Site of Mass Displacement: A Chinatown Gentrified by Galleries [Op-Ed]

Posted on: October 21st, 2016 at 10:39 am by
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The following was written by Liz Moy of the Chinatown Art Brigade.

There is an ongoing perception that Manhattan’s Chinatown has stayed relatively the same throughout the years whilst other low-income neighborhoods of color have been overtaken by gentrification. Ask someone how Chinatown fares in an increasingly unaffordable city and they’ll likely say, at least it’s “still Chinese.” However, to further this narrative of Chinatown as a holdout to displacement, as did last year’s New York Magazine article, would be a large injustice to the growing number of tenants whose livelihoods are most at risk.

Over 100 galleries currently reside in Chinatown. This includes artist-run spaces, non-profits, galleries run out of apartments, and of course, more monied white box spaces. In such a large number, they have inarguably changed the landscape of Chinatown and the demographic of people who pass through it every day. This is in addition to the already sweeping commercial development happening, leaving Chinatown with hordes of luxury hotels and rising condominiums. The categorical differences between these galleries are irrelevant to the long-term residents whose homes these galleries neighbor. Many working class tenants are facing landlord harassment, forced evictions, and unsafe living conditions caused by illegal construction. To many, galleries are simply the businesses that replaced the restaurant or store that served them for decades. To others, in contrast with their cramped living quarters, the mostly empty spaces are stark visual indicators of inequality.

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While galleries are but one player in the process of gentrification, it is important to hold them accountable for their role in displacing long term residents. Galleries occupy spaces which once housed community and family-driven businesses. Now the bar of entry into these spaces is a basic understanding of contemporary art. Galleries operating above the ground floor also add to the rent burden of long term residents. When landlords see that they can get more money from often white tenants, they start to look for opportunities to evict those who are rent stabilized. Even when they are not encouraging displacement directly, galleries invite and cater to a crowd of people whose social behaviors are routinely detrimental to the community. This includes gallery-goers who are a major source of noise and garbage, users of Airbnb, and supporters of a more rampant nightlife culture. Some galleries have moved to Chinatown because they have been displaced themselves from Chelsea. But unlike low-income residents, who need the cultural, social, and language resources Chinatown provides, these galleries ultimately get to decide where they belong.

Formed in 2015, the Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) is a collective of artists, tenants, and organizers seeking to use art to advance social justice. CAB works with CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities’ Chinatown Tenants Union which builds the power of residents to protect themselves against predatory landlords, and further encroaching development. As this major influx of galleries continues, CAB has been compelled to address the role of artists and art spaces in a gentrifying Chinatown. Throughout the summer, CAB hosted weekly workshops that involved “placekeeping” walking tours, mapping, storytelling, and the creation of images, and videos of anti-displacement messages. The culmination of this “Here to Stay” series was an evening of outdoor projections done with the technical help of The Illuminator. By prioritizing tenant driven stories and voices, the project provided a glimpse of how art can foster a vibrant future for Chinatown. In July, in collaboration with the Wing on Wo (W.O.W.) Project, CAB organized a panel discussion called “Chinatown: New York’s Newest Gallery Scene?”. Several commercial gallerists were invited to participate, but none of them attended.

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Photo: Louis Chan

Now as part of a series of events being organized by Decolonize This Place around indigenous struggle, black liberation, Free Palestine, global wage workers, and de-gentrification, CAB is hosting a second gallery conversation. This time with the added presence of Chinatown gallerists, we hope to engage in a town hall discussion that brings to light ways in which local residents, activists, gallery owners and artists can fight displacement together. On a spectrum of awareness, some participants may not know or acknowledge their role in gentrification, while others are cognizant of the accelerating situation but do not know how to help. We are hoping this dialogue will allow people who are on different learning curves to address issues of complicity and find actionable ways to resist gentrification.

The “Chinatown is Not for Sale” panel takes place on October 22 at 7pm at Artists Space (55 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) as part of the Decolonize This Place residency. The panel will be co-presented by Decolonize This Place, Artists Space, and Chinatown Art Brigade.

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