Five Points area of Chinatown. Immediately, I was struck by the sense of community here, but its richness—It reminded me of my roots in Taiwan, and gave me a chance to speak Mandarin. More deeply, though. I could tell that the neighborhood contains so many great stories to explore. . . So I went to bed at 4 am one night thinking, “Tomorrow, I will go knocking on doors and ask my neighbors for their stories.” That night, my building on James Street burned down. It was an electrical fire, a fatal one.
It was the middle of winter, and suddenly we were standing together across the street in the middle of the night, watching our homes burn down. It was not a time to be inquisitive; I understood the importance of being respectful. I wanted to respect my neighbors’ privacy and sense of profound loss, to give them the time and space to grieve. Still, when that happened, it was as if I didn’t have a choice. It fell upon me—It was not a project to explore the exotic. It moved me; it feels very personal to me.
When I lost my place, I realized that everyone else in the building had not just evacuated their homes, but a big story, an embedded history. They had nowhere to go, but they could not stay.
You can’t undo time eating away at the physical buildings and objects around us. I want my work to show that there is value to capturing what is here now. The fire lent my mission a sense of urgency against time. It showed how fragile everything is, not just buildings but communities, identities, and the grand narratives of immigration, New York, a sense of place, of family. I felt so helpless, but even more so, I felt deeply unsettled by the fact that my neighbors had lost records of their entire lives, of their families’ lives, some of whom had been there for generations. Whereas I had just moved there—
For people to truly understand what a loss a building in Chinatown would be, a family, a person, the people have to be here, they need to know the immediate, they need to know the backstories of immigrants here—To know that these are universal stories about place, identity, roots, and ultimately, sacrifice.
It’s important for me that people value what’s in their backyard, and not just profit off it. Is this city willing to sacrifice its rich history for more commerce? Often, when people do well in this neighborhood, they move away, but there are still so many older people here, people being ignored. And I think about their sacrifice. And I don’t like them being alone. I don’t like them being forgotten.
See Annie Ling’s website for more photographs.