EPISODE 24: Chinatown Nights Is Cultural Power And Preservation

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Show Notes

The event is called “place-keeping” as it turns back a wave of anti-Asian hate that came with the pandemic, fights gentrification, and celebrates what makes Chinatown special.

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Transcript


Straw media. This is rooted and
this idea of being excluded or other and

that we don't belong. And every
step of the way and the Chinatown's work,

we're thinking about how do we knit
our histories together with a wider understanding

of American history, that our history
is American history and that's how we overcome

it. This is Lucas greenly from
next city. Show about change makers and

their stories. Truth is there are
solutions to the problems of pressing people in

cities. If you're listening, I
hope it's because you want to spread good

ideas from one city to the next
city. If you find yourself in Chinatown

in New York City, be on
the lookout for a truck that has video

screens attached to the sides of it. It's circling the neighborhood and playing footage

of the new mayor, Eric Adams, during a campaign stop last year.

Community traumatized community is only going to
in this community. I know this community.

Wealth as a police officer was a
sign in this community. I know

to stop the listeness that goes into
what this community has experienced with the recent

level of date ridlet's stop the institutionalizing
of the sea, no new jail,

no building up a jail in this
location. This video is being spread by

a coalition called neighbors United Below Canal, because today that jail is moving forward.

Neighborhood advocates say the jail and the
years of construction it will take to

build will be yet another hardship for
Asian American owned businesses that have already struggled

to stay alive during the pandemic.
Gentrification and displacement is a problem experienced in

communities of color in cities around the
country and today on the show we're talking

about this historic neighborhood in New York
City where residents are being displaced after generations

of being there, and we will
focus especially on one group of advocates that

has been working to preserve this space, is culture, long before a jail

was proposed. Their solution has lessons
on what real community engagement looks like.

Here is our reporter, emlinanco.
Well, Chinatown, I think, is

one of the most fascinating neighborhoods in
New York City, with a really long

and rich history and, as organizer
Yin Kong has told next city before,

it's a neighborhood built off exclusion.
It's very much formed around sleep the Chinese

exclusion act and sort of creating a
community that's protecting itself against discrimination and and

sort of that's in the sort of
earliest history of New York Cities Chinatown.

So you really see a development of
self sustaining power structures, support networks,

cultural and community hubs, artistic hubs
as a result of the discrimination and,

you know, people bonding together as
a result of not getting government support.

So even to this day Chinatown is
very tight knit. Pete's almost like a

small community. People really know each
other despite it, you know, being

in the middle of Manhattan and and
now it's a huge tourist hub as well,

so you wouldn't necessarily know that if
you came to visit. So there's

that element. But there's kind of
increasingly issues of gentrification and displacement, as

we've seen all over Manhattan and New
York City. So there's all these kind

of different elements in play and a
lot of concern about preserving the local businesses,

the local culture, affordable housing and
how Chinatown can persevere, you know,

as the neighborhood continues to change.
Chinatown, like many communities of color,

was formed to create a place of
belonging immigrants weren't welcome any place else.

Today, the neighborhood covers roughly to
square miles in lower Manhattan and it's

residents have always had to advocate for
better healthcare, jobs and resources. Among

the very first grassroots groups was the
basement workshop and the Asian American arts collective

that formed here in the early s. You Tie a lot of what's happening

now to having its roots with basement
workshop. So what is basement workshop?

Basement workshop, I mean what an
inspiring story to uncover. I'm in New

Yorker and I didn't know about basement
workshop and it just was great not only

to understand the history of Chinatown better, but to link the advocacy in Chinatown

to advocacy and organizing that was happening
around the city. The Black Power Movement,

the young Lords said, a movement
of Puerto Rican's up in kind of

the Bronx area, and basement was
very much response to that and found a

lot of solidarity from the Black Power
Movement and this idea of claiming ownership for

your community, for your heritage and
and this belief and radical organizing. So

basement emerged in a basement as a
kind of very flexible artistic, cultural and

community space. So there's an urban
planning element. People are, you know,

flying to get word out of local
issues. There's the artistic element.

They work on a bunch of different
artistic projects. The one I really try

to focus on was yellow Pearl,
which is just incredible compilation of music.

And then there's community healthfares that are
happening, just emerging of all of these

different services and political identities. And
this is also formed at the same time

that the concept of being Asian American
is really coming into finer tune in the

United States and it's mostly young people. So they really start this radical artistic

organizing that has really impacted the cultural
organizing today. Like the thread that you

can tie is so impactful and so
powerful and it was such an honor to

talk to basement members who are still
living in the community, still engaged in

these questions and, to a degree, kind of in awe that their work

is still kind of resonating and coming
up and really inspiring young organizers in Chinatown

right now today, residents are still
finding creative ways to protect their neighborhood.

