Open City: Blogging Urban Change
Brooklyn Historical Society
By Cristiana Baik

 

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.

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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.

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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.

2 Responses to Brooklyn Historical Society

  1. Sady says:

    Hi Cristiana,

    So happy to hear you are interested in the Sunset Park Oral History project (1993-1994)! MOCA and BHS collaborated this year to re-organize the collection, making it more accessible. I’m sorry you had trouble accessing the audio — the majority of the interviews have been digitized and are available and I will make sure you can find them on your next visit to BHS!

    BHS is also looking for a volunteer or intern who is fluent in both Cantonese and English to help us digitize the last few from this collection. More information on that project here: http://www.brooklynhistory.org/about/internships.html

    I look forward to meeting you when you are next at BHS.

    Best,
    Sady Sullivan
    Director of Oral History
    Brooklyn Historical Society

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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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