Yesterday, I dropped by the Brooklyn Historical Society to sort through the audio archives for an oral history project (conducted with the Museum of Chinese in America) on Sunset Park. The 28 interviews–conducted between 1993-1994–consist of audio archives, as well as written transcripts. In lieu of the audio archives, which couldn’t be accessed yesterday (I’ll be going back next week to take a listen), I read through several of the transcripts.
One interviewee’s transcript struck me, because it articulated the transmigrational forces that shape the fabric of New York, from the life stories we hear (including our own), to transnational familial ties, and the movement of transnational capital. Born and raised in Hong Kong, the interviewee decided to move to the States in the 80s, in order to attend college (where he attended SUNY Buffalo). After college, he worked and lived in LES’ Chinatown, then moved onto work in Sunset Park’s burgeoning Chinatown. Then in the 90s, he and his wife moved to Puerto Rico, where he worked with a family member on a small business. After a short stint there, his family decided to move back to New York, where he opened up a small pharmaceutical business with two partners in Sunset Park. He and his wife bought a small condo in Staten Island (real estate prices in Manhattan and Brooklyn were too high), where they still live with their two children. Both make the daily commute between the two boroughs of Staten Island and Brooklyn.
In American Karma, Sunil Bhatia writes, “transnational migration redefines the meanings of culture.” Hong Kong, to New York (NYC to Buffalo, then back to NYC), then Puerto Rico, and back to New York (Manhattan to Sunset Park, to Staten Island). The rhetoric of the American dream, and its divergent inhabited versions. Dissonance, distance, and desire — each of these words underlie transnational narratives, pulling within the seams of words, personal stories. And how do we start paralleling these personal narratives next to the kinds published in the New York Times, where the mirror image of Chinatown (in the article “Canal Street, Is that Really You?”) is one that needs to be constantly cleaned, with developers aiming to reinvent LES’ Chinatown into a “quieter, gentler, more residential thoroughfare”? The onerous words of developers like Albert Loboz–”You like vanilla, I like chocolate, it’s up to your taste”– struck me in the way that it personifies certain characteristics of gentrification, and raised obvious questions: whose taste are we talking about? Residential, for whom?
My point in raising these two narratives is that they’re part and parcel to one another; they are not isolated stories; in some ways, they constitute one another, depicting different versions of geographic displacements and livelihoods.
On another note. My stationary point (home!) in “South Slope”/Sunset Park/Park Slope, drawn up on a track map put out by a real estate surveyor, in 1880:
From “Detailed Estate & Old Farm Line Atlas” (Atlas #22, at BHS, microfilm reel #1), archived at the Brooklyn Historical Society.