We're about to meet in Kong the
director of think Chinatown and one of the

group's founders. Maybe you could think
of Yan Kong as among the next generation

of basement workshop. Think Chinatown's work
has that same spirit, and yet it

was created because nothing else seemed to
exist that was doing what they wanted to

do. After the break we'll talk
about how think Chinatown is preserving space,

even fighting that jail and ultimately protecting
the neighborhood from gentrification. Welcome back to

next city on the show this week, gentrification and how one community in the

middle of Manhattan, Chinatown, is
fighting to preserve its place. Activists are

concerned by a new jail being built
in Chinatown as part of the city's plan

to wind down the massive riker's island
detention complex and replace it with jails and

each of the boroughs. Meanwhile,
the state just announced twenty million dollars in

funding for a post covid revitalization effort. Listen now to governor Cathy hawkle announce

the new money for Chinatown. We
have hung on through the darkest days and

I came here literally in February.
Of Two thousand and twenty. A lot

of people are anxious as the news
was coming out of China and what was

happening with this pandemic. I marched
with my two Chinese nieces because it's our

tradition to always go to the Lunar
New York Prey. I stopped for bubble

tea and it was sad to see
that the businesses were already in February,

before the rest of the country was
very all this out, the businesses in

Chinatown were already suffering. So this
has been a long period of anxiety and

frustration. And will I be able
to hang on? You may be a

proprietor of a family business. It's
been there for generations, part of the

fabric of what makes this community so
incredibly gredably interesting and fascinating, a place

you will want to come to,
and you're just thinking, could I just

hang on a little bit longer?
Well, you did. You persevered.

You show the toughness of all New
Yorkers. That announcement in November kicked off

a yearlong engagement process and community leaders
will now have to plan what to do

with it. Remember that the funds
are arriving at the very same time as

a jail is being built and residents
say they're not truly being listened to and

the money is arriving. After literally
generations of organizing to create this neighborhood in

the first place and to define what
it means to be Asian American, we're

about to meet a dynamic leader who
is pioneering authentic community engagement in Chinatown.

I am here with Yin Kong,
the director and cofounder of think Chinatown.

I know you said it's it's kind
of hard to categorize your work sometimes,

and it's because it sounds like,
you know, when I go to your

website or if I just have a
cursory look of you think Chinatown O,

they're doing events or festivals or things
like that, but it's actually sounds like

a lot more than that. It's
like no, it's it's really it almost

an ongoing, constant, continuous can
in any engagement process, that is,

events and festivals and things. I
don't know it. How would you describe

it? There's a reason why we're
called think, exclamation point Chin it down

right. It might be confusing to, you know, people who are new

to us, and the more public
facing events are, you know, like

Chinatown Arts Week, where we have
free public cultural and arts performances and events

that that's kind of what you you
see in this is like the touch points

where we engage people and have them
come in. But a lot of are

like, or at least my day
to day is really dealing and an internal

and less visible way on trying to
shape how the city deals with our neighborhood

to move our community forward. It
you need to have touch points with comedy

members and they need to know who
you are, and Arts and culture and

storytelling like that. That's the way
we do it. To also know what

everyone else is thinking, whateverone's concern
is, to build trust and inform our

work. We have this opportunity right
now for this downtown revitalization initiative from the

state funding and you know we're trying
to push forth new ideas and how to

do this in vast sment. There
needs to be an acknowledgement of just the

trauma the community has experienced through city
planning processes and this is mistrust of the

process. And so even though this
like money, sounds like really great,

twenty million for Chinatown, I can
see, you know, the consultants and

you know state kind of Fuddel that, like how difficult it is to navigate

within our community to do this generative
thinking, and I think that's a little

bit left out and like the urban
planning realm, when we think about process

use for comm engagement, how to
move forward when there are so much to

address from the past? If you
have the answer to that, I know

lots of people who would want to
get that advice because there are so many

places where next city covers things that
there are deep, long standing harms that

people who are running new projects have
some urgent need to get past because they

want to get this thing built or
done, and people still want to talk

about what they see is the long
standing effects of those harms. Is that

kind of what you're seeing? Exactly? Yes, actually was part of a

really nice forum that our partners,
neighborhood now, neighborhoods now, put together

and one of the guest speakers was
Nisha from Hester street collaborative are neighbor and

she said some really great things.
One is just really needing to acknowledge the

trauma and just giving space to that
and listening before moving forward. I mean,

that's a lot of what the Chinatown's
work is as well. Their storytelling

projects, is listening is building trust
within the community through listening and understanding the

past before you can work together to
build the future. And you know,

planning sometimes is the opposite. You
know, all you want to talk about

is the future. So acknowledging that
is important, especially in communities like ours,

where we don't feel like we've been
heard, where we often feel like

we've been shut out of larger city
plannings, planning programs and issues. They

just kind of happen at US rather
than include us, and that's you know,

what we're dealing with with the jail
being built at one hundred and twenty

five woite street, the tallest jail
in the world, and we're looking at

this decades long demolition and construction period
which would be so devastating to the local

small businesses on the western side of
Chinatown and also the health of our senior

citizens who live adjacent to the site. Just the sound and the air pollution.

