Open City: Blogging Urban Change
Belonging
By Lena Sze

 

My family’s “American Dream” didn’t start on Centre Street, but here it took root and it’s here that my consciousness as a New Yorker, an Asian American, a kid from Chinatown first took shape.  It’s from this vantage point– on this block– where we’ve witnessed many changes: print-shops gave way to lofts, garment factories thrived until business left for cheaper regions and off-shore, architecture and design firms stayed after the New Economy bubble burst, small developers rehabilitated shabby sweatshops into luxury condominium spaces for the incredibly wealthy.

In the 1970s, our block was still part of the Machinery District, a patchwork neighborhood of dusty stores selling used machines and machinery parts, large loft buildings, and rickety tenements.  Long-time Jewish families (and a few Italian ones) were leaving their buildings and my parents were the first wave of Chinese to enter this industrial stretch of downtown, a “no-man’s” land neither properly SoHo nor Little Italy.  They might have been the first Chinese on the block and certainly the first to have a storefront above which they raised a large sign emblazoned in a mix of Chinese characters and English lettering, a sign of things to come.  And go.

They owned a small business distributing wholesale fruit and vegetables to the many Chinese restaurants in the tri-state area from your local Jade Palace and Sichuan King to countless others.  It was a different time in New York: Chinese food was still novel, Washington Market had just left what’s now Tribeca, longshoremen roamed the streets of Chelsea and Sunset Park, the Fulton Fish Market was a stinky gorgeous mob mess all as my parents’ trucks wound through growing inner-ring suburbs and neighborhoods burnt out and lonely-looking at night.

I grew up among laboring men and women, the men a multi-racial group of workers (black, Puerto Rican, Chinese and Japanese American) who drove small tractors and trucks, carried machine parts all day, and would take off for Broadway or Bowery on pay-day.  An older sister remembers dust from that period: everything so dirty, everyone’s work gloves grimy and grease-filled, her days as a girl one long endless loop, tedium.  I, though, liked the wasteland appeal of our block: the government parking lot a fortress against intruders, the beeps of trucks and forklifts, the heave of fruit and vegetable crates a welcome sound in the early morning, and the particular still way dust was suspended in the afternoon sun.  The women at work were mostly new immigrant Chinese, small kids in tow and working indoors, not the open-air factories where the men were and where I played.  Chinatown circa 1980s: fabric threads, bundles, carts, lines zipping clothes from loft floors above to trucks below, dust, needles above worn floors, steam pipes, dust, women streaming from cargo elevators, evening.

My parents watched us grow up on this block and I too have watched them as they grow older.  I wait behind them as they walk up the creaky stairs.  I watch my mother clean up the pizza boxes and bottles of imported beer that the new neighbors leave in a pile in the building foyer.  These days I poke the Fresh Direct boxes that show up in the building.  I glare at white, black, and Asian hipsters on my block who smoke incessantly and wear flat dull clothing.  I argue with the new folks down the street who let their dogs pee on our building.  I know these feelings are petty, that my efforts are misdirected and in some ways futile, but they too are now built into my sinews, these anxieties and frustrations.  Even from my relatively privileged position in Chinatown and in spite of my desire for nuance, I eye it warily and feel gentrification overtaking us, here on this block, seemingly inexorable like the sea.

There are many things that make it hard to be a native New Yorker living through this latest change.  People appear now ghostly, old, gone.  Tour buses and trucks vie with each other for the title of: champion of mental disquiet!  Our warm lovely neighbors, an African American saxophonist and a Jewish painter, don’t know where to go anymore for cheap art supplies or egg creams or conversation.  Because George Soros’s son just purchased a townhouse on Centre Market Place where the gun shops used to be.  People I know ask, where will we live and how?  Unlike many tenants harassed on Delancey, the Bowery, Baxter, uptown in El Barrio, down in Sunset Park, across a wide swath of New York, New Yorkers doubling or tripling up in the projects, I understand that I have several options and, in a kind of way, the High Line and waterfront parks are for me even though I never asked for them.  Where will we live now and how?

I’ll be moving soon and it’s likely I will never know my new block as intimately as I’ve known this one, the shadow of the sun here, the people and pock-marks of this place.  According to anthropologist C. Nadia Seremetakis, in English nostalgia connotes apolitical “romantic sentimentality” but its root-term in Greek nostalghía “is the desire or longing with burning pain to journey…[and thus puts the past in] transactional and material relation to the present.”  I wonder if my narrative of Centre Street is nostalgia or nostalghía?  I ask myself, what memories lie dormant in my telling?  How to live with the past and in the present?  What of the future?  When do we arrive, New York?

One Response to Belonging

  1. Elissa says:

    I wouldn’t put this post in the category of nostalgia. I’ve spent years listening to people in the LES talk about the neighborhood and its street life. And like you I’ve also spent time listening to people return as formal visitors (not to the family and places they have known, and often the streets they knew are literally gone). Both categories can laugh and cry over the street games they knew, the fire hydrant games (with and without water), double-dutch, and stick-ball and often poverty. So both speak the tropes of collective memory fluently. But interestingly enough part of what I’ve learned from those returnees (which can be a mixed bag in other ways), is that life elsewhere often feels less rich and I don’t chalk it up to sheer nostalgia. I can evoke the neighborhood for them but I can’t give them back what they left not just because of the mere matter of a jump in time and space. I think something else is at play and among other things it has to do with constantly interacting with community(ies) in an open-ended complexity with known rules. People miss running in and out of each others apartments, the open doors, fire escapes and roofs, but most importantly they miss the open streets where playing, observing, and being connected to a rhythm of moving life, was a way of life economically and otherwise.

    So observing how much one’s one life is based on that loose nexus of neighborhood, street life, family, community, and that stories new and old are literally being wiped out with each new condo development and bar, yes it closes out a sense of person as well as neighborhood.

    And like this blog site it also implies that the power of direct voices comes in part through connections to living communities being able to stay in place with their own connections to a collective past which may in its own ways reference that of other communities. And its very painful to think of voices being cut loose, eloquent or otherwise.

    So I think this post qualifies as nostalghía, and that Nadia who lived near Astor Place when she went to the New School, once knew the difference between Centre Street and W. 8th Street and would agree. BTW, there’s still a functioning synagogue left on E. Broadway whose name has been for decades “Formerly 52 Canon,” clearly named for its first, unforgotten place of residence.

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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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