The Chinatown Art Brigade is not surprised that James Cohan gallery’s immediate reaction to Sunday’s organized action would be to cry censorship, and also simultaneously claim that our protest was exactly what their artist intended. In an attempt to avert any substantive dialogue, both the gallery and artist have chosen to ignore our concerns and assert that they are the victims in a debate about artistic freedom. For this reason, we are not interested in responding to these comments by the gallery or engaging in any future dialogue with the artist and his apologists.
We prefer to speak about who we are, our work and about the community that the artist and gallery felt free to ‘transform’ and appropriate.
The Chinatown Art Brigade is a cultural collective of artists and activists with roots in Chinatown and New York City. Our members have lived, worked and organized in this neighborhood for several decades. Our work is driven by a deep love for our community and the fundamental belief that fighting against racial and economic inequity is central to our cultural and art making process. The Brigade has partnered with CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, a 30-year old grassroots Pan-Asian organization. CAAAV’s Chinatown Tenants Union (CTU) has fought for tenant’s rights in Lower Manhattan for over 10 years. CAAAV’s offices are located only 4 blocks from James Cohan gallery. By partnering with CAAAV’s CTU, we are working to amplify awareness of the life-threatening issues of displacement that long-time tenants and residents of Chinatown are now facing.
In the last fifteen years, Chinatown and the Lower East Side have lost more than 50% of affordable housing units, a loss of 15,000 affordable homes. Developers and landlords have made many of these into market rate and luxury units through predatory tactics such as forced evictions, cheap buyouts, illegal construction and harassment. At the same time the Chinese population of Chinatown has decreased more than 30% and these residents have been replaced by higher-income, predominantly white gentrifiers.
Galleries and luxury condos have a direct hand in raising rents and displacing low income rent-subsidized tenants. More than 130 galleries have opened in Chinatown in the last ten years, replacing small businesses and organizations that have served the Chinatown community for generations. Before James Cohan gallery moved into its space at 291 Grand St, it was HK Manpolo Market, a local supermarket that served the needs of Chinatown’s low-income immigrant tenants.
These days, real estate developers and landlords are likely to keep storefronts unoccupied for months on end, waiting to rent to the next gallery, hipster bar or high-end restaurant that comes along. Some landlords will now only rent exclusively to galleries. These spaces are often the Trojan horses needed to raise the value of property and neighborhood. With over 80% of the people in Chinatown renting, not owning, their apartments, the rise of luxury housing and galleries is fueling a housing crisis in the neighborhood. This displacement crisis is happening in communities of color across the city.
The faceless immigrants the artist claims to identify with, who live and work in the neighborhood, are actually families and residents who are deeply offended by this depiction of the community as derelict and foreign. The people who showed up to protest this installation care about the Chinatown community — its rich history, its culture and the traditions that are an integral part of our quality of life. Our lives and livelihoods are facing erasure because of galleries like James Cohan and artists who believe that their privilege and entitlement gives them the right to occupy the spaces we call home.
Gentrification is not inevitable, and gentrifying businesses can choose not to degrade and insult Chinatown residents, but instead take action to support the grassroots organizing that is helping to keep families in their homes. One way a gentrifier can step up is by supporting the Chinatown Working Group community-led rezoning plan that has been nearly ten years in the making. This community plan will provide concrete protections for existing low-income residents by limiting and regulating the type of development that can happen in the neighborhood, and various other protective measures.
By celebrating resilience and resistance, we believe that the Chinatown Art Brigade is just one of many new and powerful organizing models for change. Our creative process is women-led, community driven and guided by the core belief that self-determination should be a leading principle in our work. Our close collaborations with grassroots organizations bring us closer to understanding the ways in which art and culture can have a significant and lasting impact on the communities in which we live.
As Asian Americans, we have been the targets of policy decisions — from the Chinese Exclusion Act to Executive Order 9066 — that were designed to deny us citizenship and discriminate against us on the basis of race. We believe we have a responsibility to show the world that we will not let America’s racist history repeat itself. Our goal is to show, through actions and protests, that Chinatown and Asians in America stand united with all groups who are on the front lines fighting for their civil and human rights.
We would like to conclude by expressing our deep appreciation for the many groups and individuals who have offered us solidarity and emotional support. We are all dedicated to elevating the struggles of low-income communities of color in this country and around the world. We will move forward, united in solidarity, as we continue this crucial work that binds all of our struggles together.
-Chinatown Art Brigade