And it's right next to our park, Columbus Park, which is really

the living room of Chinatown where people
come together. You know, if you

understand the built environments of the housing
stock in Chinatown, a lot of the

times we have multigenerations sharing one small
space, and so these public spaces are

really important to serve, as you
know, another living space, a place

for socializing, is very important for
social and mental health, and that will

also be compromised with the construction of
this jail. So they're going to build

the world's tallest jail if they get
their way. And then during that ten

year period, all these businesses and
surrounding neighbors are going to have to be

resilient enough to survive that sort of
a project and there's concern then people won't

survive. So the prioritization is people
in businesses won't survive it. So the

prioritization is, do we want a
prison or do we want Chinatown to be

preserved? And that's how you see
it, especially at this state where you

know we're coming. We've gone through
a couple years of the pandemic now and

things are already quite fragile right now. This extra hit it will be really

difficult to sustain. I want to
be optimistic and, you know, believe

in the strength of our community,
but this is a lot. So going

back to this conversation about commedy engagement
and they're being mistrust with. You know,

the city coming in and wanted to
do anything? Do you think that,

you know, if the city were
trying to do something smart, that

they could work with you as an
organization, for example, who has done

the listening and the you know,
the connections that then if they were to

really listen to you, then they
could sort of move a little bit more

quickly in the way that they wanted
to. Oh, I am laughing I

mean this is why, this is
why we formed to think Chinatown. I

will say the origin story of think
Chinatown comes from the Canal Street Triangle Project

that dot had tried to put forward. I don't if you remember that competition.

It was started maybe like five years
ago, and at that point is

this is before think Chinatown had coalesced
and I was just a neighbor who had

a back ground and urban sign you
know, like nert loves to Ner it

out about urban issues, and I
attended every single community engagement process and I

remember every time raising my hands and
taking issue with the way that they set

up. There are of p the
way that they've done their commune engagement,

the way that they framed the project, that I could see it was going

to be problematic and at that time
right. I, you know, just

a nosy neighbor and that projects just
failed miserably because of the lack of community

support. The design they ended up
picking outreached the community so much that they

had to stop the project, and
I could see step by step how that

happened. It was like a train
wreck happening that I had no power to

stop, and that's that's really why
I realize all we need to it's not

the lack of resources that much,
as much as the lack of the understanding

of how to apply the resources,
that bridge between city planning and city resources,

with actually figure out how to work
within this community. And it's very

unique, like every every community unique, but like from my perspective, like

this neighborhood has its own set of
challenges, its own, you know,

unique characters, its own dynamics that
needs to be overcome for us to come

together to work on these larger visions. You know, now we've had enough

work behind us and enough on connections
and we've built our infrastructure up that now,

when this opportunity, such as the
downtown revitalization and initiative, has come

around, we are more in the
position to affect the process and to really

engage with it and challenge the holders
of the process to do batter. So

how is think Chinatown in touch with
the neighborhood and Building Trust? Can It

help channel that twenty million dollar investment
to bring some good will? Learn about

its night market, arts festival and
more after the break. Welcome back to

next city. This week we are
with Yin Kong, the director and cofounder

of think Chinatown. The group is
using the arts to create a dialog with

residents of Chinatown and listen to their
needs on that public facing side. Some

people who do similar work would call
it creative place making, and I've heard

that you call it place keeping,
and I'm curious how Chinatown Nights, which

is one of the events that you
will produce, is kind of a form

of place keeping. Yeah, I
definitely like prefer to use I definitely prefer

to use the word place keeping in
my work in Chinatown because I always want

to reflect that, the depth of
the history that has been here, and

so our projects are always about highlighting
that or resurfacing that rather than thinking that

we ever were the ones to make
that. Yeah, and so Chinatown Knights,

which is this year evolving to Chinatown
night market, started as a project

for pandemic relief. We really wanted
to activate our public space in our neighborhood

at a time that was very scary, you know, is after succession of

a few anti Asian hate crimes and
people were scared to come out, and

so we wanted to create a place
in a time for celebration, bring people

back together, stake claim in our
o neighborhood, proclaim we belong, we're

here to stay, but also support, you know, the micro and small

businesses and also the artists, artisans
that haven't been able to practice or have

places to sell because of the pandemic. So we invited traditional craftsmen who do

you know, like paper cutting or
sugar painting, art or Palmly frating,

dough figurines, all these really important
in parts of you know, the intangible

heritage of Chinatown that had been dormant, that needed support. So we wanted

to give them an opportunity to be
out there again and to sell their wares

and to support them to and then
also the artists that came and performed on

the plaza, just to have these
open air performances again or really special and

it was so well received that we
knew we had to do it again.

You have a moment from last year's
Chinatown night series where you thought, well,

this is working, this is going
the way that I had hoped it

would go. Yeah, I'm just
thinking every time, right before you know,

I'm just freaking out, like is
it going to happen? And then

when it happens, it's just that
meet, that feeling that you're just asking

me about makes everything worth it,
for sure. It's usually during one of

the performances, so all the vendors
have set up, people have already arrived,

it's really crowded and then one of
the performers just launches into a song

that just moves the entire crowd.
And we're always so careful with the musicians

of performers that we pick that we
want it to be someone who is right

for this place. We want people
to always feel like it's it's our spots

right. So people someone who's performing
to across the generations, people who are

performing specifically for a chinatown crowd.
Not to say that people visiting would enjoy

it. In fact I think they
enjoy it more because it's so unique.

Because of that, and so we
have, you know, very special performances

and when it comes together and I
just stand on the back of the crowd

watching it's it's yeah, makes me
think that we're going the right way where

that people do enjoy being together and
really value these community moments where we can

just be together and enjoy each other's
company. You know, the word that

comes to mind to me is belonging, and I wonder how much you think

of what you do as creating a
reinforcing a sense of belonging, because we're

we're talking about, you know,
Anti Asian hate or even just in the

context of immigration, that being an
immigrant and having a sense of belonging in

America. How does that play out
for you in Trinytown? Thank you for

recognizing that. It is very much
the part of the basis of our work.

You know, I feel like activism
has many faces. You know,

you can get behind a bull horn, you can, you know, you

know people you know make videos or
you know, like everyone has their different

responses, like social media posting,
let's say, and you know some things

have like very direct, like Hashtag
Stop Asian hate, you know, very

direct. This is how they're addressing
it. So I really appreciate that you

recognize that that it actually is the
basis of our work, but we may

not put the Hashtag on so exactly
because we understand it. We're here for

the long game. They were not
being reactionary to like very specific events.

We understand that this is rooted and
this idea of being excluded or othered and

that we don't belong and every step
of the way, and think Chinatown's work,

we were thinking about how do we
knit our histories together with a wider

understanding of American history, that our
history is American history and that's how we

overcome it. That would be the
perfect ending probably to podcast. But I

want to ask you one more question
before to go, which is just about

you are working in an art space
and in a neighborhood where you know,

I guess there's two hundred galleries or
so that have been added and the last

couple of years, and is there
this feeling that you have to contend with

of Arts Equals Gentrification, displacement,
arts is a threat and how do you

overcome that? Yes, I used
to live on Henry Street and I just

watched those galleries kind of March down
the street, starting from the east side,

from Miller east side, kind of
across even to my my old building

itself now and my favorite Butcheri used
to go to all the time and Catherine

has been turned into like Bougie Gallery
now. It's heartbreaking and thank you for

bringing up this topic because I totally
I think there is a need to distinguish

the types of art that is out
there and an understanding when, you know,

especially when there's finding out there for, you know, arts revitalization,

that people need to understand and distinguish
the difference between some can be inclusive and

R by and for the community and
some can be very displacing. Great,

but those people can also co opt
the words of those who are doing the

work of actual community arts and I
wish people would be a bit more careful

about using that vocabulary. And I
always stress this for people who are interested

in thinking about which groups to support
is just show up and go to their

events, see who else is showing
up for their events and see if that

is really the community that you want
to be supporting. I guess thinks turnhouse

works so different from those gallerists work
and we just see this as like a

foreign invasion on our neighborhood. We
hope you enjoyed this episode of next city,

a show about change makers and their
stories. Together we can spread good

ideas from one city to the next
city. Thank you for listening this week.

Thank you to Emily Nanko, who
first reported the story for next city.

Thank you to our guest Yin Kong, from think trinydown. Our audio

producer is Silvana Alcala. Ours Grip
writer is Francesca Mamlin. Our executive producers

are Tyler Nielsen and Ryan Tillotson.
By the way, next city is a

news organization with a nonprofit model.
If you like what we're doing here,

please consider pitching in to support our
work. visit next city dot org slash

membership to make a donation. We
would love any feedback from our listeners.

Please feel free to email us at
Info at next city dot Org and,

if you have an already, subscribe
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anywhere you listen to your podcasts.
Next City
Join Lucas Grindley, executive director at Next City, where we believe journalists have the power to amplify solutions and spread workable ideas. Each week Lucas will... View More

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